Lover opens with an image of someone learning how to surf and falling off the board – unsteady, fearful – and one of the film’s final images is that of this same person standing on a surfboard, balancing themselves (somewhat) confidently. The metaphor is that relationships are like stormy seas, and whether we choose to continue with the relationship or choose to break up, it’s like learning to surf. It takes a lot of practice. You try it once, then a second time, and do this over and over until you know what you are doing. The graph of most love stories is filled with ups and downs, with different peaks and valleys. The graph of writer-director Prabhuram Vyas’s debut feature is a straight line. Over and over, we see similar attempts by the couple to navigate the rough waters of their relationship.
Manikandan and Sri Gouri Priya play this couple, Arun and Divya. At some point, they were in love. Now, after six years, Divya is beginning to question the nature of their relationship. What is love? Was she ever “in love” with Arun, or was it just something that began because she was attracted to him in college? When we are stuck in the same campus, we go to the same classes. We hang out with the same friends. We complain about the same teachers. We exist in the same location, day after day. Our lives get intertwined in so many ways. But after graduation, Divya gets a good job, and shares a posh flat with a roomie. Her clothes show that she is living well. Arun dreams of setting up a café. He lives with his mother (a wonderful Geetha Kailasam) and alcoholic father (Saravanan) in a lower-middle-class flat. The class difference is unstated and yet, it makes you wonder about Arun and Divya. In college, everyone is “equal” in a way. But had Arun and Divya not met in college, would they have even met in real life, given the circles he moves in and ones she moves in? Would they really be… compatible?
Note the gender-neutral nature of the title: Lover. It could be Arun. It could be Divya. And the film is a clinical examination of what happens when two people begin to drift away. Divya realises quite early – after those six years – that this is not exactly a healthy relationship. She finds herself lying to Arun about where she is, who she is with. She has a bestie Aishu (Harini sparkles in this brief part) who acts like her conscience, and I think many of us will be reminded of that one sane person in school/college who talked us out of the many stupid things we would have done otherwise. But something holds Divya back from breaking up with Arun. In a way, it’s the kind of situation we have seen in Kaatru Veliyidai and Arjun Reddy. They know they should move on, but they hang on… in hope, or however they define it.
Why has Divya begun to feel uncomfortable around Arun? The easy explanation is that he is possessive, that he tries to control her life. But dig deeper, and you will find a man who is desperate to cling to the only good thing in his life: this woman he is with. His home life with his parents is a mess. Unlike Divya, he has no friends from college. He has only male friends, unlike Divya, who hangs out with mixed company. His café dreams seem distant, because he has no money. He drives a scooter. He smokes and drinks incessantly, and his insecurity compels him to stalk Divya on social media. Even his attitudes are different. He speaks of “giving your partner freedom to do things,” which hints at a rather chauvinistic (or old-fashioned) understanding of the male-female equation. If he lost Divya, he’d be even more of a zero than he (thinks he) is.
Arun is the kind of man who thinks falling in love means you are going to get married to that person, which is why – on Divya’s birthday – he gives her a card calling her “pondatti”, wife. The then-Divya is delighted, but the now-Divya knows that falling in love is not the same as being in love or (even more difficult) staying in love. Lover avoids the easy conflict of introducing a third person as a romantic rival: this is Madhan, a cool, car-owning travel-vlogger, played by Kanna Ravi, in a super-relaxed performance. The equation, then, would be too simple: Divya is drifting from Arun because she is falling for Madhan, who is from her world. But the fact of the matter is that Divya is drifting away from Arun because she has slowly begun to find herself. If there is a love triangle here, it is between Arun, the Divya from six years ago, and the Divya of today.
Arun, however, remains stuck – and that is the nature of the film, too. It appears to be “stuck” in the same place, doing variations on the same situations. This is intentional. Arun pisses all over Divya. He says sorry. There is an uncomfortable truth. And then he pisses on her all over again. And you begin to wonder how long she can take it, and how she will break this toxic pattern of abuse. Sean Roldan’s songs and score are a soothing balm on this scarred relationship. When Vilagathe plays over a stretch of Arun going with Divya’s friends for a holiday, you can practically hear his soul begging her to not leave him. Earlier, during a birthday call, we get a gentle guitar reprise of Thensudare, a song where the female voice sings these words: vidai naan puriyaamal thinarugiren, vilagaamal vilagugiren… This time, it is her soul we hear. A third voice is heard as a counterpoint. Arun’s mother dreams of escaping her dysfunctional marriage by moving in with Arun and Divya after they get married. Little does the woman realise how dysfunctional their relationship is! Shreyaas Krishna’s camera is at times unsteady, at times fixed, and the beautifully floating frames add to the feeling of flux.
Lover is essentially less a “story” than a collection of scenes built around a theme, and it took me some time to slip onto the film’s rhythms, because they are so new. Manikandan and Sri Gouri Priya perfectly convey the crux of the relationship. She has a natural reserve on camera (perhaps because she is still so new), and this helps to keep Divya aloof. But in the outburst scenes, she really cuts loose. Manikandan is superb in the sequence where Arun is at a party where he doesn’t belong, one that he isn’t really invited to, and he is trying to tell every bone in his body to behave itself. And his casual rapport with Madhan, later, is a perfect representation of how you behave with someone when you stop seeing them as a rival.
Some of the comic scenes in the second half don’t work. (If the intention was to offer some relief from all the intensity, I’d say the intensity could have been sustained, perhaps even amped up.) And even with the drama, I found myself admiring some stretches more than I liked them. My heart wasn’t as pierced as I wanted it to be. But there’s enough in Lover that works: especially Arun’s mother’s arc with the scooter, the difference between two birthday situations, and a recall of the line “only guys know about guys”. The first time this line is uttered, it is chauvinistic, but the second time, we see Divya being told why Arun is the way he is. She could have gotten this insight only from a man. And here’s the scene that broke my heart. I won’t describe it, but when we have made the decision to move on, why do we still hesitate to let go at the final stage? Why the desire for the final hug, the final word? Because letting go and moving on is easier to process in the mind. But when it comes to the actual implementation, in reality, it almost makes you do a rethink. It could be anything from “Am I doing the right thing?” to “Will I find someone else?” Prabhu Ram Vyas doesn’t tell us everything. He makes us feel. And that is why Lover is a most auspicious debut.