After you've crossed your twenties, films that revolve around campus romances are hard to take seriously. The intensity of the protagonists and the lengths they're willing to go to "prove" their love appear idiotic. You're tempted to take them aside and tell them to think about how they plan to feed themselves once they graduate.
Most campus romance flicks have an impossibly beautiful girl and an impossibly handsome boy suffering from ailments like uncooperative parents, complicated misunderstandings, and thug-like students from the opposite camp who want to thwart the great love affair. The narrative follows a predictable story arc – boy falls for girl, pursues her, girl rejects and then accepts, conflict comes up which separates them, boy prevails and the couple unites.
Which is why "Aanandam", written and directed by Ganesh Raj, comes as a pleasant surprise. As a film, it's a mildly preachy, overly sunny (forgive my cynical heart) entreaty to seize the day. The multi-starrer has seven new faces – four men and three women – and each of them has a little story going on.
Varun (Arun Kurian) is an angry young man. He's sullen, serious and the leader everyone turns to. Akshay (Thomas Matthew) is shy, unsure of himself, and lives in the shadow of his elder brother (Nivin Pauly in a cameo). Gautam (Roshan Matthew) is pretending to be a rockstar because his girlfriend might break up with him if she knows he actually prefers listening to Yesudas. Kuppi (Vishak N Nair) is the clown of the group who discovers he has feelings too.
Devooty (Annu Antony) is Gautam's somewhat insecure girlfriend who likes to be a badass. Dia (Siddhi Mahajankatti) is a maverick who comes from a troubled home. Darshana (Anarkali Marikar) prefers drawing to talking and doesn't open up to anyone.
All of them are in the same college and are going on their first trip together – the college industrial visit. There are no major conflicts, no heart-stopping moments of suspense. The characters are neither unique nor unpredictable but the film somehow makes you care about them.
College romances are all about who gets the girl – typically, it's the brooding, obsessive alpha male type whom everyone in the class looks up to with respect. That would be Varun in "Aanandam". But surprisingly, not only does Dia reject him, she picks the sensitive, easily scared Akshay over him. I was half expecting that Akshay would fall over a cliff and die because nice guys never win at anything in cinema.
When that didn't happen, I thought Varun would be run over by a bus so Dia could weep over his bloodied body and realise that she DID love him after all. But that didn't happen either! Crazily, Varun accepts Dia's rejection. Yup, you read that right. He accepts it and gives up. How many times have we seen that happening on screen? The alpha male giving up?
I expected Devooty to be like Kalki Koechlin's character in "Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara". You know, the stifling, nagging banshee of a girlfriend who just doesn't let the poor dude breathe. But Devooty not only escapes this convenient cliche, she has some of the best lines in the film ("poda patti") which put a smile on my face. She comes across as more real than the effervescent Dia who is a bearable version of the manic pixie.
Kuppi started out being annoying but quickly grew on me after his little lecture on "racism" (he meant sexism). Your average campus romance, where boys and girls are learning to be men and women, is fraught with morality lessons, especially for the girls. Commandments on how to dress and how to behave come into the script one way or another: the condescending hero, the benevolently sexist professor or some other elder is bound to indulge in some slut-shaming. "Aanandam" has female protagonists who drink, have fun, do not get raped as a consequence, and are actually allowed to have a happy ending. Phew. The only sore point is perhaps Kuppi blaming Dia for being oblivious to breaking too many hearts - one is not sure what Dia should have done to prevent this from happening!
The film also nicely touches upon identity issues that young people usually have around that age. It doesn't get into them too deeply and perhaps the issues it has picked aren't particularly original, but the way the protagonists deal with them (immature as they may be) is refreshing.
Dia is upset because her parents are going through a divorce. Her father, played by Renji Panicker who appears to be everyone's favourite daddy, tells her that when he married her mum, he was 30 while she was just 18 – the same age as his daughter now is. He goes on to explain that their incompatibility was inevitable and that the divorce wasn't the end of the world. He wishes his soon-to-be ex-wife well. Another male handling rejection with maturity, so much aanandam.
Darshana remains the quiet yet assertive girl from beginning to end. There's no explanation for why she is that way and she's allowed to be weird.
As a film, "Aanandam" is not the best you'd have seen this year. It doesn't punch you in the gut, it doesn't make you think for days later as a "Sairat" did. The young people's obsession with Goa and parties may even make you smirk, if you've forgotten your adolescent phase. It's a story determined to be pleasant all through, like a boat ride in a calm lake, and for some, that may not be enough.
If you want boys who cut their lover's name on their skin with a razor blade and girls who swallow sleeping pills because they fought with their boyfriend, this film is not for you. But if, on the other hand, you don't mind sampling some new wine, however young, in an old bottle, give "Aanandam" a shot. It's a surprisingly mature film on juvenile love that you don't get to see too often.