Cast: Abi Nakshatra, Anumol, Madhan, Linga, Singampuli, TSR -Dharmaraj, Lovelyn
Set in the 90s, the fragments of the issue that Muthukumar’s Ayali (on Zee5) manages to address are still very much prevalent in several parts of India. When Mythili (a wonderful Lovelyn Chandrasekar), a ninth-grader, attains puberty, she is initially elated by the amount of care and gifts she receives. But little does the girl know the dangerous consequences of this bodily change in her society. Mythili is restricted from going to school and she is no longer allowed to play with her friends. Instead, she sweeps, mops, takes care of the cattle and goes to the fields.
Later, she finds solace in her friend Tamilselvi (Abi Natchatra), the protagonist of the series. In a moving scene, she gestures to the shoulder strap of her blouse and cries about the bra that she’s forced to wear all of a sudden. “See the marks and bruises? I don’t like wearing this,” Mythili laments. For a young girl who has just attained puberty, the sudden change in her body, attitude and the way the adults in the house treat her is overwhelming. And before she can even wrap her head around it, she is married off.
This is the everyday life of the female teenagers in the fictional village of Veerappannai, we are told. You see puberty and marriage events happening almost every week. And the number of these functions is inversely proportional to the number of girls who are able to pursue education past the eighth grade. But why such a practice? The village has a troubled tale: Several years ago, a girl from their village eloped with a boy from a neighbouring village. This incident infuriated Goddess Ayali, their guardian deity, and she chose to punish the entire village by burning farms and making their lands uninhabitable. This led to the entire village moving to a different land, where new ground rules were set— when a girl attains puberty, her education will be stopped and she will be married to someone within their village.
And bang in the middle of all this superstition, arises Tamil (aka) Tamilselvi, a young girl who aspires to be a doctor and an outlier. After listening to the problems of Mythili, Tamil prays to her goddess to keep puberty at bay. Nature, however, takes its own course and in a few months, she starts menstruating. At first, she is dejected, but after a turn of events, she realises that she is in control of the situation. What if she kept it all a secret? Eventually, her mother finds out, but decides to support her daughter in her venture. The series finds its funny bone in the scenes that detail the misadventures of the mother-daughter duo, who go to many lengths to hide this secret, month after month. Abi Natchatra and Anumol share a crackling chemistry and are a joy to watch on screen.
When Tamil gathers all the villagers and does the impossible, she is happy. But her friend Mythili reminds her that she is not aware of how the world functions. She warns her that this is not an actual victory. While both the girls are of the same age, their life experiences and world views are very different. For Tamil, who has been lucky enough to express herself, success seems to be right around the corner. But Mythili, the reality is different. This depiction of privilege within its world is where Ayali truly shines.
The series is also bold in the thoughts it wants to convey and doesn’t downplay its opinions to play it safe. The storytelling is enhanced by several powerful dialogues. For instance, at one point in the series, a few village women decide to help Tamil pursue her dreams. But Tamil retracts. She says that if she decides to do so, it will put the other girls in the village at an even bigger risk. And a woman says, “All of us have thought only about us until we gave birth to a kid. But this small child is thinking about everyone in this village. This is what education does to you.” Similarly, Tamil’s father says that he loves her more than his own life. In return, Tamil asks him, “You gave birth to me for your honour. You accumulated wealth for me and bragged about it to everyone for your honour…Where is your love amidst all this?” The clarity and calmness with which she handles such lines leaves both her father and us speechless.
The series also focuses on the lives of the various women that make up the village, telling us their story through moving interpersonal conversations. It portrays how the mothers of these kids are trapped in the village, struggling to find a way out. The male characters in the series, too, get nuanced lived-in roles, which are not reduced to mere stereotypes. What we do get are two excellent depictions of extremely different men in real life: the village head’s son Sakthivel (Linga) and Tamil’s father. While the former is the epitome of a privileged man in power, the latter is someone who is conditioned to imbibe such thoughts.
Although the series could have done away with a few scenes, it has finely used the long-form format to tell a powerful story. Is Ayali without flaws? Maybe not, but that doesn't really matter when you have a series that is well aware of its world, knows exactly what to say and executes it beautifully.