Directed by Jeevan Jojo, Ullasam (translation: joy) is a Malayam-language film that follows the ‘meet-cute’ story of Harry (played by Shane Nigam) and Nima (played by Pavithra Lakshmi). They cross paths while on a journey to Ooty, a small hill station in the state of Tamil Nadu, India
Harry, also carrying a Harry Potter book in his hands, is a wanderer who is still on the lookout for his goals in life. On the other hand, Nima is a junior doctor and elder daughter in a middle-class household who is on this trip to escape her existence’s difficult, boring reality.
Once they jump off a toy train and lose their direction in the hills, they decide to form a bracket “( )” and live within it in the course of their trip. Together, they tick things off a list, even managing to romance each other, but they must step outside the bracket and go back to their individual lives.
Their paths cross again in the city, but a fresh spell of tension arises between them. Will two strangers risk living within the bracket “( )” for the rest of their lives? Director Jojo makes this film syrupy and sweet by indulging in the idea of a whirlwind romance. Since this is a romantic comedy, I don’t think anyone is complaining.
Romantic comedies are supposed to make you feel warm from the core of your heart at the idea of romance. They are stories of love and of people in love – an exquisite genre that doesn’t, in my opinion, receive as much appreciation as it should; some of the best films in Indian cinema are romantic comedies, from Chithram (1988) to Barfi (2015). However, with time, romantic comedies have become a checklist of tropes that directors must follow to win their way to their audience’s heart, including a chance encounter between the protagonists in an unlikely situation to a curious case of losing their way along a journey.
Ullasam sits down with this checklist and meticulously ticks off every marker from this list. Like Aditya and Geet from Jab We Met (2007), Harry and Nima make the most of their off-the-road journey by singing, dancing, and meeting new people; and, like Ved and Tara from Tamasha (2015), they must harbor themselves to the reality of their lives in the city at the end of this trip. In the process, Ullasam successfully establishes itself as a romantic comedy but is too full of cliches to tug at your heartstrings. While it tries too hard to get its romantic elements right, it forgets to account for the chemistry between Harry and Nima.
Nigam is a talented actor who has sparked life into a diverse range of characters; he shone as Bobby in Kumbalangi Nights (2019), whose idea of love and relationship with Baby (played by Anna Ben) transforms throughout the film. Here, Nigam easily pulls off the streetside-Romeo character but falters whenever he has to romance Nima. It seems forced, for lack of a better word. On the other hand, Lakshmi is the Ved-from-Tamasha character whose two-dimensional acting becomes tedious in the course of its 2 hours and 19 minutes of runtime. Every other character fades from glow as the film staggers towards its end.
The comedic aspects of Ullasam are where most of its problem lie. The script lacks humor in most parts; it isn’t witty enough, and it appropriates the queer community. The Harry Potter wordplay that kicks off the film gets lost along the way, like the book that Harry dumps on his way back home (if you are a reader, this is enough to disenchant you about the character).
An entire incident in the film is based on Nigam’s character acting as a queer person to avenge a heterosexual lover’s betrayal – sorry, it isn’t a cool thing to do anymore. Although the use of keypads and landline phones should be enough to tell us that the story isn’t set in contemporary years, that should not give the director a license to go back and appropriate communities or sexualities.
Besides, the background score is a major spoilt sport in this rom-com. Instead of adding a musical hint to the story of Harry and Nima, it almost interjects and tends to commend the audience’s reactions in a few cases.
Ullasam (2022) gives little joy, but I thoroughly liked the understanding of the bracket “()” as a punctuation mark and its significance in enhancing a sentence (like this one). If the bracket “()” love story of Ullasam intrigues you, it is currently streaming on Amazon Prime India.