Director: Vineeth Sreenivasan
Cast: Pranav Mohanlal, Darshana Rajendran, Kalyani Priyadarshan
Vineeth Srinivasan's Hridayam isn't an easy film to watch, let alone write about right after. Torn between resisting the film for the most part, only to finally succumb to it, the process of watching the film is a lot like fighting against oneself. When watched from a distance, it's merely a series of moments we've either seen before in the movies or experienced ourselves in all its intensity. The directness, perhaps, of the latter is what will decide how personal Hridayam remains. But if you're a Malayali who has studied, lived and loved in Chennai (like I have), succumbing to Hridayam is a bittersweet solo-trip you just have to make. Trust me, resistance is futile.
Because that's what Hridayam is meant to be. It's a film you need to watch with all your heart after you ask your head to stand in the corner with a finger on its lips. This is not going to very easy because there's always the urge to question the film's structural integrity. Hridayam is extremely overwritten and the idea seems to have been to throw so many profound moments at the audience that at least a handful stick. Or it's perhaps the problem of what to leave out when you're covering the very personal journey of a boy that begins with the first day of college and ends with him gently accepting how those four years have moulded him.
The film is close to three hours long but even this seems too short for the sheer scale of stories it wants to share with us. I think the idea was to present a series of vignettes which can then get stitched together through Hesham Abdul Wahab's sensational score. The first half, for instance, is set mostly within the premises of Arun Neelakandan's (an utterly likeable Pranav Mohanlal) engineering college in the outskirts of Chennai. The zone here is that of a Gautham Menon-film with college fests and first crushes, bike trips and petty fights with bullies. But the pacing philosophy seems to have been borrowed from a Hari film. There's seldom the space for scenes to just be and we've already moved on to the third life-altering moment since. Take for instance a lovely little scene between Arun and his father (Vijayaraghavan). It happens a minute after we're introduced to the dad and we get a sweet moment where he has to ask his son's permission before he hugs him. The writing is good enough to leave an effect, but the scene begins and ends so abruptly that we hardly have a minute to let it sink in. I kept feeling this over and over again because Arun really does go through a lot in these years. You get a few moments with Arun and Darshana (Darshana Rajendran, finally smiling) and it's already time for the cracks to appear in their relationship. And when Arun has to go through a rough patch, the transformation happens so quickly that we're unable to feel this change as clearly as we get to see it.
This is true with the pacing right through the first half and it is often a task to just keep up. This cannot be stressed enough also because the film demands that we invest a little bit of ourselves into Arun's journey. So when the film introduces a sub-plot involving a character named Selva, you're reminded of that friend you lost all those years ago (we all have that one person) and the floodgates of emotions are left wide open.
Which means that by interval, the film has already drained you emotionally with its 15 profundities-per-hour pacing. But even when the film frustrates, it never settles for lazy nostalgia. Like a time machine, we're transported back to college, not because it flashes shots of one-rupee water packets, iconic Nokia cellphones and the mutton biriyani from Cresent (ok, a little). They stick because they are used in scenes that instantly hook us to a core emotion. Why else would something as cliche as a bike ride to a f***ing beach feel more epic than the moon-landing?
And you really have to let go a little and trust Vineeth with these emotions because Hridayam really comes into its own in the second half (or shall we call it Side B?). This is where the film evolves into a direct NEFT transaction between Vineeth's heart and ours. Like a college kid growing up, the film matures too and settles for a pace and a mood that's more reflective. Arun too grows up and his priorities have evolved too.
Vineeth does something clever here by finding interesting ways to bring back the seeds he'd planted early on. Some of them don't work at all like when an old enemy is brought back for a quick gag. But when they do, like when Arun's tempted to tell a lie, we get to see how he's grown up without it seeming emphatic. There's poise and stillness to his life now and this only makes his relationship with Nithya (Kalyani, as funny as she's a joy to watch) full of joyous chemistry and warmth.
These portions are also where Hridayam turns into a companion piece for films like VTV and 96. Arun simply uses the line "this is it" in an important conversation, but it sums up an entire life philosophy that speaks volumes about regret and moving on. In other words, the film takes your Jesses and Janakis and tells you that they don't need necessarily have to remain the "ones that got away". It goes a step further and asks you to keep that special space reserved, even if it means that they are who you want to speak to for life's most precious occasions. What this does it does is free Arun to grow up and also let him (and Darshana) know that there's a lot more love left to explore.
The film's also special because it's as much Hesham's as it is Vineeth's. Like a pure musical like La La Land (referenced in the film), you cannot imagine Hridayam without his music and you see this in the way that music is a part of genes of so many scenes. It also brings fresh hope that we still have filmmakers around who even think in music like Vineeth does. Like flipping through the pages of one's most priced photo album, Hridayam is a rush of emotions that's as devastating as it is rewarding. Trust me, resistance is futile.