Time is a ubiquitous presence in Alphonse Putharen’s delightful romantic entertainer Neram. A sand clock constantly appears on the screen telling you how a young man Mathew (Nivin Pauly) is in a race against time to save himself from all kinds of disasters, battling among others a loan shark, a lousy cop and a gluttonous brother-in-law. It also represents the good and bad times in life as Mathew keeps sinking into quick sand as the difficulties start mounting.
It kicks off with the butterfly effect coming into play when a top boss’ bout of flatulence in US renders Mathew unemployed in a company in Chennai. Needing to finance his sister’s wedding, Mathew and his friend John (Wilson Joseph) turn to ‘Vatti’ Raja (Simhaa), a money lender thug. He has four months to repay the money or face the inevitable. Four months pass by and the fiscal situation goes from bad to worse, shown nicely in a series of shots that begins with him travelling in a car to eventually going by bus.
At the same time, his unemployed status prompts his girl friend Jeena’s (Nazriya Nazim) father Johnnykutty Kalathilparambil (Lalu Alex) to call off their marriage plans. His brother-in-law (Joju George) also demands the remaining amount of his dowry money to start a new business and so when the D-day starts, all these problems come to a head – it is the last day of the loan repayment; Jeena leaves her home to be with Mathew and the cops are after him and his brother-in-law lands in Chennai to collect his money.
Romantic comedies, steeped in unemployment, were a favourite theme in Malayalam cinema in the 80s till they ran out of silly jokes and superstar movies took over. There is a reference to the best of those movies when Mathew quips that this was the place Dasan and Vijayan had landed, when headed for Dubai. But the modern era demands more irreverence and so this is essentially a Guy Ritchie meets Sathyan Anthikkad set in Chennai, with the new age sensibilities that have made Tamil cinema so popular and topical in the last decade. And yes, a nod to Taranatino, the poster boy of unconventional cinema exists when the opening credits quote him saying – I steal from every movie ever made.
Mathew and Jeena form a cute couple and their strand of romance forms a very small portion but is enjoyable. They are at school together but Cupid strikes much later – as Mathew says cherupathil bhangi illatha pembalar valithu aavumbol udakkatha bhangi aayirikim. Jeena is courageous and independent enough to take her own decisions unlike Mathew who is the laid-back guy, with no plan in tow. When she’s about to leave her house, he asks her to think again because it is the most critical decision in her life and she should not regret it but all that she says that she will wait for him near the bus stand.
The film tagline states – yathoru pratyekathayum illatha malayalathile aadya chitram. This must be a statement of anticipatory bail from the director but you’d have to admit that for Malayalam, it is an unusual structure and serves as a perfect time-pass. You have a pretty couple, a bright supporting cast, peppy-music, great camera work, lots of humorous scenes and dialogues and a fluid thriller with irreverent jokes – can’t ask for more from a movie that wants to entertain. Nevertheless, there are passages when you expect to be funny but nothing happens and you wonder if you missed out on something.
It is a short movie but even then it is a little stretched and after some time, the repeated slow-motion sequences start to get annoying. Repetition of scenes through multiple viewpoints also looks to be a duplication of efforts that don’t add any value. Past sequences through flashbacks are repeated far too often in slow motion and so the impact is not as expected. I left the theatre thinking that it could have been so much funnier than it eventually turned out to be.
In keeping with the trend of new age multi-linear narrations that have caught the fancy of film makers in the South, Neram pieces across scenes sporadically even though there is one major story that goes on. The supporting cast has a more arresting presence in the movie and it helps that there a lot of newcomers who build a good team. It is inevitable that such movies have a lot of side characters who have a larger say in the scheme of things than the main players. Unusual names or nick-names often mask the real ones and so we have a Vatti Raja, Ukken Tintu, Lighthouse (because he’s tall?), Kaalan, Ray Ban etc here.
This large colourful supporting brigade fit into the narrative well and steals the show from the lead duo. Vatti Raja and his two henchmen – Karuppu and Vellai – form an odd ball gang with their jokes, especially the one on touch screen phones being expensive but without any buttons. The poor fellas also are indebted to their boss and will marry only after they repay him. Manikkunju, brother of a bigwig Ray Ban (Manoj K Jayan), calls himself Manik and prefers to converse in English, with mixed results (the humour here works and does not use the cliché of the ‘Mallu’ English accent). Manoj K Jayan plays a cameo at the end and steals the show his overbearing personality insisting on singing a lullaby for his brother in the hospital; his conversation with Mathew on his academic qualifications and company name also raises laughs.
Shammi Thilakan is SI Ukken Tintu, a sub-inspector fond of Carnatic music and his dialogues are interspersed with references to it. He is a cop alright but his name lets him down and he is stuck in a dilapidated police station which is being painted for a few days now, leaving very little space for him to run the station. His encounter with Johnykutty as he comes to the Mandaiveli police station or when he rounds up the suspects in the area has to be mentioned. Mathew’s brother-in-law has no role so as to say and his presence does not actually make a difference except add a couple more funny scenes like the one when Mathew and John cough up whatever pennies they have to pay up the hotel bill.
There is a certain eye to detail and an attempt at symbolism too though some of it might act as a distraction. Take for instance, the repeated
shot of buffaloes when an auto bangs into one of the characters and he dies; was there an intention to forewarn us hinting at Yama’s vehicle? I reckon Johnykutty’s irritation at finding the police station name wrong was to show a man with less patience and he adds on to it by repeatedly calling up SI Tintu on his mobile, asking about his daughter’s whereabouts. It must be apt that even in the midst of this humdrum, you have a world-cinema instructor in this midst talking about Citizen Kane and Seven Samurai – must be the first time that you had such a profession being shown in a mainstream movie!
Special mention of Rajesh Murugesan’s music and Anand Chandran’s cinematography in the movie; the hugely successful Pistah song is used to good effect in the action and chase sequences and the background music creates the mood well. BGM wasn’t one of our strengths but new generation cinema has incorporated this aspect nicely in movies.
I hesitate to call Neram a romantic thriller because there isn’t sufficient tension, especially towards the end to justify this tag. The finale has far too many co-incidences and is not gripping enough and the irreverence quotient removes the thriller portion of it. Not to suggest that the director chickens out but the attempt at humour drowns out whatever tension that could have existed in the movie. This would have been fine if the jokes had sufficient meat to stand on their own but they don’t always, so there is a missing factor there. But at the end of the say, it sets out to be a romantic entertainer and it definitely scores on that front and yes, these are good times to be a Malayali film viewer too…
Note- This is a bi-lingual film in Malayalam and Tamil and while a few actors like Nivin Pauly, Nazriya Nazim and Simhaa are common to both the versions, some of the other characters are played by other actors in Tamil including Nassar, Thambi Ramaiah, John Vijay etc.