Aadya Rathri movie review: Biju Menon, Anaswara Rajan-starrer is all mixed up about marital rape
Marital rape is tapped as a source of amusement in Aadya Rathri, except that it is not considered rape at all.
castBiju Menon, Anaswara Rajan, Aju Varghese, Sarjano Khalid, Pauly Valsan, Vijayaraghavan, Sreelakshmi, Cameo: Anu Sithara
Rating: 1 (out of 5 stars)
An openly misogynistic film. Sub-conscious misogyny from a filmmaker who actually considers himself feminist. Or closeted misogyny from a filmmaker publicly faking feminism. Aadya Rathri fits into one of the above three slots. Which one, is the question.
Aadya Rathri or First Night is headlined by Biju Menon, a fine actor whose inconsistent filmography shows a seeming lack of discernment. Just this year he was the lead in the darling Sathyam Paranja Vishwasikkuvo shortly after Mera Naam Shaji, which was so viscerally antagonistic towards women that it was unnerving. Menon’s new film purportedly puts across the message that a woman’s assent should be given primacy over all else when families, brokers and communities seal marriage deals. The catch is that the road to that life lesson is lined with sexist humour and a trivialisation of marital rape – not just by the character who is reformed in the end, but in the tone of the film itself. And that’s not counting the ageist casting in Aadya Rathri.
Menon here plays Manoharan, a marriage broker who doubles up as a moral policeman to terror-struck couples in the village of Mullakkara. When the film cuts from his youth to the present day, he has been arranging marital alliances for 22 years and boasts of a 100 per cent success rate. His arch rival Thresiamma (Ee.Ma.Yau’s Pauly Valsan) has been gunning for him for as long as he has been in the business. His big test comes when he is called upon to find a match for Aswathy Ramachandran a.k.a. Achchu (Anaswara Rajan), a college-goer from a prominent family.
A bulk of Aadya Rathri is devoted to the hurdles Manoharan must cross to find a husband for Achchu. The film meanders considerably, but swatches of humour keep it going till the interval, and well, Menon has the ability to evoke laughter with just a twitch of a muscle, a twinkle in his eye or a word. Post-interval though, none of this is enough.
The leading man’s innate acting skills and immense charisma combined with a moral position taken by the film towards the end cannot possibly compensate for all its narrative weaknesses, the under-utilisation of a fine supporting cast, lack of novelty in the treatment and confused politics.
Despite running barely over 2 hours, Aadya Rathri feels too long. It does not help that a couple of its songs spring up instead of blending smoothly into the proceedings. And a conventional fable-like, moral-of-the-story structure cannot work if storytellers unwittingly reveal their deep-seated illiberal true colours from the start.
In an episode right after the credits, a bride tells Manoharan’s sidekick that she is not yet ready because the beautician has not arrived although the hour of her wedding is closing in on them. He finds the beautician doing up her mother’s face and makes a terribly ageist comment about Mum. Filmmakers when confronted with questions about such scenes often argue that they are merely depicting a reality, not glorifying it. In this case that would amount to claiming that a sexist character was portrayed cracking a sexist joke to illustrate the regressive nature of the society in which this story is set. No excuses please, there is no ambiguity here – that scene is designed as comedy.
Marital rape too is tapped as a source of amusement in Aadya Rathri, except that it is not considered rape at all. A man incessantly impregnates his wife against her will, but when she complains about the creep, Manoharan says: How can I stop a man from expressing his love for his wife? Ugh. Again, such a scene could well have been set up to throw light on the meaning of consent in sexual relations, but the narrative here is too light-hearted for it to serve that purpose. In fact, the flippant tone of that scene in which a woman with a swollen belly is shown struggling to juggle her expanding body, children of varying ages and her housework, is disconcerting to say the least.
And then of course there is the casting. Considering the massive age differences between male superstars and their female romantic leads in most commercial Malayalam cinema, I was dreading the possibility that sweet little Anaswara Rajan from Udaharanam Sujatha and Thanneermathan Dinangal would be shown here as the nearly 50-year-old Menon’s girlfriend or wife on screen. Thankfully, that does not happen, but Aadya Rathri’s idea of age-appropriate casting is to make her, a 17-year-old with a child-like face, the potential bride of Kunjumon P.P., the character played by Aju Varghese who is 34 in real life. That scene in which Kunjumon fantasises about Achchu romancing him feels weird.
And get this: Achchu and Kunjumon were once schoolmates and are about the same age.
Sexism and misogyny are not Aadya Rathri’s only characteristics. Kunjumon is repeatedly fat shamed. Bangalore’s youngsters are viewed through the lens of clichés that conservatives reserve for societies where gender segregation is not the norm. And Aadya Rathri is not even committed to its regressive views. It wants to be seen as progressive. The tonally patchy narrative fails at both.
In a scene early in Manoharan’s journey, as he watches a bedroom door close on a traumatised woman on the first night of her forced marriage to a sexual pervert, it is apparent that it has begun to dawn on him that what is happening is not right. Yet 22 years later, the same Manoharan tells a pregnant woman that her horny husband’s sexual aggression is, in fact, an expression of love. Huh? Character graphs and consistency in characterisation seem to be alien concepts to this team.
This is disappointing because director Jibu Jacob’s last film, Munthirivallikal Thalirkkumbol, though completely accepting of a patriarchal social structure, did take some progressive forward steps, and was certainly not so poorly written. Writers Sharis-Jebin, on the other hand, have lived up to their track record as the team behind the bizarre, mixed-up 2018 film Queen that was supposedly anti-rape. Do us a favour, gentlemen. Stop claiming to care and try genuinely caring instead.
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