Alphonse Putharen’s Neram begins with an unusual dedication, a thank-you to the director’s “ex-girlfriends (especially the last one)”. Just what might a Freudian make of this, given that the heroine, here, is kidnapped, bound and gagged, and tossed into the boot of a black Ambassador? The opening scene is even more unconventional, a riff on the butterfly effect, wherein a plutocrat, in the U.S., suffers an episode of flatulence, resulting in Vetri (Nivin Pauly), in Chennai, receiving the pink slip.

After Soodhu Kavvum and Neram, is it too soon to say that we are slowly beginning to say goodbye to the one-size-fits-all film for family audiences? Perhaps yes. But at least, we seem to be opening up to cinematography that’s more than just brightly lit master shots — there’s texture, grit, mood in these frames. And we seem to be welcoming heroines who look like they belong in this universe and who speak the language. A cautiously optimistic wolf-whistle may be in order.

Neram lives up to its title from the opening credits, which appear over a variety of time-indicating devices. Elsewhere, too, there are signs of time. It’s three weeks before Veni (Nazriya Nazim) agrees to Vetri’s proposal. And then, when her father assents to their getting married, Vetri asks for time to look for a new job. Months elapse. Meanwhile, he needs money for his sister’s wedding. So he goes to a bling-loving loan shark named ‘Vatti’ Raja (Simhaa), who threatens him with dire consequences if the repayments don’t arrive on time.

And the timeframe of the events in the film? One day — the day an installment is due. Neram, therefore, is a ticking-clock thriller hinging on whether Vetri will settle ‘Vatti’ Raja’s dues within a specified period of time, but there’s a more diffuse aspect of time the director sets out to explore: its capacity to usher in fortune and misfortune. (In other words, nalla neram, ketta neram.) No one can accuse Putharen of lacking ambition.

Or attitude. A defining characteristic of these films is the tongue tucked firmly into cheek, and we have, as ‘Vatti’ Raja’s henchmen, Karuppu and Vellai, who, between them, occupy the ends of the complexion spectrum. Then we have the world-cinema instructor who refers to Bicycle Thieves, made, apparently, by a filmmaker named Victoria D’Silva. (It’s terrific how this joke is slipped in with little regard to whether the “common man” will get it.)

And how can we forget Manick? His name, really, is Manickam, but the abbreviation points to his Anglicisation — he prefers to speak in English. The scenes with Thambi Ramaiah (as Veni’s dyspeptic father) and John Vijay (as a sub-inspector with an unprintable name who may know less about Carnatic music than he thinks he does) are gems, crafted not with silly one-liners but with deeply eccentric humour. Even the songs are one-of-a-kind, employed not as brakes to bring the movie to periodic five-minute halts, but to infuse jolts of electricity into dynamically filmed chase sequences. (The background, at other times, spins variations on Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’.)

The leads are great together, and the supporting characters circle around them — and each other, and the locality of Mandaiveli — beautifully, showing up just enough to remind us of their existence, never overstaying their welcome. Almost everything is perfect on paper. But something is lost on screen. We feel we should be laughing more, and that there are a few too many flat passages.

The conveniently plotted (and dismayingly tension-free) concluding portions don’t live up to the promise of the beginning, and by the time Nasser shows up as a big shot with a tendency to use the word “awesome” (his version goes “aa-sum”) and break into song in hospitals, we wish that, under these sprinklings of humour, there had been more meat. I wasn’t rooting for anyone in particular by the end — though you may say, and rightly so, that the point of these modest productions isn’t emotional investment but entertainment. And that we get... most of the time.