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Aden - Yasmine El Tohamy - He's short, of average appearance, with a middling complexion. So it's no surprise that the village belles don't exactly fall all over themselves to tie the knot with the earnest bachelor Ashokan whose nondescript job as a government clerk matches his unremarkable demeanor in romantic drama Maniyarayile Ashokan.
Despite all the well intentions of his loving family and friends, Ashokan (Jacob Gregory, a staple in many DQ movies including ABCB) is hard pressed to find a bride to take over the leading lady role in his regular day/night-dreams. Enter a besotted Shyama (a fresh-faced Anupama Parameswaran on whose visage and gait the camera lovingly lingers) and matters seem to be headed towards the maniyara (bridal chamber); but the horoscope throws up a spanner in the works and Ashokan is forced to romance a lissome plantain tree in his front yard instead.
It's a delightful premise - an eligible man in search of a bride in a picturesque Kerala village that is as lush and verdant as they come. Cinematographer Sayad Kakku goes over the top to diligently paint a village where the banana leaves are an eye-popping shade of green and the local pond overflowing with delicate pink water lilies, even more alluring, if possible than a Monet painting. Everything in this village, including the winding pathways and the rustic houses are quaint and bewitching. And you feast your eyes on it all until you become aware that the script seems a bit disjointed. Each scene plays out like a perfect shot but they seem to lack a certain cohesion. Perhaps it the quirky narrative technique used by first time director Shamzu Saiba, due to which Maniyarayile Ashokan comes through as a movie that can be enjoyed in short spurts, but never as a whole story of a wannabe groom in search of the bride of his dreams.
One plot point that sticks out is the manner in which the subject of mental health is glossed over as something easily treated by the obligatory stay in a mental health care facility up in a hill station away from the prying eyes of the villagers. Mental health is also a threat troublingly held out by a close friend who warns of going public with Ashokan's state of mind following a fight, laying bare our own culpability in wanting to hide away this pressing medical issue in today's times. Also the scene where a female character asserts that she'd rather bow down her head in front of her chosen 'short' husband than raise it for a taller man is problematic on many counts.
Jacob Gregory, though, is perfectly cast as the average-looking, perpetually daydreaming, simpleton with his eyes set on the bridal catch.
It's hard not to sympathise with this simpleton - but his best scenes are undoubtedly the ones where he is seen flirting with a plantain tree and rushing to protect his 'twins' from the monsoon showers. Krishna Shankar and Shine Tom Chacko as his well-meaning friends and Vijayaraghavan as his sympathetic dad all meld into their respective characters with absolute ease.
Helmed by Dulquer Salmaan's production house, Wayfarer Films, and produced by the young star along with the leading actor of the movie, Maniyarayile Ashokan is a quirky tale with excellent casting and extremely relatable incidents with some highly entertaining and thought-provoking material. That's a heady combination that should have ideally resulted in a more solid cinematic experience even on the small screen. Watch out for the scenes where Dulquer (catch his vocals in Unnimaya) and Nazriya Nazim briefly make their appearances - it's not hard to see why this talented duo enjoy such a fan following among Malayalis world over. Maniyarayile Ashokan is good for a one-time watch and the sights and sounds of a verdant Kerala village with characters traipsing around in abandon could well make you nostalgic during this pandemic when travel-restrictions mean many of us can only feast our eyes on our home towns through the medium of cinema.
Cast: Jacob Gregory, Anupama Parameswaran, S V Krishna Shankar, Sunny Wayne and Nazriya Nazim
Director: Shamzu Zayba
Rating: 3 out of 5
Maniyarayile Ashokan is currently streaming on Netflix
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