A bunch of college kids from Kerala travel to Karnataka and Goa on the first “industrial visit” of their course. The trip is meant to acquaint them with the ground realities of their chosen field — the software industry — but each of the students involved has a different, non-academic motivation for going: a personal demon to be exorcised, a family trauma to be escaped, a romance they hope will take off when they are on the road.
Produced by actor-director-singer Vineeth Sreenivasan and directed by debutant Ganesh Raj, Aanandam is a coming-of-age story set in an engineering college. At the centre of the action are seven friends: Varun, Akshay, Kuppi, Gautham, Diya, Darshana and Devika. Gautham (Roshan Mathew) is the lead singer of a rock group and much sought after by other women students. He though has eyes only for his lady love Devika (Annu Antony). Akshay (Thomas Matthew) has been utterly smitten since Day 1 of college by the feisty, chirpy Diya (Siddhi Mahajankatti). Varun (Arun Kurian) is an obsessively hard-working type. Darshana (Anarkali Marikar) is an artist who barely speaks a word. And Kuppi (Vishak Nair) is an easygoing, sociable, popular guy. It goes without saying that the lives of each of the lead players in the story is somewhat, if not drastically, changed by their excursion.
The best thing that can be said about Aanandam is that it is harmless, inoffensive fun. For the most part, it is not particularly original, and if you think about it, each character is a bit of a cliché from this genre. Some of the conversations in English also sound strained and trying too hard to be cool. What works in favour of the film though is its simplicity, its sense of humour (strictly restricted to the passages in Malayalam) and its take on boy-girl equations that defies the norm in Mollywood.
In an industry that routinely romanticises and normalises stalking, stupidity and immaturity as the only routes to romance in a gender-segregated society, it is refreshing to see the writing of Akshay’s character – a young man who is determined not to harass the classmate he likes, who understands her hesitation to enter into a romantic relationship with him, and who does not dismiss her as a tease simply because she is friendly yet disinterested in anything beyond that.
Contrast this with two other Malayalam films in theatres right now. In the Mohanlal-starrer Pulimurugan, pestering is casually viewed as the way to a woman’s heart, and in the smaller Kavi Uddheshichathu? starring Asif Ali, the leading man’s ugly anger towards the heroine for rejecting him exemplifies the average Mollywood hero’s response to a no from a woman.
That said, Ganesh Raj — who has also written Aanandam — needs to sort out what appears to be his confusion on this front, since his film features a brief scene in which a young man admonishes a young woman because several of her male collegemates have fallen for her charms, as though she is somehow to blame for their vulnerability. What is she to do, Kuppi? Be less vivacious? Draw a burqa over her affability?
Still, baby steps forward should be lauded in a scenario that is so completely male chauvinistic.
On the technical front, cinematographer Anend C. Chandran delivers an array of luscious images of Kerala, Karnataka and Goa in Aanandam. It is such a pleasure to see the out-of-this world gorgeousness of Hampi getting so much screen space in a mainstream Indian film. However, Chandran’s framing is constrained in the shots of the night sky at a Goa party in the climactic scene, which should have been a natural stunner but is too glaringly CGI-dominated to be appealing.
The songs feel like they are too many and too long. It does not help that they are set against trite visuals of stolen glances, energetic dancing and conversations in slow motion, all designed to convey a breezy, youthful light-heartedness that feels contrived after a point. The songs themselves are okay, though I do not get why that number in the ruins of Hampi is sung by a troupe played by actors who are clearly white Westerners yet sing in perfect Indian accents.
The lead actors are all newcomers. While some of them fall prey to the limited writing, I think I would like very much to see more films with the quietly attractive Arun Kurian and Roshan Mathew who appears instinctively easy before the camera.
Aanandam got me into a forgiving mood, perhaps because it is such a relief to see a Malayalam film in which when a man loves a woman, he does not harass her (to paraphrase Percy Sledge). In the overall analysis, this is a mildly engaging, mildly sweet, inoffensive film. It does not have staying power in the mindspace, but it is fair enough while it lasts.