You know, when I looked at the back of the Chocolate DVD, and saw the genre listed as "youth comedy", I kind of wondered if I should watch it, because, coupled with the fact that the film takes place on a filmi college campus where the students, well, get up to hi-jinks, I just thought, you know, maybe that I wasn't the intended audience, the target market, and that I would end up not liking it much.
And it's true -- the college hi-jinks which substitute for plot at times in the film did kind of wear thin on me just a little bit. But to dismiss Chocolate (a debut for writers Sachi-Sethu, who most recently penned the script for Makeup Man, also directed by Shafi) on those grounds would have meant missing out on some really great stuff that happens along the way.
The story, essentially, is this: the principal of a women's college proposes to open the school to male students, an idea that is supported by the faction headed up by popular girl Preetha, and roundly opposed by the feisty and tom-boyish Ann (Roma) and her crew, headed up by her friends Nandhana (Samvrutha) and Sussana (Remya Nabeeshan). The parents of the girls attending the school also oppose the idea, causing it to be turned down.
However -- there's a bit of a loophole. The rules governing the college require that one spot be made available for one male student, though up 'til now, no one has requested admission. All this changes when Vanaja, one of the teachers at the school, requests the placement for her son, Shyam (Prithviraj). Shyam is, well, a bit of a trouble-maker. Mostly he rides around on his motorcycle or hangs out drinking beer with his buddies, and he's been suspended by other colleges 9 times, and has racked up 7 police cases. His mother hopes that by having him under the watchful eye of everyone at her college, he'll finally settle down and graduate.
Shyam's arrival at the school is, of course, the cause for all the hi-jinks.
Girl humour, apparently, involves passing a package of what we used to call "unmentionables" to Shyam and making sure he gets caught by the teacher. He takes it in stride.
The girls at the college fawn over and flirt with him, they play jokes on him, and Ann and her pals decide to up the ante, dragging up an old school rule requiring all students -- ALL students -- to wear petticoats. Shyam takes it all in stride -- turns out, he actually likes the sparring with Ann -- but the petticoat incident causes much furor amongst the parents, who demand the principal take some action.
Which she does -- she suspends Shyam for inappropriate conduct, and Ann for ragging. Both get a 15 day time-out, which doesn't seem, at first, to diminish their bickering. Shyam calls Ann to tell her off, Ann gives Shyam a piece of her mind, and it results in the film's title song, "Chocolate":
(Because I understand no Malayalam, and must rely on subtitles, which I frequently find kind of wonky or surreal in Malayalam films, I would like to believe that, when the subtitles say what they say to each other is "I'll cut your round chocolate body and make it into salted pickle today" and "With a needle and thread I'll make your bloated chest into a kite today", it really does make some kind of poetic sense in the original language. Anyone know any good Malayalam language learning sources? I really think I need to make some kind of effort, as you'll see in a bit.)
The time-out does nothing to diminish the feuding between Shyam and Ann, and upon their return to school, Ann arranges to have Shyam nominated to become the school's first chairman, a position that will involve him organizing the college's contribution to the local Youth Festival. Shyam is furious when he finds out what Ann has done, but then relents and decides to run (and is declared the winner when the only other candidate, the snotty Preetha, decides to withdraw, knowing that Shyam is so popular with all the laydeeeeees that he'll win by a landslide). This also represents the turning point for Ann and Shyam, who both realize that underneath all the sparring and teasing, they really, actually love each other, though neither is willing to admit it to the other. Ann goes so far as to agree with her father's plans to arrange her marriage, though she turns the "girl-seeing" into another opportunity to goad Shyam just a little (getting him to come along with her friends as "moral support").
In the meantime, the show must be organized, and Shyam hires on his crew of drinking buddies to help out. Also hired on to direct their drama is fashion designer Ranju (Jayasurya), who is secretly in love with Nandhana and asks Shyam to help him get closer to her -- Nandhana is in the all-girls college because her father wants her to avoid the fate of her two older siblings, both of whom attended co-ed schools, and both of whom ended up making bad marriages.
During the drama rehearsals, Shyam insists that Ann, who was supposed to play the heroine opposite him, isn't, well, girly enough, so he drags Nandhana on stage to act out the part, playing it up just to try to get Ann's goat. It doesn't work, but Ann takes pictures of the two of them as they rehearse, pictures that, out of context, could look a little compromising, as if Shyam is romancing Nandhana. The pictures end up in the hands of Nandhana's father, who, well, becomes more than a little infuriated, and sends some goons to beat Shyam up to teach him a lesson.
Even worse -- as the moment of the performance draws near, someone sends even more photos to Nandhana's father, who decides to settle things once and for all. Nandhana, informed of this by her mother, tries to find Shyam to warn him, and when she's told that he's gone to the hotel room rented by the school to hold all their extra props and costumes, she goes to find him. In the meantime, someone phones the police to tell them there's a "human trafficking ring" set up in this hotel room, and they turn up to arrest Shyam and Nandhana.
Yes, the light-hearted college romance film turns out, in the end to be more complicated than I ever could have imagined. In the end, Shyam and Nandhana are released, as the officer in charge finds the grounds under which they were arrested highly suspicious, and believes their story that they were just there to retrieve costumes. The story ends up in the newspapers, however, and the parents, once again, demand of the principal that something be done. Nandhana's father, in particular, wants Shyam and Nandhana to be married in order to relieve him of some of the shame he perceives in the situation. This just further complicates everything, because Shyam still holds out some hope of being with Ann, and Nandhana? Well, turns out that she actually wants to marry Ranju, the designer.
Okay, before we get to the happy endings (because they are there, finally) -- there were a couple of points at which Chocolate almost lost me as a viewer, the first mildly troubling, the second, well -- I almost turned off the film. So let me get them out of the way.
First: there is....um....a rape joke. Sort of. Maybe.
Okay, I'm not trying to diminish this:
When Shyam throws up some resistance to the idea of attending the girl's school, one of his drinking buddies tells the story of the milkman who was, well, as he says "raped and murdered" by some girls at this very same school. The subtitles are kind of blunt, but the way Pappan (Salim Kumar) reacts to the story (and returns to it later in the film), it makes me wonder about the translation. I get the impression from listening to Pappan (who obviously has no luck with women, unlike the popular Shyam), that his idea of heaven is being ravished by a bunch of women. Okay, that probably doesn't make it much better as a concept, but I kind of get the idea, and I'm willing to cut the film just a little bit of slack as a result. That said, I wish these kinds of moments could be banished from films, I really do.
The second incident: Shyam and Ann's friends suspect Ann of having sent the photos to Nandhana's father in an attempt to escalate the fight with Shyam, and they confront her over this. Ann, true to form, doesn't bow down, and her anger escalates, causing Shyam to, well....slap her. And if I could not forgive the film for this, entirely, there is at least some recognition that it wasn't right:
Aside: I really love the character of Ranju in this film -- it's a small and subtle role compared to that of Prithviraj as Shyam, but actor Jayasurya invests it with sweetness and rightness. Not only does he tell Shyam what he's done is wrong -- when Shyam, drunk, goes to confront the man that Roma's marriage has been arranged with, to tell him that Ann really doesn't love him and doesn't really want to get married, Ranju questions his motivations. Was he doing that just to ruin Ann's life by meddling? Or does he actually love Ann? In a bit of a tit for tat, Shyam insists on knowing the real reasons why Ranju wants Nandhana to appear in his fashion show -- Ranju confesses that he's actually in love with her, but doesn't want to act like all the guys who just run around chasing after girls.
It's very, very sweet.
But, truly, I'm glad I persisted with Chocolate. There are reasons not to watch, or to walk away from it -- but there are even more reasons to watch it and even enjoy it.
First, there's the pairing of Roma and Prithviraj -- I really loved their spunky sparring, and I actually liked their characters as individuals, too, despite their facades. Both of them bring a little bit of unexpected vulnerability to their characters -- if we see them both as a little brash and spunky, both of them are deeper than they first appear. When Ann refuses to give Shyam another chance, he drowns his sorrows in drink -- he truly is gutted at how things have turned out between them. And Ann -- her reasons for refusing to take another chance at a relationship involve not wanting to be hurt again, as she was -- she was devastated that Shyam could believe she could be capable of the things he accused her of. As she tells him, he proved that he didn't really know her or understand her, and I really like the fact that she wasn't a pushover for his charm and good looks.
Then there's the rather lovely relationship between Ann and her father (Lalu Alex). Ann's mother is dead, and her father has raised her on his own -- and he's rather proud of her feisty, independent spirit.
The moment he finds her moping in front of the television after her marriage to Manu has been arranged is one of the loveliest in the film -- the two have a discussion about love and infatuation.
Her father tells her that he thought with, how he raised her, she would have been forthright about her feelings. He's also no dope -- he clues in right away that what's troubling Ann is how she feels about Shyam. But, Ann tells him, she's not sure what her feelings are. Her father's advice? Wait to let Shyam tell her he loves her first, so she'll know that's truly how he feels. And if she decides she's in love with Shyam? Her father is willing to call off the arranged marriage to Manu. Seriously, how lovely is the father/daughter relationship in this film? Very, very lovely.
And finally -- there's Ann herself. She's just a little spitfire -- it would have been so easy for her to have ended up in the shadow of Shyam. Prithviraj, too, shows that he's come a long way from the mopey Manu in Nandanam, both as an actor and as a dancer. He's clearly the star of the film, but Roma, as Ann, holds her own against him.
Besides how could I not love Ann? Her last name is Mathews (though I've also seen it spelled as "Matthews"), and at one point? She's wearing this:
(Yes, I am a sucker for any Canadian connection in a film, no matter how slim. And for me, Chocolate is even more of a win because of it.)
As for Ann and Shyam -- do you think any film called Chocolate, and billed as "the sweetest hit", could come to such a bittersweet conclusion? Stick with the film right to its final innings, and you'll be rewarded with the best chocolate in the whole box:
And no, I don't mean Prithviraj in a lunghi.