Director: Shamzu Zayba
Cast: Anu Sithara, Jacob Gregory, Shine Tom Chacko
Shamzu Zayba’s Maniyarayile Ashokan is set in a village where the scent of love fills the air. The opening credits appear over an object of love (Unnimaya, played by Anu Sithara), who makes every single man pine for her with a lovelorn sigh as she walks past them in slow motion, to the strains of a song. There’s the sense of wanting someone who’s way out of your league, and appropriately, we segue right to our protagonist, Ashokan (the affable Jacob Gregory). It’s the day of his wedding, but at night, his bride — whose face we don’t see yet — asks him a strange question. Is it true that he was married earlier? Is it true that he has two children? Before we can learn the answer, we cut to the past, where another beautiful woman walks through another song. It’s another stretch in slow motion. Who is this, now? And the story begins.
Ashokan is a lowly clerk in a lowly government office. His “problem” is that — as a prospective bride who’s out of his league puts it — he’s not tall, not fair, not attractive. Aren’t there short, dark, perfectly ordinary looking women in this village, who’d have no qualms about marrying this very nice, very decent man? That’s something the film doesn’t bother itself with, otherwise there’d be no story. (I still wish they’d addressed this issue.) Every woman Ashokan considers (one of them even falls for him) is heroine-pretty; in other words, way way way out of his league. Somehow, nothing works out. Ashokan looks longingly at a newly married colleague, who gets on his bike and asks his wife to wrap her arms around his waist. He even envies his father’s knee aches, because the man has a loving wife to massage herbal oil into his joints.
Maniyarayile Ashokan is sweet-natured and hard to dislike, but the writing is flat and it’s hard to care about anyone’s plight. Shine Tom Chacko plays Ashokan’s friend Shaiju, who’s estranged from his wife and young son. The writer (Vineeth Krishnan, working from a story idea by Magesh Boji) doesn’t think it’s important to tell us why. The track is almost redundant, and the way it resolves itself is almost insulting. Another friend, Ratheesh (Krishna Sankar), comes with another half-baked relationship track. He’s almost redundant, too. Shaiju, in a couple of scenes, comes across as a chronic teller of tall tales. People laugh at his exaggerations, but this trait disappears almost as soon as it appears. Like most things in the movie it adds up to nothing. Nothing that happens with them, to them, around them impacts our understanding of Ashokan in any significant way.
If all you want is to spend two hours in a pleasant manner, with mild laughs, you could do worse. But with this premise, this film should have been much better. I thought about Amol Palekar‘s Thodasa Roomani Ho Jayen (1990), where Anita Kanwar played an ordinary-looking woman whose inability to find a man becomes everybody’s business. That film went into some very dark places. There was despair, depression. There was also a sense of self-discovery, emancipation. Maniyarayile Ashokan is content to be “cute”. Even at his lowest, Ashokan never comes across as anything more than damn I missed the bus and now I have to walk unhappy. In trying to make the proceedings “entertaining”, the film cheats its protagonist, who remains a flat line from start to finish. We get a person. We don’t get any personality.
There are too many songs (by Sreehari K Nair). There’s too much slow motion. There are needless star cameos — they’re certainly fun, but they yank the film out of its small, unassuming world. The one time I started to get into the film was when Ashokan does something the rest of us would consider “mad”. It’s a fascinating development. But this quirky detour needed a quirkier screenplay. Take Trance. The protagonist is off, and the writing is equally off. Some stories cannot be told straight, and they can’t be told “cute”. (Put differently, if you want to give the audience a good time, you shouldn’t go near this kind of story.) By not wading into darker waters, Maniyarayile Ashokan comes off as a disappointingly shallow experience.