Nithin Krishnamurthy's Boys Hostel (dubbed into Telugu from the Kannada hit, Hostel Hudugaru Bekagiddare) is a fun ride that is also very clever – but let's talk about the "fun" part, first. As the title suggests, we are in a college campus, and one of the first signs that this is not your regular movie is the teacher with the sine-curve walk and in a glittering red sari. (Said teacher is played by Ramya, and there are other cameos by Rishab Shetty and Pawan Kumar. The Telugu-version cameos are by celebrities like Rashmi Gautam and Tharun Bhascker.) A salivating (fantasising?) student turns back to the audience and says that their college is so cool that even their Mathematics teacher is so hot. In another film, you'd say he is breaking the fourth wall – but then, in Nithin Krishnamurthy's anything-goes universe, there are no walls to begin with. With a host of hyper-excited actors and with cinematographer Arvind S Kashyap's manic energy, the director pulls us into this world, into this chaos.
The opening stretch gives us regular college visuals like a basketball game, a protest, a library, a lot of drinking – and we are introduced to Warden Ramesh Kumar (Manjunath Nayaka). With his who-farted-under-my-nose? look and his rules and super-strict behaviour, the man is the bane of everyone's existence. He was in the army and he took three bullets in his bum. The instant this information is revealed to us, we get an animation bit that shows the warden's posterior in X-ray form, with the bullets zooming into the area. To say that Boys Hostel is a high-energy movie is an understatement. With the constantly handheld camera doing tracks, pans, zooms, the effect is positively dizzying. A portion where the warden is chased by students is presented like a video game. In fact, I'd say the entire film is like a hopped-up video game. Even death registers only as much it would on a PlayStation screen.
The ensuing funeral pyre is mistaken for a barbecue. I laughed my guts out – but Hostel Hudugaru Bekagiddare/ Boys Hostel (henceforth HHB/BH) is not exactly a black comedy. For all the chaotic fun, there's always the feeling that we are inside a metaphor for the chaos of the filmmaking process, with Ajith (Prajwal BP) standing in for not just Nithin but for all first-time directors from all over. We get a Kafka quote from The Trial: "[They're talking about things of which they don't have the slightest understanding… ] It's only because of their stupidity that they're able to be so sure of themselves." This could be the motto of every first-time filmmaker ever, because of the way they dive headlong into a process filled with logistical nightmares and self-doubt and things rarely going according to plan and even danger, as when a van goes up in flames.
In Ajith/Nithin's film, Ramya keeps appearing in hilariously unneeded flashes, thanks to the editor (within the film) stating that the story is too filled with boys, and that audiences need to see women every now and then. I don't know if the director was thinking of Godard's Contempt, but I certainly was. In that film, Godard put in unneeded nude scenes of his heroine because that is what his producers (and by extension, the audiences) wanted. And I think there is an homage to Brian de Palma in a shot that glides overhead from room to hostel room, showing us the occupants inside. And the discussion about whether to show reality or to exaggerate: that is, hah, a pure Indian-cinema dilemma.
The self-aware nature of the meta-structure in HHB/BH never comes in the way of the laughs. So many of us will recall the nerd in college who orgasmed over any fat book by any Random Foreign Author, the stinkpot who used the toilet and forgot to flush, the stoner Pink Floyd fan who had "Mother should I trust the government" written on his wall, and most of all, the man who obsessed over a lost pen cap. There is even a joke about how we south Indians protest about being clubbed as "Madrasis", but are quite caste-divided in our own respective states. And the birthday celebration in a van is a sustained set piece of escalating insanity. Ajaneesh Loknath's songs are as high-energy as everything else, and this is a beautiful-looking film: note how often the hostel floors are used to divide the screen. My only real issue was the length. At two-and-a-half hours, it is too much of a movie that revels on too-much-ness.
In terms of the inventiveness of the storytelling and the structure, I was reminded of the wonderfully riotous Malayalam film Thallumala. And yet, Ajith/Nithin worry that "My film has no story or structure - it's just random footage." Well, it clearly isn't. Even if not all the jokes land, HHB/BH is one of the most enjoyable, most cleverly constructed films of the year. From the mid-point twist to the climax twist, from the absurd speech about time to the "coverage" method of digital filmmaking today, there is just so much to unpack, so much to marvel at. Whether a scene works for you or not, you see the thought, the effort behind it – right down to the poster-release hype-event at the end. Going back to that Kafka quote, the very nature of first-time film-making may require a near-stupid belief that your efforts will result in something good, and in HHB/BH, we see that the belief is not misplaced.