Malayalam Reviews

Poomaram Review: A Half-Hearted Yet Charming Tribute To Adolescence

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The production of Abrid Shine’s Poomaram had been happening for a long time. So long that the actors who had just joined college at the beginning of the film’s shoot would now be preparing for their third-year graduation examinations. The film wanders about at the venue of a University Youth Festival in Kerala, and watches the young artistes experience stress, euphoria and competitive spirit at the event. The characters soak in the poetry, music and dance, cheer for each other, fall in love, make mistakes, and find the courage to repent. It isn’t the story-line that drives the film, but the incredible energy of this young gathering.

On a certain level, Poomaram is rebellious work. For the average Indian audience, a movie is only defined by its story; a steady plot that you can narrate to your friends afterwards. A regular diet of commercial entertainers have wired our brains in such a way that anything unorthodox – slow-paced, contemplative, or figurative – is immediately deemed ‘boring’ and unwatchable. Poomaram is in no haste to make a point. It has no great story to narrate. It is full of wonderful music that could flow in from anywhere. The actors enter a tea shop, and as we wait for a dramatic turn of events, they just break into a folk song, rhythmically tapping on the wooden tables. This movie is happily idle.

Poomaram is a genre mishmash – it is a slice-of-life film with some elements of docufiction, blended unevenly. There are, hands down, fantastic moments. The subtle flash of admiration in the eyes of a young singer when her college union chairman, Gauthaman (Kalidas Jayaram) shakes her hand and congratulates her on winning the music contest, is lovely. The night before the Youth Festival, the girls of St Theresa’s college huddle in an auditorium to watch their friends rehearse a jugalbandi. The actors’ body-language is beautifully casual, and their camaraderie has a natural quality to it. These are the details that one looks for in a movie rooted in nostalgia. Poomaram marvelously documents the singular things that a particular phase in life bestows one with.

And the film breaks a few stereotypes in the process. There is a young girl whose guitar performance makes an entire crowd spellbound. There are female percussionists, a rarity on Indian screen. The actresses don’t look as though they are from Mars. They are ordinary girls sporting no make-up and ordinary clothes, yet they fall in love, dance, and get admired.

But Abrid Shine’s film is also a lazy piece of work. While he dares to experiment with the narration format, the film ends up being superficial in that it doesn’t try to see the students’ relationship with art beyond the five-day festival. Irene (Neeta Pillai), the union chairman of St Theresa’s college, has a staunch competitive spirit about her, leading her team to win the overall championship title. Who is she beneath this layer of cool-headedness and a fiery desire to win? Replace her with a robot, and the movie wouldn’t have been much different.

The film has a clinical sense of discipline that forbids it from being timely. You get a glimpse of the class differences within the student crowd, but that isn’t explored further. The students are courageous adolescents on the cusp of adulthood, but are treated like infants whose issues a lullaby could cure. At a critical time when students across the country are fighting a tough battle against a system that is trying to curtail their freedom and creativity, and institutionalise them, Shine uses the immense resources at his disposal to make a film that sermonizes the youth to rein in their hormones rather than see the big picture.

Dialogues come as a surprise. In a film that brims with sublime poetry and music, who would expect to listen to badly written dialogues? The film begins with Gauthaman and his artist father discussing Lord Byron and Kalidasan, dropping more names in the conversation. The problem is, the scene is lifeless. In an effort to portray the intellectually privileged background Gauthaman comes from, the film forgets the basic fact that the characters are father and son, people who live under the same roof. They come across as strangers who are separated by a wall of formality.

The redeeming factor is Kalidasan who has an affecting screen presence. He has a next-door familiarity, a smile that is effortlessly likable, and the body language of a person who is mature beyond his age and cherubic face. And it isn’t just him who delivers an excellent performance. Neeta Pillai is utmost natural and convincing as Irene, so are the numerous supporting actors who appear on screen. Interestingly, a good number of them are first time actors, but it is hard to believe that they lack experience. They are incredibly casual in front of the camera.

Editor KR Midhun’s masterful work holds the film together, weaving together the seemingly plain Youth Festival shots into an emotional experience. But largely, Poomaram is a feat of music. A horde of talented composers, lyricists, poets and singers are part of the film’s rich sound track. It features Balachandran Chullikkad’s poetry alongside Kerala’s harvest songs and KS Chitra’s evergreen light music, ‘Oru Mridu Mandahaasam‘. Also, there is the famous ‘Poomaram’ song that Kalidas perfectly lip-syncs to without the nervousness of a newcomer. The sound department deserves a pat on the back for its prudent work, making great use of silence as much as the chaos of the festival venue.

In spite of all its flaws, Poomaram will be remembered for its disarming candidness for portraying a period, a place where life seems inseparable from poetry, and where art isn’t regarded as a lowly pastime, but something that enriches life. The film pays a mighty tribute to the time when people were adorably naive, earnest, and had firm belief in the infinite possibilities of art.

*****

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