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A major portion of romantic films releasing in India consists of a first half in which the hero is wooing the heroine against all her attempts to get rid of him until he succeeds, and a second half in which the two lovers have to face the odds created by the family and society till they are happily married. Similarly, there are a few more situations that recurrently appear in such films, for example, a hero or heroine diagnosed with a life-threatening disease. But once a while, there will be a few films which take a different path and stay memorable. But even these films mostly cater to the popular conservative and misplaced moral mindsets, especially in Malayalam cinema. Classic films like Padmarajan’s “Thoovanathumbikal” (“Dragonflies in the Spraying Rain”) took some very forward approach to romantic films in Malayalam film industry, yet on further scrutiny, we can see that there are still traces of the patriarchy of the society that make it easier to accept these signs of progress. So with each film exploring such subjects, the society is being shaped to take a further step in progress or it is hoped to be.

After a botched money laundering deal, Mathan (Tovino Thomas) narrowly escapes from Tamil Nadu Police to Kochi, Kerala where he hopes to exchange the foreign currency and flee to Dubai after reconciling with his college sweetheart Appu/Aparna (Aishwarya Lekshmi). Meanwhile, Appu, an aspiring actress who works in a BPO company and also works as MC for weddings to make ends meet in her home is unsure about Mathan’s reentry into her life. Although at first she keeps her distance from Mathan, eventually they come close again. At the same time, Tamil Nadu police are secretly investigating and closing in on Mathan, for in his escape a Police Officer is dead. Mathan, who suspects the same, tries to convince Appu to come along with him to Dubai.

Aashiq Abu is known for including strong female characters in his films like “22 Female Kottayam”, “Rani Padmini” etc. Similarly, Appu is a fleshed out character who is not a one-dimensional heroine that can be found in most Indian films. Appu’s decisions at each point of the film are uncommon for such a character to make in Malayalam films. Though she is aware of the trappings of the society, she is a fighter who is not ready to succumb to the patriarchal societies’ biddings at every turn. At the same time, Mathan who have been living on his own from a young age, is a man-child who dreams of a luxury life. The characteristics of the lead pair are a reversal of the gender-stereotyping usually followed in the industry.

Several dialogues in the film that would feel to be a natural part of the story to someone outside this society are some stern political statements against the regressive patriarchal society. When subjects like sex are explored, the industry has a history of male superiority and misogyny. Women always fail if they are involved in sexual activities in Malayalam films. They are either indecent or no more able to be independent. This was the exact subject in Aashiq Abu’s “22 Female Kottayam”. Here, the same has been explored a little without deviating from the core of the film yet proving to be powerful nonetheless.

Even the subplot in which the Tamil Nadu police investigates Mathan, the gender dynamics and romance plays an important part in the three Police officers characters and their decisions. Even though those characters aren’t completely explored, each step they take gives an impression on how well written they are. The character of Sameera (Leona Lishoy), the actress friend of Appu is supposed to be an eye opener in various forms of social problems, yet by casting Soubin Shahir, who have predominantly done comedic roles as her brother, results in the impact of certain scenes were quite the opposite than intended.

The way the relationship between Mathan and Appu unfolds is not something that is seen a lot in Malayalam cinema, although similar real-life stories can be seen all around society. For a film that focuses on such intense romance and a crime subplot, there are a lot of moments that are outright hilarious in a very realistic way. The writer duo Syam Pushkaran (who was also involved in “Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum”) and Dileesh Nayar have done a fantastic job in creating some of the most relatable romantic sequences for the youngsters rather than the usual fantasies of the teenagers shown in such films. The story is based on a real-life incident, they read in a newspaper and also influenced by Jean-Luc Godard’s French classic “Breathless”.

After her recent debut in a minor role in “Njandukalude Naattil Oridavela” Aishwarya Lekshmi shines as Appu. Aishwarya has captured the essence of the character through the moments of romance, the indifference and hiding the emotions in a natural way. Tovino Thomas had a phenomenal year with a number of commercially successful films turning him into a commercially viable star. He gave a convincing performance as a man-child who is head over heels about Appu.

The nights of Kochi have never been so beautiful in any other films before. Jayesh Mohan’s cinematography captures the beauty and pathos of the lives of the protagonists juxtaposed through the backgrounds. The walks along the roads under the Kochi metro are hypnotically romantic. Editing by Saiju Sreedharan is also commendable. The transition between the romantic portions and the Police investigation never feels out of place. The flow of the narrative is never lost in the tonal shift. Music by Rex Vijayan is another highlight of the film, which is perfectly synchronized with the overall mood that also haunts the viewers after the ending. Especially the song “Mizhiyil Ninnum” sung by Shahabaz Aman will conquer those who have a romantic heart.

“Mayaanadhi” (“Mystic River”) is a multifaceted romantic thriller that paints a realistic and poetic tale of love among urban Malayalee youth. Even when the survivor in Mathan fades, the fighter in Appu remains fighting and hoping. The viewers are left with melancholy, ever haunted by the fates of characters from this world which is surreal and hyper-real at the same time.

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