Friday 24 May 2024

Bananas: "Guruvayoor Ambalanadayil"

We last saw the Malayalam star Prithviraj Sukumaran but a month ago, giving one of the performances of the year so far as the everyman sold into modern slavery in the very fine but exacting epic 
Aadujeevitham. So Guruvayoor Ambalanadayil clearly presents as light relief, for him as for us: a romcom that, for once, has some major com to it. From the word go, in fact, as writer Deepu Pradeep and director Vipin Das magic three laughs before the title appears. First, everybody on screen finds that title - a reference to a Gretna Green-like temple that hosts populous family wedding ceremonies - impossible to get their mouths around. (Too many syllables - and if the locals struggle with it, we palefaces stand next to no chance.) Second: a superbly silly cutaway involving a motorcyclist only tangentially connected to the main plot. Third, and biggest: the suggestion that this will be a romcom where the bride-groom pairing matters far less than the relationship between the groom and his future brother-in-law. Ahead of his long-planned nuptials with the darling Anjali (Anaswara Rajan), genial beta Vinu (Basil Joseph) has been seeking life hacks and top bants that Anjali's burly alpha bro Anandan (Sukumaran, on what we might call full Affleckian form) has been only too happy to provide. The heavy implication is that Vinu may even have spent more time on the phone with Anandan than he has discussing future happiness with Anjali: as the characters' phone IDs flash up on screen, we note Vinu has entered a big red heart emoji next to Anandan's name. (And Anandan, for his part, has put two next to that of Vinu.) I love you, man: the two are so psyched to hear one another's voices and be in one another's company that becoming part of the same family seems a wholly welcome development. There's only one problem: they're also so in synch in their tastes and outlook it's almost no surprise when we learn the ex Vinu has been mooning over and cursing out is Anandan's on-off missus Parvathy (Nikhita Vimal).

Now: yes, it's a contrivance, and yes, surely this simple fact would have come up at least once in the boys' midnight-hour telephonic check-ins. But there is ground to be gained from swallowing it and cracking on, as the film does, making a decisive entry into one of the funniest of all subgenres: the Men Are Such Idiots comedy. Vinu makes his way to Parvathy's place in the hope of a reunion, love theme keening away in the background, only to be greeted at the front door with a bearhug from his clueless compadre. (The love theme persists.) The guys subsequently sit around trash-talking Vinu's ex, neither aware just who the other is talking about. Pradeep and Das get a lot of comic mileage from the sight and sound of men who are such idiots they're prepared to expend seemingly limitless energy and effort on blowing situations in which they would appear to have it made, up to and including trashing their own pre-existing relationships. Our (frequent) guffaws shouldn't distract us from the filmmakers' sure handling of what is a wildly complicated plot: Das has to resort to frantic crosscutting and split screen to get it all done and dusted in a shade over two hours, and for much of that duration, the fates of multiple hearts hang in the balance. The evidently suggestible Vinu is just idiot enough to waver upon encountering Parvathy again, and to employ his wastrel friends, who may have nothing more pressing or constructive to be getting on with, to sabotage the wedding party in the days leading up to the event. (One subversion, or perversion: it's a romcom where the bride and groom are mostly being prised apart.) The achievement of Das's direction is to carve out time amid all the tumult to check in with those feeling the knock-on effects: the women, who plainly deserve better men and lesser idiots than these, and the massed ranks of in-laws, most notably the huffy patriarch (Jagadish) who throws a disproportionate strop upon learning his precious protein powder has been baked into the wedding-party oatcakes. (Men are such idiots, and some of that idiocy is handed down to us.)

Yet the real triumph here may finally be attributable to Pradeep, and to a script where both the storytelling and gagwriting is of an uncommonly high standard. The title proves but the first of Guruvayoor Ambalanadayil's prolix, rat-a-tat jokes, only some of which have found their way into the otherwise excellent English subtitles. Here is a romcom so abundantly stocked with gags it can lose 15-to-20% of them in translation and still qualify as a tremendously fun night out. (If you speak the lingo, it may just be the funniest thing you'll have seen for a long while.) Of course, it all resolves at the wedding, a final reel that encompasses not just a standout musical number - a vision in pastel, indicating Das has an eye and ear to go with his funny bone - but the world's worst wedding photographers, a machina ex machina, and what looks like half of Kerala (most of them eating bananas, an inexplicably funny touch). Shot like an ambush in a Mob movie - or the spiralling funeral rites in Lijo Jose Pellissery's - it's seemingly chaos, and yet it's deftly controlled chaos, even contriving a resonantly satisfying hero moment for Prithviraj as Anandan realises he alone has the power to stop the nonsense and bring about the happy ending we all seek. (Men are such idiots, but some of us learn.) As with everything else, it's achieved with that casualness by which the Malayalam industry has made crackerjack entertainment look like the easiest thing in the world to pull off. The Hindi cinema, by contrast, has gone ominously quiet: it's election time, and there are box-office wounds to be licked. But I would hope its more open-minded creatives have themselves been watching this recent run of solid-gold crowdpleasers from the South - as remarkable, in its own way, as any number of European new waves - taking notes, and learning in turn. This, my friends, is how you pack 'em in, and how you get them coming back for more.

Guruvayoor Ambalanadayil is now playing in selected cinemas.

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