An aerial view of the countryside―(drone shot, of course), a village enchantress who eventually elopes with the postman, an old 80’s style village junction, unrealistic candyfloss romantic ideas and a bloke hyper-insecure of his height and dusky appearance (a modern day Sreenivasan, to put it simple). The clichés are never ending in Dulquer Salmaan’s second production, directed by newcomer Shamzu Zayba. But is Maniyarayile Ashokan a clichéd replica or a current-gen homage to the Sathyan-Sreeni school of films?
Writer Vineeth Krishnan not only borrows ‘tropes’ from the vintage films but also extends writing clichés, most of the film clings on tasteless buds of comedy, empathy and sympathy that hardly works with the modern age. The opening scene for example is an unabashed level of dishonest writing, Ashokan (Gregory) wakes up from his bed after an early-morning dream, his marriage (tiresomely extended as a music-video with the support of Sid Sriram’s torturous vocals). The premise is set and the plight is the same, marriage.
Ashokan’s absurd marriage fantasy
The whole film afterwards becomes a one-dimensional pursuit over Ashokan’s marriage fantasy. And all the characters are not more than props to toy for the writer, Ashokan’s folks are played by the usual typecasts Vijayaraghavan and Sreelakshmi, whose only job is to pity about his son at times and keep nagging motivational feelgood lectures― and of course, the Mother is reduced as a ghost who appears in and out as a cook. While the female characters in the film are even more problematic, so is the treatment that feels like a never-ending fair and lovely advertisement, but it’s also ironic how the writer toutes a peripheral politics that ‛fairness is a myth’.
Female characters (fairly skinned) are also deliberately overstuffed at every juncture, they become embodiments of eye-candy. Anupama Parameswaran is a typical village girl, from a patriarchal household, who has a secret-crush on Ashokan. But she later becomes what we expect her to be. Nayana Elsa is Rani Teacher, another female presence watered down as the romantic interest of a supporting male character. Shritha Srinivas is Anju, who disdains Ashokan at first and renounces it with some feelgood overcoating, a classic case of a prop who earns some cheeky sympathy for the male protagonist. Shine Tom Chacko’s character arc is also a weird fetish of the writer to torment another of the film’s woman character.
The regressive aftermath is not over yet. If some of the aforesaid can be called harmless, Maniyarayile Ashokan goes to a territory that was dangerously celebrated in Malayalam pop-culture. Pseudoscience and horoscopes. It propagates and glorifies these false beliefs and gently lubricates the narrative. The conservatism is even romanticized in the film rather than layering it with black humour, this sub-narrative also buys Ashokan a great deal of empathy from the audience.
A recurring context
There have been some weird popularist attempts happening in Malayalam after the so-called new wave. Vineeth Sreenivasan started this by launching his Thattathin Marayathu, a paperthin romance with a feel-good texture reminiscent to the 90’s (especially his Father Sreenivasan’s and Sathyan Anthikkad films) planted to a contemporary setting. Sathyan Anthikkad himself, after back to back failures, tried a replica of this breezy melodramatic texture through Njan Prakashan scripted by Sreenivasan. Anthikkad’s son Anoop Sathyan, again, furthered this formula to his debut directorial Varane Aavashyamund (incidentally produced by Dulquer Salmaan’s wayfarer films).
But not all attempts are fatigue. There have been genuine homages, creatively enhanced cross-roads as well. Basil Joseph who made Kunjiramayanam is far less inclined to the 90’s mediocrity than the 80’s quirkiness. Basil’s film is largely celebrated as a modern day Sreenivasan homage, but it actually took cues from the adored Sreenivasan style popular setting to tell a beautiful fiction of its own. Basil’s attempt is close to the caricatured portrait of villages and masculinity seen in the 80’s Padmarajan, KG George films. While Anjali Menon is another writer from the popular front who creatively spinned many conservative 90’s ideas. Anjali also, is less Sreenivasan than Ragunath Paleri, in execution.
A tasteless medley between old and new
Maniyarayile Ashokan is like Thattathin Marayathu and Njan Prakashan in texture, it has light-hearted melodrama interplayed with old school Sreenivasan virtues. It is also a wannabe Kunjiramayanam. At so many places, Shamzu desperately tries to crack Basil’s formula―the central storyline is more or less the same, in addition it attempts the Basil-esque surprise rollercoaster juggling with many cameos―unnecessary and uninteresting, even Dulquer’s cameo is bland bigtime. The “new-gen” innovation done to the film is plain and simple gimmickry, replacing the generally seen wide lensed pan around the paddy fields we get the drone shot, instead of a lengthy subplot we get an extended slo-mo montage stylized using water pumped raindrops, instead of high octane melodrama we get breezy melodrama, and so on. The whole film is just a rehash gimmick rather than a homage or a creative rewiring.
Dulquer has basically funded a B-grade movie ― like many plastic Sreenivasan (and Sreenivasan inspired) narratives there were in the 90’s ― with gimmicky production appeal and ensemble cast (a large part comprises female eye-candies), that may cater to the mainstream audience just for the sake of it’s polished form than the paper thin content.