I love debut films. Mostly, I love watching them at the time they are released, and getting a glimpse of the potential in an actor (or a director or other creative) who you just *know* is going to go on to much better things. I remember watching Second Show and feeling a shot of electricity at Dulquer Salmaan’s performance. The problem with seeing debut films after you’ve already seen a handful of the films an actor has been in since that debut is that you are always assessing the performance based on later, better ones – that’s certainly true of Second Show. Now I go back and watch it and I can see where things are a bit shaky around the edges; that said, it’s still interesting to see how far an actor like Dulquer Salmaan has progressed in the intervening years.
The same is true of Out of Syllabus, the debut of Casa Totally Filmi favourite Parvathy. I have no words to adequately convey how much I love Parvathy and her work – she is, truly, an actress, not a heroine in the traditional Indian film sense of things. She’s a chameleon who totally disappears into her characters – you don’t see Parvathy on screen, you see Maari, or Marathakam, or Panimalar. You see RJ Sarah. Tessa. Sameera. Or, most recently, Jaya, from Qarib Qarib Single.
Speaking of Qarib Qarib Single – it was some discussions around that film and Parvathy’s performance in it that had me mulling aloud, on social media, that perhaps I should take a look at her films and write about them, with an eye to making some suggestions for those who may have seen her for the first time in her Bollywood debut and were impressed enough to want to watch more. So, off I went to print off her filmography and do some digging. I own most of Parvathy’s more recent films, especially those in Malayalam – but I was tickled to discover that her debut film, Out of Syllabus, was available on Hotstar Canada.
Out of Syllabus is set on a college campus (it was filmed at Government College in Chittur), and opens with the empty school at the end of the year. Gopikrishnan (Arjun Sasi) has finished his programme, and walks the campus, reflecting on his time there before he leaves. He recalls his first days at school: he was nervous, and his glasses and mundu, as well as his grandfather’s old-fashioned umbrella, set him apart from the other students in their jeans and other western wear, and initially make him the target of older students out to do some hazing. The bookish Gopikrishnan forgets a letter he’d written to his mother in a book returned to the library, where it is found by Namitha (Niranjana). Namitha’s friends read the letter aloud in class and make fun of Gopikrishnan, but Namitha takes a liking to her shy, studious classmate, and the two form a fast friendship.
At the same time as his relationship develops with Namitha, Gopikrishnan meets Gayathri (Parvathy) on campus. Gayathri, studying physics at the college until her acceptance at nursing school comes through, comes from the same native place as Gopikrishnan, and it’s obvious the two know each other well – so well, in fact, that Gopikrishnan runs errands for her. When one such errand causes Gopikrishnan to be late for a meeting with Namitha, she is furious, accusing him of selfishness – she is upset that he’s considered the errand for Gayathri more important than meeting her to share some cake for her birthday. The two end up angry at each other and not talking; Gayathri notices, and knows it’s because of her, and insists that the two make up.
Things take a dark turn when Gayathri, who has gone off to nursing school finally, is attacked in a serious ragging incident. Gopi meets another friend, a doctor in the hospital where Gayathri is hospitalized, and learns that the doctors involved are purposefully prescribing medicines for Gayathri which would undermine her ability to testify against those involved. Gopi calls on the student union to help, and they attempt to take Gayathri to a safer hospital. The involvement of the student union forces the arrest of those involved in Gayathri’s ragging and its attempted cover-up, including the students and the director and principal. Eventually, as he has become more politically engaged, Gopi is asked to stand for the election of Chairman of the student union.
As a Parvathy vehicle, Out of Syllabus probably remains for completists only, though even in her first film (where she was probably 17 or 18 during filming) she shows immense promise (and, indeed, is the only actor of all the film’s debutants to make a career for herself). The story of Gayathri, her attack, her thoughts of suicide and her eventual resolve to rise above what has happened to her – Parvathy brings warmth and determination to the character, who easily could have devolved into a stereotype. Much of the film is devoted to the idea of memory: the memories of childhood, and the memories these students will build during their time at school, the memories they will eventually take away with them as they enter the wider world. There is a moment where, during the school's jubilee, Gayathri sings the song "Poy Varuvan", in which she laments the memories of childhood, and it's a lovely moment to see Parvathy so lovely and fresh, and so given over to the emotions of the song.
It's also the moment where you can see there is a cameo by the late director A.K. Lohithadas, who has come to the school to give an inspirational speech.
There have been many, better campus-set films in Malayalam cinema -- the blockbuster Classmates from director Lal Jose was released later the same year that Out of Syllabus was, and set a trend for campus films, and more recently Premam reconnected audiences with college life -- but Out of Syllabus manages to present a realistic, slice-of-life view of college life, both in and outside of the classroom, as its title would suggest. The campus itself, with its bullies, its goofballs, student romances, and student politics – these are the things that make Gopikrishnan grow as a person. In the end, he gets the American scholarship he dreamed of when he started school, but it’s a very different, more mature Gopi who heads off to broaden his horizons even more.