Director: Aamir Pallikkal
Writer: Ashif Kakkodi
Cast: Manju Warrier, SV Krishna Shankar, Radhika
If you're not clued in about Ayisha’s promotions, including its trailer or the team’s interviews, you might enter the theatre unaware that you’re going to be watching a biopic. The makers of the film seem to want you to go in without this information because the film’s big interval block is structured around a big reveal, one that’s about the protagonist’s real identity. In mass cinema lexicon, this is the ‘enakku innoru per irukku’ scene, derived from the formula of Rajinikanth’s Baashha (1995). But in the all-female context of Ayisha, this scene is hardly the chest-thumping macho move to elevate the (Lady) Superstar playing the lead. It is in fact the opposite, meant to show the fall from grace of a beloved stage performer who had to trade in her ideology and individualism to fit in and remain faceless. It is also the validation that her art wasn’t meaningless after all, despite having to abandon it.
This is among the few interesting ideas that Ayisha explores when it remains, otherwise, a flat biopic that follows the usual patterns. It is based loosely on the life of actor Nilambur Ayisha, a theater firebrand regarded as among the first from her community to rule the stage. The contradictions that her life presents are ripe with cinematic drama yet it never really translates to the screen. This includes the conflict of a Communist woman having to shift to an absolute monarchy where there’s no space for her opinions or an identity. Ayisha (Manju Warrier), upon arriving at a Saudi palace where she has to work, is immediately stripped of individuality, forced to look and behave like the many servants there. The other contradiction comes in the form of how her workplace remains a matriarchy, unlike the stereotypical notions you might enter the country with.
This keeps the basic arc of Ayisha different from a film like Khaddama (2012), which felt like a series of terrible events that simply get progressively worse for its lead. Over here, there’s room for lighter moments, a sisterhood that develops between the women working in the house and a genuinely moving relationship that blossoms between the matriarch Mama (Mona Essay) and Ayisha. The parallels that run between these two women, who are not very different from each other, gets us to think about their respective pasts, even if the film doesn’t spell it out for us.
Yet these are all elements that only come together in the head as we’re looking back at the film later, helped largely by significance of the progressive points it’s trying to make. Even the tribulations of the Malayali NRI experience has almost always been told from the perspective of the men who have had to move there. But it’s the treatment of Ayisha that lets it down. There’s an overall flatness that’s made worse by the two-dimensionality of its supporting characters. Apart from Mama and Ayisha, no one really sticks out as real people. So if we get a Tamil comrade that introduces Ayisha to her new world, she gets almost no relevance once we cross the exposition stage.
Another flaw that constantly reminds you of the staginess is the mix of languages and accents. There’s probably no smooth way to set up a scene that involves conversations between women from around the world living in one house, but over here there’s a lot that gets lost in translation even if the aspiration was to create authenticity. It makes even well written conversations between women stuck in the same predicament feel awkward and artificial. There’s also a constant need to keep referring to the subtitles no matter what language you speak.
This wouldn’t have been such as issue if the film itself wasn’t so talkative. It remains rudimentary when it comes to the visual aspect of storytelling and some of the attempts, including the use of a running train to convey a person’s beating heart, feel stilted, robbing the moment of its emotion. These are odd choices, adding to the film’s melodramatic tone. But when the film takes a leap in its climax, where the visuals really need to start talking, it doesn’t feel like it’s from the same film. It’s this disjointed result that robs of us of the fertile emotions that come so naturally with Nilambur Ayisha’s life. It’s the kind of biopic that forces us to learn more about the inspirational personality it is based on, not because it evokes curiosity. Instead, you simply want to create your own imagery for a person who deserved a better film.