Mayaanadhi movie review: Aishwarya Lekshmi, Tovino Thomas headline the romance of the year from Mollywood
Mayaanadhi is a befitting December release in a year that has witnessed some great works from Malayalam cinema.
“Sex is not a promise.” I cannot believe I just heard these words from a heroine in a mainstream Mollywood venture. Aparna Ravi a.k.a. Aps in Mayaanadhi (Mystic River) is a far cry from the coy virgins of past Indian films for whom sex was usually a mistake that almost inevitably led to a pregnancy.
This is not to say that other women in Malayalam films – or Indian cinema at large – have not gotten between the sheets with heroes in the past. Just this year, one of the most comical sequences in Angamaly Diaries involved a woman visiting the male protagonist in hospital to offer more than just sympathy. Their sexual escapades were designed as a source of amusement though, and the woman in question was not the heroine. In too many other Indian films, sex between a leading man and woman who are not married to each other has become a sort of mandatory signifier of coolth used by conservative filmmakers to mask their conservatism and/or establish how with-it they are. Exhibit No. 1: Aditya Chopra’s painfully self-conscious “look at me, look how progressive I am” Befikre from Bollywood in 2016. Exhibit No. 2: Mani Ratnam’s aiming-to-be-modern but ultimately conformist O Kadhal Kanmani from Kollywood in 2015.
Hear this, dear Indian filmmakers: showing your heroine having sex is not an indicator of your film’s liberalism, giving your heroine agency is. The difference between aspiring to be feminist on this front (or faking it) and genuine conviction is in evidence in Mayaanadhi.
Aashiq Abu’s new film stars Aishwarya Lekshmi as Aparna and Tovino Thomas as her on-again, off-again boyfriend John Matthew a.k.a. Mathan. Aparna is an acting aspirant who has been earning a living by emceeing and modelling while she works towards a break in films. Mathan was her senior in college and is now a professional racketeer. Each has a challenging family background, his is far more troubling than hers.
Mayaanadhi is a romance disguised as a crime thriller. When the curtain goes up, a series of events unfold that force Mathan into hiding. While he stays low key to escape the police, the film explores his long-standing relationship with Aparna, which is now in the doldrums since she no longer trusts him for reasons that are completely his fault.
Aparna is a bright, determined, professionally ambitious woman who knows her mind in all matters except Mathan. They have been friends as much as lovers – a magical combination that is hard to recover from. Though her head tells her he spells trouble, she remains as fond of him as she is attracted to him. The film stays with them as he desperately tries to get her back in his life while she is torn between her affection for him and her desire to get over him.
There is so much to recommend in Mayaanadhi. The attractive Aishwarya Lekshmi, for one, a model-turned-actor who is effortlessly glamorous on screen. She made her film debut earlier this year in the only awkwardly written passage in the otherwise excellent Njandukalude Nattil Oridavela. In Mayaanadhi she is handed a vast canvas and wonderfully nuanced writing to display her considerable acting chops.
Tovino Thomas has had a year that most actors can only dream of. If in Oru Mexican Aparatha he was a gritty and grim political activist, in Godha he was a man-child, and here in Mayaanadhi we get the full blast of his versatility as he aces Mathan’s irresistible boyish charm and longing for his Aps.
(Spoiler alert) That scene in which Mathan lightly accuses Aparna of “talking like a prostitute” and instantly regrets his words is a fine example of great writing meeting great acting. Her reply, in sharp contrast to his unevolved reaction to their rendezvous, reminded me of Shruti’s response in the morning-after scene in Band Baaja Baaraat (Hindi, 2010) in which Bittoo expresses regret for their sexual encounter, as if it is a catastrophe that he as a man must take responsibility for. (Spoiler alert ends)
For its non-traditionalism, smooth flow, credible characters and situations and so much else, the true stars of Mayaanadhi are director Aashiq Abu and his frequent collaborators, writers Syam Pushkaran and Dileesh Nair. Their lead pair come across as real people with real dilemmas. Neither of them is flawless, but unlike in most commercial Indian cinema, the man's mess-ups in the relationship are not casually justified or glorified. And it is a joy to see a woman who is strong but not in a cliched filmi fashion: her strength is believably human and not divine.
Team Mayaanadhi draws us into Aparna and Mathan’s story so effectively that we ache for them. The film’s atmospherics are compelling. DoP Jayesh Mohan ensures that Mayaanadhi is visually exquisite. His colour palette is dominated by whites, blacks and steely grays in the outdoors, almost as if Kerala in this film is experiencing an icy winter it never does in reality. This cinematographic choice serves to build up a sense of immense sadness and a feeling of foreboding around the fate of Aparna and Mathan’s romance.
There is also a largeness and grandeur to his outdoor frames, but the director’s narrative style is such that when Aparna and Mathan are together on screen, nothing matters but these two. He also wisely eschews song and dance numbers that are characteristic of commercial Indian cinema. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is allowed to distract from the ruminative mood of the narrative and the twosome around whom it revolves.
Till the interval, I remember being curious about the mystery behind the crimes we witness in the film's opening scenes. Those questions recede into the background by the second half, by which time I found myself more preoccupied with what to expect for Aparna and Mathan as a couple.
There are plenty of other people around them, including some characters with stories that are striking even though their time on screen is limited. The actor Sameera played by Leona Lishoy, her autocratic brother (Soubin Shahir) and Aparna's emotionally needy mother all leave an impression, yet somehow the film seems mysteriously depopulated. This is the most remarkable aspect of Mayaanadhi: Abu builds his narrative in such a way that his satellite characters are not neglected but his lead couple are lost in their own thoughts and their own world, and I found myself lost in them.
This is what gives Mayaanadhi its fine balance between being relatable and yet being an epic romance. It is a befitting December release in a year that has witnessed some great works from Malayalam cinema.
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