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
Subsequently, the entire film evolves into a one-dimensional pursuit of Ashokan’s marriage fantasy. All the characters seem nothing more than props manipulated by the writer. Ashokan’s family members are portrayed by the usual typecasts Vijayaraghavan and Sreelakshmi. Their sole purpose is to express pity for their son and intermittently deliver nagging motivational feel-good lectures. Additionally, the Mother’s character is diminished to that of a ghost who sporadically appears as a cook.
The female characters in the film are even more problematic, and the treatment they receive feels akin to a never-ending Fair & Lovely advertisement. Ironically, the writer also advocates for a peripheral politics claiming 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 ongoing. While some of the previously mentioned elements might be considered harmless, Maniyarayile Ashokan ventures into a territory that has been dangerously celebrated in Malayalam pop culture: pseudoscience and horoscopes. The film actively promotes and glorifies these false beliefs, seamlessly integrating them into the narrative. Rather than using black humor to add complexity, the film romanticizes conservatism, earning Ashokan a considerable amount 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 film’s “new-gen” innovation is straightforward gimmickry. Instead of the typical wide-lensed pan around the paddy fields, we get a drone shot. Instead of a lengthy subplot, there’s an extended slo-mo montage stylized using water-pumped raindrops. Rather than high-octane melodrama, the film opts for breezy melodrama, and so on. The entire film appears to be a rehash gimmick rather than a homage or a creative rewiring.
Dulquer has essentially financed a B-grade movie, reminiscent of the plastic Sreenivasan (and Sreenivasan-inspired) narratives from the 90s. The film relies on gimmicky production appeal and an ensemble cast, with a significant portion featuring female eye-candies. It may appeal to the mainstream audience more for its polished form than its paper-thin content.
CA Student who’s enthusiastic about films.