To see the kind of movie the evocatively named Poovarasam Peepee wants to be – the title refers to a toy trumpet fashioned from the leaf of the hibiscus plant – we have to get past an awkward opening stretch. It’s the last day of school before the summer holidays. The bell rings. Kids stream out of classrooms. And, for some strange reason, sentimental violins flood the background. What could be happening here, before we’ve even been introduced to the characters, that warrants this kind of emotional underpinning? There are no answers because we cut, abruptly, to a dynamic song sequence, where kids pour glue on the seat of a hapless student and do cartwheels in the corridor. The shift in mood is disorienting, and if it is to hint at the mix of wistfulness and merriment that lies ahead, it isn’t at all effective.
But a little later, the film begins to settle down and we see what the director, Halitha Shameem, is after. From the sea of children, we zoom in on the apparently inseparable Harish (Praveen Kishore), Kapil (Vasanth) and Venu (Gaurav Kalai). They climb trees. They catch exotic insects. They stuff these insects into cigarette boxes and sell them, in order to buy a carton of ice cream, which they scoop into coconut shells while talking about the future. One of them wants to become a scientist. One wants to be a politician. The third dreams of fighting fires. The future scientist lies down on the grass and begins to play the harmonica. In the background, we see hills.
Poovarasam Peepee is the kind of film we rarely see in Indian cinema, leave alone Tamil cinema – the “one idyllic summer” movie, best exemplified by Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me. Like that film, this one too deals with a bunch of boys and a killing and a search for the killers, and this “adult” angle is tempered with the reality of these boys being… well, boys. (Throw in canned peaches, tongue sandwiches and ginger beer, and we could be in an Enid Blyton adventure.) There’s classroom comedy. There are friendships, with the attendant ups and downs (the latter caused by a diary with entries such as “She asked me ‘duster’ ”). There are knotty negotiations with the world of grown-ups – an alcoholic father, the death of an elder. There’s some fledgling romance. There’s even sex. Harish, Kapil and Venu are fascinated by a rape scene in a movie shown on television, and later, we witness the events around a nocturnal emission, which are superbly structured as a counterpoint to the coming-of-age rituals of women we usually see in Tamil cinema.
This sort of mix, delicate and textured, needs a sure hand, the kind of skill displayed by Anjali Menon in her stunning Malayalam debut, Manjadikuru, a similar story of kids being kids while dipping a toe into the world of grown-ups. Halitha Shameem, a first-time director, has good ideas and instincts, but her filmmaking isn’t quite there yet. The scene segues are herky-jerky, and sometimes, there’s no finish to the scenes. Moments like the one between Harish and his grandfather or the one where Harish and Venu make up after a cold war needed to be lingered on, but Shameem seems to be in a tearing hurry to get to the next scene. (Even so, the film is overlong, almost two-and-a-half hours.) And she doesn’t yet know how to stage scenes for maximum impact. The stretch where Harish, Kapil and Venu scare the killers with homemade tricks needed to be near-magical, seen through the eyes of these children – it comes off like cheap gags, seen through adult eyes. Here, and elsewhere, we sense that all the bits are in place, but they don’t cohere organically, which is what happens in a great movie. There’s no overarching mood, thanks to the film’s fondness for straying into hastily assembled subplots about sand smuggling and star tortoises.
And yet, this isn’t a film that can be easily dismissed. There are many funny lines, funny scenes, and when Shameem puts her mind to it, she seems capable of brilliance. The sequences where the kids turn into rogue radio broadcasters are delightful – for a while, everything comes together. Another impressive portion renders religious violence through animation – it’s as if the kids were reading a comic book that spoke of these events. And the tree festooned with answer sheets is easily one of the year’s best visuals. The most surprising aspect of Poovarasam Peepee, whose title and milieu suggest a touch of the rustic, is the casual incorporation of English. The kids know about Harry Potter and they speak of “forensics” and “presence of mind.” Tamil is usually so valorized in Tamil cinema – and other tongues and cultures so vilified – that these unfussy excursions into a globalised India (which aren’t intended to make too major a point) are refreshing. There is a mind at work here, and there is a voice. It will be interesting to see what Shameem does next.
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