13 October 2014

Classmates (2006)

Directed by: Lal Jose
Starring: Prithviraj, Kavya Madhavan, Narain, Jayasurya, Radhika, 
Indrajith, Anoop Chandran, Balachandra Menon, 
Jagathy Sreekumar, Suraj Venjiramoodu, Shobha Menon
When Classmates released, I wasn't very enthused about watching it, even though it starred Prithviraj, whom I have liked ever since I saw his debut film, Nandanam. Another campus romance, I thought, and it's been years since I've been able to watch a teenybopper romance without cringing. Besides, much though I liked Prithviraj, how could they reinvent the wheel? We'd already had some excellent 'college' films in Malayalam - Chamaram, Sarvakalasala, Ulkadal, Shalini Ente Kootukaari... However, my DVD-wala was insistent I take it - 'It's different,' he said, as he pushed a DVD into the already-tottering pile in my hands, 'it's the sort of movie you'll like.' Since I've been buying movies from him for years now, and he had a good idea of the sort of films that I liked to watch, I added that to my purchases. 

I was glad I did. Since then, I have happily recommended this film to non-Malayali friends, even bought copies to distribute to them. So when I was shelving some DVDs and came across this film, I realised with surprise that I hadn't yet reviewed it on my blog. That gave me the impetus to watch it again last week.

Classmates opens with the commencement ceremony of the Class of 2006 at CMS College, Kottayam. During the course of his speech, the principal, Father Verghese, informs them that the next day would see the reunion of another batch - the Class of 1992 - who are arriving at the college for the opening of the new building for the Music Club. It has been built in the memory of Murali, the late son of Professor Iyer (Balachandra Menon) and his wife, Lakshmi Teacher (Shobha Mohan). It is their wish that the inauguration of the building be a very small event, one in which only his classmates participate. 

Six people from that batch are very important - they were Murali's special friends. Split up after their graduation, it is now, 14 years later, that they are all going to meet again. They are: Sukumaran (Prithviraj) - a diamond merchant in Bombay; Pious (Indrajith), once the college Casanova, now sedately settled in Dubai, with a wife and daughter whom he adores; Koshi (Anoop Chandran), a far cry from his unwashed college days, he doesn't want to be embarrassed in front of his rich wife; Satheeshan (Jayasurya),  the local MLA, who comes along with 'Vaalu' Vasu (literally 'tail' Vasu - Vijeesh) his chamcha  in college, who is now his personal assistant; Tara Kurup (Kavya Madhavan), Sukumaran's estranged first love, now a famous classical dancer; Raziya (Radhika), fondly called 'Penguin' in college (on account of her regular attire of a burkha) who is very obviously burdened by some unspoken grief. 
The first meeting of the erstwhile group does not go as smoothly as Professor Iyer would have expected. It is quite apparent that there are undercurrents of which the professor is unaware. Satheeshan is open about taking time off from his hectic schedule to come to the reunion to balance a few accounts. Sukumaran (Suku) is going through a personal crisis - he has just gone through a divorce. Besides, there are remnants of an old animosity with Satheeshan. Tara keeps far away from Suku as well. And Raziya has only agreed to come to this reunion on the condition that no one ask her anything. 

But the evening goes off reasonably well despite everything. And when night falls, and everyone retreats to their rooms, Murali's parents bring their son's guitar over to the hostel parlour so he can be amongst his friends. As they bid their ex-students goodnight, Professor Iyer is surprised to see Suku alone in his room when all the others were congregated in Satheeshan's room. Suku, drinking steadily, is waiting for Pious to come back from taking his daughter to the doctor.

When Pious returns late in the night, he is surprised to see the light still on in Suku's room. He gets an even greater shock when he opens the door. 
Suku is rushed to hospital, and the police are called in to investigate the attempted murder - someone had tried to strangle Suku with Murali's guitar strings. Reading his diary, the police discover that Sukumaran was depressed at the break-up of his marriage, and was contemplating suicide. But they will have to wait until Sukumaran regains consciousness, and until then, no one will be allowed to leave. The inspector promises to interrogate witnesses and suspects once the forensic report comes in.
Professor Iyer does not buy the suicide theory at all. Would Suku really commit suicide because his wife left him, he asks Pious. Or does someone have a grudge against Suku? And if so, would they really hold onto a grudge for so long? Old sins cast long shadows, he tells Pious, and the root of this mystery lies in their past. Pious is the only one who can shed some light on past events. He tells Professor Iyer what he knows. 

Suku, the firebrand leader of SFK, the student's wing of the communist party, and Satheeshan, the student leader of the rival DSU, were not only classmates but 'enemies' (in a way only students studying in Kerala colleges will know). It is Murali who keeps them apart, reminding them they are classmates first. Suku also runs afoul of Tara who, though she is the daughter of a politician herself, is sick of the strikes called by various political parties. 
In a bid to take revenge, Suku sabotages Tara's dance performance on the day that the college welcomes its incoming students, by switching the music cassette. She is not one to take it lying down, and despite all efforts by Professor Iyer and Murali, the matter escalates. 

Hired goons come into the college hostel at night to beat up Suku and Pious. Unfortunately for them, Suku and Pious aren't sitting ducks, and besides, the other boys, woken from their sleep, join in to chase them off. The principal promises disciplinary action if they can provide proof against the perpetrators. Suku, who is sure Tara and Satheeshan are behind the attack, brushes off what he sees as the college administration's pusillanimity. They won't touch Tara or Satheeshan, who both have political clout. He is perfectly capable of returning the favour - with interest.
This only increases the enmity between them, and at the same time rouses Satheeshan's ire as well. (He is in love with Tara, and also hopes to increase his sphere of influence through an alliance with her father.) This leads to him derailing Suku's political march to the Collectorate. With unfortunate results. 
While Suku takes a wounded Tara and seeks refuge in the lab, Pious, who has taken refuge in the college library, finds Murali in dire straits.
The principal is furious at the police action against innocent students and orders them out of the campus. He also orders the students to disperse and has the college shut down for the time being. Suku and Tara are still inside the lab. He tends to her wounds and the night passes. The next morning brings a few revelations that surprise both of them.
But their new-found understanding brings its own problems. In a bid to secure the college union elections, Satheeshan convinces his party secretary to make Tara their candidate. She is forced to comply (her father is under severe pressure from the party). Suku is furious. 
He tells her he will do anything to ensure her defeat. Those words will return to haunt him when Satheeshan plans a brilliant move. Though Suku learns about it, and beats Satheeshan up, he is unsuccessful in stopping the onward course of events. It ends his relationship with Tara, and makes him Satheeshan's sworn enemy. But worse is to come - Murali has just been found dead in the hostel's generator room. The cause of death was by inhalation of poisonous fumes. 

Bereft of his beloved, and following the death of one of his best friends, Suku had dropped out of college. This is all Pious knows, but armed with that information, Professor Iyer confronts Tara. 
She confesses to meeting Suku that night, but she knows more than she is telling. And Professor Estheppan knows something else as well.
So where is this all leading to? Does the answer to this mystery really lie in the past? What is Tara hiding? And who is the mysterious person that Professor Estheppan heard that night? Does Professor Iyer really want to know the truth? 

Classmates is one of the most intelligently written suspense thrillers I have watched, with enough twists to keep you on the edge of your seat.
While nostalgia played a huge part in making the film a blockbuster hit, Classmates is not just a campus film. Yes, the first quarter of the film, as Professor Iyer begins to turn the pages of the past, does deal with life on campus. And the director sets those scenes so realistically that we are bound to smile in remembrance.
But the script went far beyond romance, or the political rivalry, or the fun and games - they become integral to the plot, not just as a setting for a story to play out. Secondly, the 'mystery' of the attempted murder is written very well. Like all good mysteries, the clues are peppered right through the film. But it is so subtly done that when it is resolved, you exclaim that you should have seen it coming! (But you didn't.) I doubt anyone watching this film for the first time, will know what is in store.

What also worked for the film are the strong performances, and not just from the leads. The chemistry between Prithviraj and Kavya Madhavan was exhilarating; but so was the rancour between Prithviraj and Jayasurya.
For anyone who graduated from a Kerala college, their characters would be eerily familiar. And the two actors played it just right. And if you want to talk about 'chemistry', Prithviraj and Jayasurya seem to almost feed off each other in the movies I have seen of the two together.

Prithviraj's Sukumaran is both a man haunted by the errors of his past, and the boy who led the student wing. And Prithviraj plays the duality well - I wager that his charismatic 'student leader' is a familiar face in college campuses in Kerala even today. It is easy to identify with him - fearless, forthright, blunt. 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth' was probably written with him in mind. And he gives no quarter, not even to the girl he loves. Yet, there is a core of integrity about him, despite the proclivity towards violence in his college days. (Once again, a familiar sight in college campuses across Kerala during election time.)
Also, while he is willing to beat up Satheeshan after learning the truth, he is unwilling to defend himself to Tara. She had already suspected him of wrongdoing once. He wants to take steps to remedy the situation.

This impetuousness has tragic consequences. Brave as he is, he doesn't have the courage to confess, and has to live, remorse-stricken and burdened by a secret he cannot share. And that secret almost leads to another tragedy 14 years in the future. 

Jayasurya's Satheeshan is in dramatic contrast. With not much personal courage, he prefers to work behind the scenes. Hiring goons to do his dirty work, manipulating the students to vote for him, even stooping to using Tara to get back at Suku. A competent actor, Jayasurya invested his Satheeshan with that soup├žon of sliminess that made him stand out amidst the ensemble cast. 
He's playing to win, and doesn't really mind what he does in order to achieve his ends. Yet, he is not all bad. When his actions cause more than the desired effect, to the detriment of another student's future, his conscience awakens. 
The third angle to this triangle is Tara. Kavya Madhavan infused her with the right amount of arrogance that comes from being the daughter of a sitting MLA - she's not afraid to use her political clout as a weapon - and the repentance of a woman who has learnt the harsh truth, albeit too late. It is these shades of grey that make all three characters so realistic.
Murali is a character who remains 'alive' throughout the film. He is ever-present - in his classmates' reminiscences, in the effect he had on his friends, in his  influence upon them. He manages to straddle the fine line that divides the political inclinations of his friends and be supportive of both, without deteriorating into a weak-willed, spineless character. He is their friend precisely because he is apolitical. And he is the reason they are all together again. It is he who thinks of meeting several years into the future, and it is that wish that his parents fulfil.
Supporting them in well-etched 'character' roles are Indrajith as Pious, Suku's best friend and roommate, Radhika as Raziya, the quiet Muslim girl (she won a well-deserved Kerala State Best Supporting Actress award), Balachandra Menon and Shobha Mohan as Murali's parents. Jagathy Sreekumar as the near-blind Father Estheppan, and Suraj Venjiramoodu (who is not as annoying as he usually is) as the canteen worker, Ousepettan. 

What also works for the film is that the humour is woven into the plot, instead of being an annoying side-plot. It is evident in the interactions between the friends and their other classmates, in the teasing and the pranks, in Father Estheppan's retorts to the students, and his interactions with Ouseppettan. 

Like all of us when we were students, these classmates too, have their own hopes and dreams. Life does not always follow a scripted plan, and in the intervening 14 years between their graduation and their reunion, these six people have also learnt that the hard way. They also learn that some of their losses are not just personal - their lives are interconnected in a way that they would never have imagined - and they, all of them, now  need to come to terms with their losses; they need to bury their shared past, and begin a new future. Shared. Or not. 

*When I mentioned wanting to write this review, a friend motioned me towards its Wikipedia page, where someone had mentioned that the film was 'inspired' from Anita Shreve's A Wedding in December. I was rather taken aback - scriptwriter James Albert had won the Kerala State Film Award for Best Script for this film. Did he plagiarise the plot of the novel? So I did some investigation of my own. Yes, there is a similarity. In both novel and film, six friends have a reunion (after 27 years in the book, after 15 years in the film), which is overshadowed by the death of one of their classmates. That is the only similarity. Nothing in the way the novel develops has even a faint resemblance to the way the film unfolds. Not the plot, not the characters' arc, not their interactions with each other. And thankfully so! Because the book is a disaster. (Disclaimer: I'm not a great Anita Shreve fan at the best of times. I find her writing extremely insipid.) And I came away with the opinion that James Albert is a far better writer than Ms. Shreve.


  1. Yay! For once, a Malayalam film that I have seen (and loved). As you might have guessed - knowing my fondness for Prithviraj - he was the reason I wanted to see the film, even though I had some misgivings (college films being not quite my thing). But yes, this was very different, and the suspense was superb. I wish I had more time; would love to go back and watch it all over again.

  2. Very nostalgic, as the name suggests heavily. Did this one restart the trend of ensemble cast in Malayalam movies?

    I see your review too is coloured by the nostalgia angle more than an analysis of the film (much less in this case when compared to how you dissect movies here, normally) . That having been said, I enjoyed reading it and you have also motivated me to go watch it again (8/9th time).

    It would be unfair to Naren if his nuanced performance in this film is not feted. To me, he has done a brilliant job all along. Sad that he hasn't found his niche yet. Another nugget of interest is that Naren is from Thrissur and did his studies in SKVC, cutting his theatre teeth right there.

  3. I remember you mentioning you had seen it before. I'm glad you liked it as well. It is a beautiful film. I was impressed with how a repeat viewing didn't make me bored, even knowing how the film ends.

  4. Boby (I wonder why you show up here as 'guest' when my email correctly identified you),

    There are two reasons I didn't analyse the film in the way I usually do. One, I wrote it while doing hospital duty and my brain wasn't working. And two, I couldn't analyse too much without giving away the plot.

    I didn't know that Narain (Naren?) was from Thrissur, let alone that he studied in SKVC. Hey, my college is famous! It also produced Samyukta Varma. :) Which batch was he?

  5. He was Bharath's contemporary; they do have a common friend of sorts (or so I think). Let me try to get some dope on Naren who got inflicted numerologically to become Narain (sic). Heard he is bulking up nowadays; wait for emoting six-packs soon.......and well, I never have been a big fan of Disqus, and guess the feeling's mutual with it choosing to ignore me

  6. Ha! Disqus heard you! :)

    I didn't know Naren had become Narain. It is more than a numerological thingy, no? If you look at our mythology of Nara-Narayan?

    He really does deserve more than he's got in terms of success - he's always the friend of the hero, though they do give him a rather long role these days.

  7. You know, this one has been on my list forever. Since way before I knew who Prithiviraj was, too. (I have seen Nandanam, tho, and I had no idea that was his debut. It doesn't really show.) I think this film stuck out to a newbie (I ran across it in the early months of my interest in Hindi films) because, like you and your DVD wallah said, it's got the air of being different, sure of its uniqueness. Also, easy English title. But I've yet to track down a copy with subs. I probably will have to buy from a sketchy Malayalam DVD supplier, or wait for some nice person to upload it.

  8. This is definitely worth watching. I checked online and there is a very clean copy of it available on YouTube, but unfortunately, it is not sub-titled. If you lived anywhere close by, I could have lent it to you. :)

  9. :) Last time I checked, there wasn't even a full upload. I *would* try that (I watched Nandanam sans subs, but that was a fairly straightforward plot, not a lot of threads to follow) but this one seems much more complex. I would probably miss too much without.

  10. Probably will. Especially with some of the explanator dialogues. :(

  11. Thanks for the tipoff. :) Loved the movie.

    However, had glanced at the wiki page (not the plot though), and it said one person's performance was very highly appreciated. Somehow that kind of gave away the important role that person played, but I didn't see it coming the way it did!

  12. Glad you did, Vaidya.
    Yes, the twist was rather a shock, wasn't it? :)


Back to TOP