Wednesday 1 May 2024

Mollywood nights: "Varshangalkku Shesham"

The Malayalam cinema has been enjoying substantial success
not just this year but this past month, so perhaps we should permit it some measure of self-congratulation. Vineeth Sreenivasan's Varshangalkku Shesham has been composed as a would-be rousing hymn to the industry's creativity and durability, its ability to work cinematic miracles with often only limited resources; the drumbeats of its rich, keening songs become indistinguishable at times from the resounding thump of a hearty slap on the back. At the film's centre are two lifelong friends who first meet in the backwaters of late 20th century Keralan theatre and are then reunited, in something close to the present day, as showbusiness survivors, older and wiser, but also greyer, sadder and wearier. Murali (Pranav Mohanlal) is a prodigal musician and songwriter who succumbs to solitude and drink; Venu (Dhyan Sreenivasan, the director's brother) a runner turned writer-director who enjoys a decade of solid hits before losing his way. While shifting us between past and present - the title, translated into English as "Years Later", also serves as an onscreen graphic - writer-director Sreenivasan begins to riff on the way careers are made and destroyed, reputations gained and lost, and how lives switch track, sometimes gathering momentum, sometimes tailing off. Doubtless inspired by several decades' worth of real-world industry legends, it's an innately literary construction - a sort of South Indian Last Orders, with movie love swapped in for military service - announced by early scenes of courtship conducted via notes in the fly pages of college set texts. It helps that the younger versions of these characters are still of an age to dream and woo, but the first hour or so forms the strongest stretch of Malayalam filmmaking I've seen so far this year: proof you can make popular cinema without jettisoning any and every trace of poetry. In movies as in life, however, the problems come later - foremost among them how to keep it up.

For once our heroes pass into the Madras film business - versatile Venu seeing his enthusiasms embraced, Murali watching as his are subsumed and turned against themselves - VS gets both broader and more familiar. On a scene-by-scene basis: Sreenivasan has modest fun recreating the kind of movies that were made in a certain place at a particular time, as per everything from Singin' in the Rain to last year's Hindi TV standout Jubilee. In terms of characterisation, where Murali has been drawn along time-honoured, rather careworn lines as the self-loathing virtuoso who duly pisses his talent away. And in terms of overall shape, too: we pass through break-up, reunion and eventual comeback, each encountered more or less where you'd expect them to be in a film of this type. Sreenivasan pulls off individual coups here and there, such as the creation of a signature song (the movie's equivalent of "Shallow" or "That Thing You Do!") which flows through the drama, becoming the making of one creative and the undoing of another. There's still poetry present, in other words, but its lines and cadences become far less distinct, the script struggling to distinguish its behind-the-scenes war stories from the many others we've seen and heard. Late on, that poetry is replaced by Reels: local favourite Nivin Pauly injects some welcome energy as "Nivin Molly", the social media-addicted megastar headlining Murali and Venu's belated comeback vehicle. Even here, though, VS presents as inflexibly male: it could badly do with a Debbie Reynolds to set alongside its Kelly and O'Connor, the better to stop it hammering insistently away at the same nostalgic notes. For while the film remains genial in its backslapping, it's also two hours and forty-five minutes of men paying tribute to themselves, their genius, their hurt and resilience; while that's no doubt true to the structure and composition of the Malayalam film industry as it was at the millennium, in 2024 it also comes with a real air of locker-room fustiness. The great South Indian films of the past few years have demonstrated a heightened, bustling sense of community, both before and behind the camera. Sreenivasan gets some of that collective magic up on screen, but he's rather keener than you might like to frame it within the context of what is almost exclusively a boys' club.

Varshangalkku Shesham is now playing in selected cinemas.

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