View: Not waxing too eloquent about waning reenu

Many years back, I read an article that was headlined something to this effect: Feminism Ruined the Movies for Me. The writer described how her declining tolerance for gender prejudice was driving her to take a relook at films she had once loved and influencing her response to new ones. The transition pained her.

I’m grateful I do not suffer quite like her, since feminism was not a late entrant in my life. The sort of upbringing I got meant that I was already scrutinising films and books with a critical eye from my Enid Blyton days. I thought about that write-up though as I watched the Malayalam hit, Premalu (Love Stories), currently playing in theatres.

Director Girish AD’s Premalu stars Naslen K Gafoor and Mamitha Baiju as youngsters Sachin and Reenu in Hyderabad. He is confused on the career front, but is smitten by her with absolute certainty at their first encounter. She is a focused fledgling IT professional, and wants ‘only friendship’ from him. But she becomes a mess when he bares his heart to her.

Before the narrative gets there, Premalu is breezy. The dialogues are hilarious, the cast has fabulous comic timing, and I giggled at many of the admittedly silly situations in the plot. Besides, unlike Vineeth Sreenivasan’s 2022 blockbuster romance, Hridayam, Premalu’s heroine is not a vaguely sketched outline. Girish and his co-writer Kiran Josey give her space. Or so it seems.

[Spoilers ahead] For the longest time, Reenu is shown to be oblivious to Sachin’s intentions as he showers attention on her. She, too, is extremely helpful to him. When he views that as a reciprocation of his love, she lets him know she was doing things for him that she would for a friend. However, her clarity of mind disappears after he cuts off contact when she rejects the idea of a romantic involvement. She then proceeds to fall in love with him. Ho hum.

The oblivious woman, and the woman who does not ‘realise’ she is in love (whatever that means), are both cliches of the romance genre. However innocuous they may seem in a frothy film like Premalu, such templated characters are just a hop, skip and jump away from the notion widely prevalent in society – and perpetuated by films across languages – that when a woman says no, she means maybe, and when she says maybe, she means yes. Just to be clear, Premalu’s tone is neither antagonistic towards Reenu, nor is she portrayed as leading Sachin on. But the writing of her cluelessness regarding him is unconvincing, considering how transparent he is. Add to that her non-reaction to the clingy male boss who evidently has a crush on her, and another woman in the story who is shown enjoying having a man around as a hanger-on, even though she’s not interested in him, and you can see how there is enough material here that plays to the gallery even if that was not the goal. Going by Girish’s body of work – Thanneer Mathan Dinangal (Watermelon Days), Super Sharanya – it appears that he is keen to create heroines who are not footnotes in a man’s journey. Yet, Reenu peters out in Premalu’s concluding portion because the script resorts to a formulaic approach to a woman’s attachment, possibly due to its inability to explore her struggles with depth, although it is able to do that for Sachin even while sustaining its comedic tone.

It’s tempting to pretend that none of this is true. Because before Reenu runs out of steam, Premalu is a rollicking ride, and it continues to be funny as hell even thereafter. The bitter truth, though, is that India’s film industries are simply not accustomed to writing comedies that give centrality to women, or inoffensively blend comedy with women‘s serious concerns. The waning Reenu is just a symptom of this larger malaise.