What a wonderful movie! I was sold this as a Tovino Thomas romance, and it is that, sort of, but it’s really more than that, a full character study of a woman and her life, and the way men treat her and the man she loves is part of that. But not all of it.
Here is the one thing I would change about this film: the lead actress. She was fine, she didn’t do a bad job, she did a good job even I would say. But there were a couple of moments that felt off to me, and several moments that I thought “I bet someone else could sell this slightly better”. It’s interesting, Tovino had a career where he started out in supporting roles ten years ago and slowly slowly slowly worked his way up to leads, meaning now he is still young and handsome and has decades of his career ahead of him, but he also is very very good at the little things, the surprising touches, knowing the very best way to sell every single line. Meanwhile, our heroine Aishwarya Lakshmi is a med student in her second movie. The one thing that might have made this film even better, is if her role was played by someone like Parvathy or Sai Pallavi or even Leona Lishoy who plays the friend role in this. I can understand why the director wanted an unknown actress to play an unknown actress, but I don’t know if it was worth sacrificing having a slightly better actress in the part.
It’s an Aashiq Abu movie which, looking back on it, is more significant a descriptor than “Tovino Thomas romance”. It’s my third Abu movie, would be my fourth if Rani Padmini HAD SUBTITLES!!!!! (I am mad at you, Hotstar) But I have seen Salt ‘n Pepper and 22 Female Kottayam. And all three films I have seen had really remarkable female characters. Strong, unapologetic, making their way in the world, and with a film around them that understands that challenge. Salt ‘n Pepper was a bit comic about it, but it still showed in Shweta Menon’s character the challenges of being an older working woman. 22 Female Kottayam was different, showed a working woman living alone, the dangers and strengths of that.
I was reminded of 22 Female Kottayam not just because of the sensitivity with which this film handled a working woman with a complicated romantic past, but because of the quality of filming. the city at night looks lovely in both films. It’s not a place of danger, but a place of magic, where anything is possible. The work day is over and the responsibilities and day to day life of the home haven’t happened yet, that walk from work to home is full of possibilities. We are used to seeing night time for our male characters, the bars and the drinking with friends, but night time is different for women, the twilight space between work and home is the one place you can really be yourself.
That’s what Tovino’s character is for Aishwarya, the one place she can really be herself. She has friends she loves, she has a mother she loves, she has jobs that she is good at, but Tovino is something special. He will accept her even when she is bitter and angry, when she doubts herself, when she gives in to desires, all the time.
The title is “Mayaa”, illusions of this world, illusions of desire, the things that trap us and keep us from achieving reality. There isn’t a good English translation really, I have to go all the way back to the idea of the beautiful deer that Raavan sent to tempt Sita into sending Ram away. That’s what “maya” is, the thing that doesn’t exist in reality but which we are fooled by. Commercials for new products that will make you more productive, more beautiful, more intelligent, that is “maya”. An actress looking perfect after a team of stylists has worked on her, that is “maya”. Films themselves, creating a perfect world which convinces us that it is real, that is “maya” too. Social structures, assumptions, that teach us to see the world in a certain way and believe that it is true, that is “maya”.
This film tries hard to lift the veil on that “maya”. For instance, our heroine can’t afford a nice dress, we see her friend give her one she no longer wears, and then we see our heroine wear the same dress, which doesn’t quite fit her right because it is a hand me down, over and over again. It’s reality, not that a woman in this position would look effortlessly perfectly beautiful in fabulous outfits all the time, but that she would have one nice dress that doesn’t quite fit right.
And because the film is as “real” as possible, we are able to see the illusions that the characters cling to. Belief in an audition that went well and you will definitely get the job. Belief in an old girlfriend who will definitely come back to you. Belief that an angry brother can be talked around into not being angry any more. This are the illusions that rule event he “realist” lives. And it ends with another illusion, a false belief that our heroine is clinging too because that is what she needs to get through her day. Because ultimately it is her story, the romance only matters for how it can serve her life.
Oh, one final thing, similar to Arjun Reddy, I know this film had some hiccups on the way to release. And I know some people are very excited by how “different” it is. And like with Arjun Reddy, I am ever so slightly offended by all of this. The protests, obviously, but also the people getting excited and happy. Both of them are playing into the same fallacy, that something different is happening, that this film is breaking ground. And, NO. The Malayalam industry, in just the small time I have spent in it, has shown me that this kind of film is not, in fact, unusual. City of God, 22 Female Kottayam, even the classic Namukku Parkkan Munthiri Thoppukal all dealt with sex like this, dealt with female characters like this, this is NOT groundbreaking. And to say that it is, is an insult to the history of Malayalam cinema and, more dangerously, is creating a “maya” of its own, that the “normal” procedure of society is for woman to be trapped, for sex to be forbidden, for all of the regressive “traditional” standards that have just been invented in the past few years to be upheld.
It is a good movie, it is a progressive movie, but it moves the dial forward only slightly and only in a couple of specific ways. Don’t try to make it more than that, because you would be believing a lie and promoting a lie.