Trembling, vulnerable, and oscillating between standing up for herself and giving the marriage another chance, Aishwaya carries the film on her shoulders.

Aishwarya Lekshmi as Ammu, in a still from the Telugu film Ammu
Flix Review Wednesday, October 19, 2022 - 12:57
Worth a watch

A hand lights candles slowly one by one, the flickering flame offering hope in the dark. At the end of it, we see Ammu’s glowing face. She’s the bride-to-be. Directed by Charukesh Sekar, Telugu film Ammu is a familiar story in society but not on screen. Aishwarya Lekshmi plays the titular character, a young woman caught in a violent marriage.

If Jasmeet K Reen’s Darlings took the route of satire to lay out the psyche of a woman who undergoes domestic violence, Ammu paints a realistic portrait of it. Circle Inspector Ravindranath (Naveen Chandra) is an upright officer who is capable of showing sensitivity to survivors of sexual violence. He’s a loving and romantic husband who takes his responsibility towards his wife seriously. We see the couple celebrating marital bliss over the course of a song – and you know that the tide will turn soon.

It happens suddenly when Ammu forgets to take Ravi’s lunch to his station. Until then, the only indication we get of his nature is his belief that his wife needn’t earn money. The shift is abrupt, and to be honest, a little unconvincing. The fault lies with the writing and the performance. The smallest of “mistakes” can set off violent men, but here, it almost looks like Ravi has been replaced by an evil twin. This Jekyll-and-Hyde characterisation would have perhaps worked better if the script had explored a gradual progression in Ravi’s controlling nature or if Naveen had played the role with some nuance (think Shammi of Kumbalangi Nights and how he exults in ‘scoring’ points over the smallest of instances).

Ammu, too, is an enigma to the viewer. Who is she? What did she study? What does she like? What are her dreams? Who are her friends? She seems to have a supportive family, so did she never think about finding a job? Did the couple never talk to each other before getting married, considering they’re neighbours? Did she never observe any red flags? She’s 25 when she gets married but we know nothing about her life before that. So, when Ammu says things like, “What right does he have over my body?” you’re not sure if this is Ammu speaking, as a character, or if it’s the film’s earnestness to say all the right things. Nimisha Sajayan in The Great Indian Kitchen plays a nameless woman, but we know from the opening scene that she loves to dance and is stopped from pursuing it after marriage. The shots of food being prepared for her ‘bride seeing’ ceremony are intercut with her dance class. We get a sense of who she is through such simple, deft strokes.

Still, Aishwaya Lekshmi’s terrific performance as Ammu anchors the film. It’s her expressive face that records the evidence of a toxic marriage. Trembling, vulnerable, and oscillating between standing up for herself and giving the marriage another chance, Aishwaya carries the film on her shoulders. The cinematography offers an intimate view of Ammu’s situation.

The scene when Ravi slaps Ammu for the first time is shot with a handheld camera, as if the viewer is witnessing it and moving towards the couple. There’s another arresting scene when Ammu looks directly at the camera and applies make-up slowly to cover her bruises – she’s meant to be looking at the mirror, but it’s also a mirror held up to who we are as a society.

More than arguing with Ravi, it is Ammu’s arguments with herself that form the crux of the film – like that long monologue that Ammu delivers about her marriage. She’s speaking to another person, but the camera is focused on her face all through. You know she’s speaking to another voice within her, justifying her reasons for staying on.

What works best about Ammu is the primacy it gives to women characters and the unsaid bonds they form. Like a woman cop lightly holding Ammu’s knee in consolation when her husband is saying a ‘wife joke’ or the conversation between Ammu and her mother (Mala Parvathy) when a revelation is made. The empathetic gynaecologist and Anjali Ameer as Ammu’s confidante Linny do well, too.

But, the plot thread with Bobby Simha as Prabhu, a murder convict, crash lands into this small world, diffusing the tension in the screenplay and altering its tone. There are a few scenes that work brilliantly – like when Prabhu figures out the equation between Ammu and Ravi. Aishwarya's terror feels real, and she switches emotions so fast that it looks completely spontaneous. Ammu is conscious about toxic masculinity, and yet ends up casting Prabhu as Ammu’s “saviour”. It also seems unnecessary and contrived when Ammu could have turned to sensible advice that DV survivors are often given (like documenting the abuse for evidence, for starters).

For a film that wants to take a strong stance on domestic violence, it’s puzzling why there’s so much emphasis on Prabhu’s sister’s wedding – this may seem like nitpicking, but unless we stop viewing marriage as the landmark event of a woman’s life, we will continue to see many more Ammus.

Music can really alter people’s perceptions of normalised situations like domestic violence, and the background score in Ammu underlines its protagonist’s plight without turning sentimental. We’re meant to understand the danger that Ammu lives with every day, and not look at it as a wife’s ‘sacrifice’. The film also takes a brave stance on reproductive rights (brave for cinema, that is), and the open ending is a nice touch too. Despite the flaws, one can tell that this is an honest effort. The fantastic Aishwarya Lekshmi makes us care even if it doesn’t all quite come together.

The film is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Sowmya Rajendran writes on gender, culture and cinema. She has written over 25 books, including a nonfiction book on gender for adolescents. She was awarded the Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Puraskar for her novel Mayil Will Not Be Quiet in 2015.

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film’s producers or any other members of its cast and crew.

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