Language: Malayalam

Director: Aashiq Abu

Cast: Tovino Thomas, Aishwarya Lekshmi

In Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, a young criminal kills a cop, flees, falls in love, dreams of a future in a different country, and discovers that life has a way of messing up your plans. Each of these beats is referenced to some degree in Aashiq Abu’s Mayaanadhi (Magical River), but with a swoony intensity that’s a world apart. The narrative is made up of two strands. The first has vengeful cops on the trail of Mathan (Tovino Thomas), who’s killed one of their own. But it’s the second that makes the movie, the delicate thread that binds Mathan and Aparna (Aishwarya Lekshmi). We’ve seen many falling-in-love films, many falling-out-of-love films. This is a being-in-love film, with all the passions and problems the term suggests.

Mayaanadhi opens with scenes of Mathan (his gang is up to some shady business involving rubies and a stack of dollar bills). We then shift to scenes with Aparna, a small-time actress auditioning for a film helmed by the character played by Lijo Jose Pellissery, something that involves mystical CGI effects. (The thought of Pellissery, who made the ultra-gritty Angamaly Diaries, in this Avatar mode gave me a big laugh.) After emceeing a wedding (thanks to her mother’s emotional blackmail), Aparna is picking up dinner on the way home, when Mathan appears before her. I thought this was the meet-cute. It’s something else. They met cute a long time ago. Now, we’re flipping to a much-later chapter in their story.

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Aishwarya Lekshmi is transcendent. She gives us one of the truest portrayals of a weak woman who’s trying to appear strong. Watching her attempt to resist Mathan — and failing every single time — is heart-wrenching

Aparna is fascinating, never more so than when she’s faced with insecurity during an audition. She phones Mathan, asking him to motivate her. He says trite things at first (you’re the best, et cetera), but it doesn’t work, and it’s only when he insults her that she feels ready. You get the sense she has low self-esteem, that she prefers a slap in the face to kind words. And acting, for such a person, is the worst kind of career. Add to this her mother’s silent judgement, her inability to say no to people who impinge on time she’d rather have to herself — and you see why she’s drawn to Mathan, who’s such a boy at heart that he orders a glass of Boost when his cohorts ask for tea and coffee. Aparna’s head probably knows better, but her heart calls out to this man-child. He makes life so much simpler.

The film’s best scene shows the effect he has on her. They make love — beautifully, un-cinematically. Squished noses. Locked toes. Hand on skin. The composer Rex Vijayan fills the soundtrack with electronic tones tinged with melancholy. Neither does cinematographer Jayesh Mohan romanticise the images. The colours are flecked with hints of gloom too. And yet, after Mathan goes to sleep on Aparna’s lap (like a little boy), she screws up her face tightly, as though holding her features together from scattering across the room while she bursts with happiness. Aishwarya Lekshmi is transcendent. She gives us one of the truest portrayals of a weak woman who’s trying to appear strong. Watching her attempt to resist Mathan — and failing every single time — is heart-wrenching.

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Mathan is irresistible. Mayaanadhi opens with his dreams — a house, a wife, a couple of Labrador pups — and when his friend asks why he keeps talking about the future, he says it’s because his past and present are so screwed up. Dreams are all he has. Hence the look on his face when he enters a plush hotel suite, with a private jacuzzi and a bath towel shaped into a swan. Tovino Thomas makes us root hard for Mathan. The man isn’t evil. He’s just not smart enough to know what’s good for him. Another filmmaker would have had Mathan leap about excitedly on the hotel bed, but Aashiq Abu lingers on the wonderment on Mathan’s face. Abu transcends plot. He gives us mood and texture and atmosphere.

I especially liked the subplot involving Aparna’s Muslim friend Sameera (Leona Lishoy) and her conservative brother (Soubin Shahir) — it culminates in an airport scene we saw only recently in Secret Superstar, but without the rah-rah triumphalism

But this is not to discount the exquisite writing (Syam Pushkaran, Dileesh Nair). The laughs come gently, without a nudge in the ribs. I’m still smiling at the gangster who excuses himself from a job because he has a PTA meeting to get to — and every character gets a defining touch or two. Aparna used to be rich. When we first see Harish (Harish Uthaman), one of the cops on Mathan’s trail, he’s being dropped off by his girlfriend — a cop who doesn’t mind riding pillion. This informs his attitude towards women, towards love, especially at the end when he confronts a colleague (Ilavarasu, who’s terrific) who’s turned cynical about women and love. I especially liked the subplot involving Aparna’s Muslim friend Sameera (Leona Lishoy) and her conservative brother (Soubin Shahir) — it culminates in an airport scene we saw only recently in Secret Superstar, but without the rah-rah triumphalism.

Which is why it feels like a false note when Aparna tells Mathan, “Sex is not a promise.” It’s too much of a placard, easier to appreciate as a heroine-empowering moment in Malayalam cinema than a character-defining statement. (Even if Aparna thought this, I felt she’d word it differently.) The rest of the film is all understatement. Note the scene where we learn of Mathan’s horrific past. A ton of potential drama is shoved aside for a quiet moment that involves red wine and Aparna’s girlfriend singing Bawara mann from Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi. The scene isn’t even about Mathan. It’s hard to say what the scene is about, exactly — just that it fits into the conceit of the title, life as a river where joys and sorrows are borne along. Best to bring along some red wine, some good music and sit out the ride.

Watch the trailer of Mayaanadhi here:

 

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