Cast: Aishwarya Lekshmi, Indrans, Ramesh Pisharody
Director: Akhil Anilkumar
Something tells me that Akhil Anilkumar is a director we should all watch out for, especially when we're witnessing a shift of a particular kind of content onto OTT. His short in Jeo Baby's anthology Freedom Fight has already built its own fanbase and it showed signs of great promise in the way he merged a feminist subject with the delicate quirkiness of a lighthearted comedy. You see a lot of that tone repeating through Archana 31 Not Out, another feminist take that repurposes the idea that marriage is hardly a metaphorical finishing line for a woman. Although marriage itself is its central conflict (the 31 Not Out represents 31 failed marriage proposals) and the most discussed topic, it treats the subject like how anti-war films have to first discuss war. Which means that we see hoards of characters who live in and around Archana (another lovely performance by Aishwarya) who are more concerned about her marriage than she herself is.
In a nicely cut, well-thought-out montage, we get glimpses of all the men Archana has had to meet before arriving at a reasonable suitor. This montage comes in a little later into the film and its placement is interesting because it is here that an earlier scene gets its completion. It is the scene where we find a 'pennu kaanal' taking the form of a daily routine like it's a visit to the bank or a discussion with a plumber. A probable suitor cancels his visit to Archana's house at the last minute, but there's no closeup showing a heartbroken girl, damning her fate for making her the cursed one. She hasn't even dressed up all that much to impress, nor is there a feast being prepared for them. When we listen to Archana speaking to the broker, it's just her inconvenience that's being conveyed and her annoyance at not being told earlier. No heartbreak, no complaining.
And this scene too gets its true payoff later on when Archana talks on the phone to Prasad (Lukman), the only guy that comes really close to marriage. The same cold distance is evident in the way Archana speaks to him over the phone and it's a nice bit of writing that has gone on to this dialogue too. Not only do we learn about Prasad's positive attitude towards Archana finding a new job (she has just lost her temporary one), we also gather that he's the one cooking for himself, hinting at the dream of equality in the future. But even here, though we feel Archana falling for him, we also get a sense of the years of disappointment and rejection that has conditioned her to hold back and expect little.
All these are great scenes that make us empathise with a woman who has trained so hard to live for others that she has forgotten to live a little. This is why we also commit so strongly to her idea of not telling anyone when she learns that her fiancé has eloped with his lover, on the night before their wedding. Even here, it's to the writer's credit that Archana's focus is neither on her own heartbreak nor on the idea of exacting revenge; it's the logistics of the wedding that's consuming her energy and the responsibility of taking care of her father. And even this stretch is justified to us because we know Archana as the girl who needs to lock herself up in her bedroom for just a minute to dance like crazy because she deserves to feel a little happy before her big day.
Yet the film's rhythm is so off that we feel lost in a sea of hollowness that drowns the merit of the scenes described above. Take the way the sequence is built-up to the big interval twist—the news of Prasad eloping. What was until then a pacy comedy, is slowed down to the point where nothing's happening with a set of nobody characters that have no bearing on the screenplay. Even after the mood has been set, we find the film struggling to give every character their due importance although what we need is just the illusion of that. So we get random subplots involving a man insisting on a piece of chicken in his curry, a random Ramesh Pisharody cameo, an indecisive couple that's always choosing, a love story between people we hardly know and many others that add nothing more than atmosphere to Archana's plight. Yet the time spent on each of these strands adds up, taking us away from the only character that really matters to us.
And this is strange because the film is only 100 minutes long. What could essentially have been an even shorter film, feels outstretched with an inefficient supply chain of characters and songs that could have easily been exchanged with one or two more scenes taking us even deeper into Archana's state of mind. But with its devotion for all things quirky which borders on obsession, we're missing out on a lovely lead character and her motivation to stand up for the hundreds of women who want to say just one thing to the world—'back off!'