On the face of it, Ann Maria Kalippilaanu is a light-hearted romp through an episode in a pre-teen’s life. Ann Maria (played by Sara Arjun) lives in Kerala with her doctor mother (Leona Lishoy) while her father — also a medico, played by Saiju Kurup — has taken off to a Red Cross camp in Syria. Clearly he is a nice guy, which is why he voluntarily works in a war-torn country — he just forgot to make his own daughter his priority.
Ann is a lively girl with a sunny disposition, dearly loved by both mum and dad. He, however, constantly disappoints her by reneging on his promises to be there for the next big day in her life then the next and the next. Her troubled mind combined with her acute powers of observation and fertile imagination sets off a chain of events as a result of which she ends up crossing swords with the school’s villainous physical training instructor David (John Kaippallil) and becoming buddies with a small-time crook called Poombatta i.e. Butterfly Gireesh (Sunny Wayne), a nickname earned from the lore that he strikes so hard, his victims see butterflies and not stars.
It is all sweetly child-like until this point. Kids tend to say and do the darnedest things. We know too that they are quick to imitate and imbibe the worst of what adults say and do, often the very things we hope they did not see or hear us do or say, so it is both amusing and believable that Ann goes off in search of a "vaadaka goonda" (hired hooligan) when she overhears her mother telling another adult that that is the only way to set some people right. What is strange though is a mum who is portrayed as an otherwise sensible parent, allowing a minor daughter to constantly hang out with this particular vaadaka goonda because someone happened to tell her he is a harmless fraud. Err… he is a petty criminal and a drunken lout.
Would a responsible parent not conduct some sort of investigation on discovering the unlikely friendship? Would she, should she, assume that such a person is “harmless” to an under-age girl? Not only is this parental behaviour improbable considering what we otherwise see of Ann’s mother, but it is also risky, foolish and certainly not something a children’s film should endorse. This is hardly the best way to teach young viewers an anti-classist lesson.
Midhun Manuel Thomas — who earlier directed Aadu Oru Bheegara Jeevi Aanu — clearly means well. The old dictum about the road to hell being paved with good intentions is worth remembering here though. Because over and above the charms of the principal cast and the film’s frothy veneer, lies a bizarre — perhaps unwittingly made — point: that since every child needs a father figure to look up to, if the father is not available then any man will do. Seriously, anybody! Daddy illengil, vaadaka goonda engilum. Pita nahin toh acchhe dil waala goonda hi sahi — koitoh mard hona chahiye har bachche ki zindagi mein. This is as silly and dangerous as the wicked-stepmother stereotype perpetuated by children’s literature down the ages.
When faced with demands for accountability, many film folk respond with: this is just a film… c’mon chill… it’s only entertainment. Actually, no film is ever "just a film", and there is no genre in the world that requires closer attention than films directed at the very young. At a time when Hollywood appears to have turned over a new leaf, and is turning stereotypes on their head in films so beautifully relatable to children such as Maleficent, Frozen and Inside Out, it is disappointing that Malayalam cinema would churn out such tosh.
More’s the pity because Ann Maria K has so much potential and several endearing elements. Such as the blossoming bond between Gireesh and his new employer played by Siddique — now there is a lesson about ignoring class boundaries that is well worth offering children. Likewise, it is lovely to see Gireesh’s transformation in the face of Ann’s innocence and innate goodness.
Writer-director Thomas displays some panache in the narration of two versions of Gireesh’s back story. The use of animation in one is both adventurous and apt. The later trip to a fantastical realm with Ann’s 'angel' (and a neat overturning of gender assumptions in that sub-plot) is also evidence that Thomas is not as casual a filmmaker as one might assume from the less-well-thought-out aspects of this film.
The cast is a roll call of fine talents. Sara Arjun — who earlier starred in Deiva Thirumagal with acting stalwart Vikram and in a small role as Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s daughter in Jazbaa just last year — is a sturdy performer, self-assured beyond her years. She is just 11.
Gireesh is played by the unassumingly attractive Sunny Wayne, who manages to give his character both a brooding intensity and a comic appeal. Wayne’s Gireesh finds a perfect foil in his partner-in-criminal-laziness, Ambrose played by Aju Varghese. Varghese and Dharmajan Bolgatty in small roles are fun to watch.
The pick of the supporting cast though is Siddique who enters the picture late into the story, yet owns Ann Maria K as much as Arjun and Wayne. This is the sort of film in which care has been taken in the casting of even the tiniest roles (including one of the most handsome men in this country in a cameo) and it shows.
Similar finesse was required in the subtitles though. While occasionally glancing at the subs for this review, I did not see any grammatical or spelling errors (what a relief!) but I noticed a couple of places where the words on screen were different from what was being said. I distinctly remember one point in which a child refers to someone called "Alex C Chacko" whereas the line flashing on screen mentions a "Jose C Kurian". Wonder what that was about.
Nice music, nice visuals, pretty art design — the packaging is all in place. If Thomas and his co-writer John Manthrickal had not been so nonchalant about certain aspects of their screenplay, this could have been a significant film. Their good intentions and the allure of the cast, however, are not reason enough to ignore Ann Maria Kalippilaanu’s mindless, oddball messaging.