Cast: Harish Kalyan, Raiza Wilson, Anand Babu
When I listened to producer/composer Yuvan Shankar Raja's male solo, Never let me go (there's a female version titled I will never let you go) from Pyaar Prema Kaadhal (Love, Love, Love), it sounded like a song from a Selvaraghavan movie — specifically, Kanaa kaanum kaalangal from 7G Rainbow Colony. As it turns out, that's not the only echo in this prickly romance between middle-class Sree (Harish Kalyan) and upper-class Sindhuja (Raiza Wilson). The story plays like a more realistic Selvaraghavan film — and I don't mean this as a knock on the filmmaker. It's just that his is a Romantic (as in, Byronic) universe, filled with pain and pining. This film, on the other hand, doesn't position Sindhuja as The Unattainable Ideal, or Sree as the boy who is consumed by her. They're not archetypes. They're people you'd find at work, or in the house next to yours. Pyaar Prema Kaadhal, written and directed by Elan, feels less like a movie, more like life.
The film opens with Sree's parents (Rekha and Raja Rani Pandian) registering his name at a matrimonial agency. They want a "fair" girl, someone who stays at home and looks after Sree. In other words, they're "typical" — again, I don't mean this as a knock. Now, look at Sindhuja's father (Anand Babu, a tad rusty). He sees a picture of Sree and Sindhuja and says they should have him home for dinner sometime. Is Sree a friend? A boyfriend? He doesn't ask. These contrasts are not pointed out in adjacent scenes — they are scattered through the film and left for us to absorb. Sindhuja can tell her father that she slept with Sree. He doesn't endorse it, but he understands. Sree, on the other hand, hides his live-in relationship (with Sindhuja) from his parents. The charade he stages is hilariously pitiful. Sindhuja is amused, but she, too, understands. After all, he's the kind of guy who has Rajinikanth and Ilayaraja posters in his room. She's the kind of girl whose father teaches dance: salsa and foxtrot and tango.
It's Raiza Wilson who makes the movie. She holds close-ups beautifully, and registers small changes in mood that instantly clue us in to what she's feeling
Like a Selvaraghavan hero, Sree wonders how to strike up a conversation with this girl he likes — but she simply tells him her name. (They're colleagues.) She is on to him, a small smile always twitching on her lips. In a very funny scene by a pharmacy, she hints at having sex — he just doesn't get it. But when he does, and after they finish, he says, "I love you." Again, "typical." He is that kind of boy. Love = sex = marriage = kids = happily ever after. But she just thinks of him as a friend. She thought it was something casual — a tango in the sheets, so to speak, and not a mating dance. The biggest achievement of Elan is that he doesn't see Sindhuja as "easy." Sree does. In his frustration, he slut-shames her at an office get-together. But she doesn't run away, whimpering and ashamed. She gives it right back to him. Her reaction, the next day, is marvellous. She walks unapologetically into their office, smiling and hello-ing her open-mouthed colleagues (most of them men, who now regard her in a new light, wavering between respect and "oh, andha maadhiri ponnaa nee!"). But as she nears her desk, the smile disappears, her face hardens. We see it still hurts. Only, she won't let anyone else see it.
Raiza Wilson is a revelation. Part of my surprise in her performance, I am ashamed to admit, is the low expectations I carry of Tamil-film heroines. I thought she was one of those pretty girls hired only because she was… pretty. (I, too, was being "typical.") But she really puts Sindhuja across. Watch her in the scene where a friend (Deepz) says that she should forget all about it and move on. She replies with a swear word and makes him feel the foolishness of his "well-meaning" advice. Elan is one of the few Tamil filmmakers who not only respects women, but also gets them. Most of the time, upper-class girls are treated like an exotic species about whom humankind (especially Tamil male-kind) has no clue, but Sindhuja's conversation with Sree about their dreams made me nod until my head nearly fell off. Her dream involves a career goal. His dream is to look after his parents. She points out, with a withering look, that that's not a dream: that's duty. She's "Indian" enough to know this is important, yet "Western" enough to know it can't be everything. I wanted to applaud.
Harish Kalyan is fine as Sree (there's a charming casualness about him), but it's Raiza Wilson who makes the movie. She holds close-ups beautifully, and registers small changes in mood that instantly clue us in to what she's feeling. (I just wish she hadn't appeared so over-made-up, so overdressed all the time.) It probably helps that the character of Sindhuja is more distinctive than Sree, and better-written. He wants to make everyone happy, even if he ends up unhappy. He doesn't see that it's his wishy-washiness that's making his mother weep. (Rekha and Raja Rani Pandian keep it impressively real; they don't overdo either the humour or the dramatics.) It's easier for him to blame Sindhuja. But she knows that thinking about yourself isn't, as Sree puts it, "selfish." We know women like her. We know men like him, too, both from life and from the movies. (Sree gets a VTV Ganesh-like confidante in a neighbourhood tailor played by Ramdoss.) Instead of running after cinematic contrivances, Elan delves into the very real conflicts that would unfold in an inter-class relationship.
I don't mean to suggest Pyaar Prema Kaadhal goes all vérité on us. It has its share of silliness, like when Sree joins the dance class run by Sindhuja's father in order to woo her back. And it's worse when this love story results in collateral damage. Abortion is too heavy a plot point, especially when you're trying to keep things from getting too serious. (Yuvan's score is refreshingly low-key, and his songs — from the high-energy Let's be Friends? to the softer numbers like Secret Window and High on Love — really set the film's tempo.) And I thought the film chickened out when it appears to "punish" Sindhuja for her modern-thinking ways. Her father's (uncharacteristic) advice at a traffic signal is exactly the kind of cinematic contrivance the film has so successfully avoided. It doesn't kill the film, but I did feel a bit cheated.
Pyaar Prema Kaadhal may have been advertised as a disposable rom-com, but there's genuine emotion at work here
But the rest of the time, I was consistently impressed by how Elan keeps steering familiar situations into unexpected territory. You think Sree's mother's illness or his father's "namma family ku love ellaam set aagadhu" advice (in a lovely scene when Sree takes him his lunch in a tiffin carrier) are seeds that will sprout into later developments. But the problems in the Sree-Sindhuja relationship are more internal than external. They fight. They make up. They fight. They make up. In a brilliant touch, a peripheral character like Shanthi Akka, the cleaning lady at their office, is used to demonstrate the differences in their viewpoints. This is a beautifully staged film, and Raja Bhattacharjee's fairy-lights cinematography bathes the goings-on in a glow that functions like sugar on a bitter pill. But the film is never sickly sweet — the writing takes care of that. If we smile at Sree's father making a "heartin"-shaped dosa, we sober up when Sree feels bad that he couldn't invite this loving man to his house-warming party (after he secretly moves in with Sindhuja). And a birthday setup made me bawl. Pyaar Prema Kaadhal may have been advertised as a disposable rom-com, but there's genuine emotion at work here. Along with Meyaadha Maan, it's a sign that our younger filmmakers are finding new things to do with the oldest boy-meets-girl scenarios.