Inside Archana’s cramped room is a calendar that she opens every time a marriage proposal flops. There are thirty markings on it, reasons for every bombed proposal captioned with cricketing terms – run out, wide, match fixing, third umpire and so on. It’s almost a mechanical process, something she has to get finished before hurriedly wrapping a saree around her and running after a bus to go to work. Archana 31 Not Out begins by setting the scene of this very ordinary life of a woman in her late 20s, getting prepared for an arranged marriage, working at a school and making ends meet. The smooth beginning, however, goes down a slippery slope, as the movie, in its rush to pass on a delectable message, forgets the path it set.
Aishwarya Lekshmi is almost unrecognisable in this role. Curly haired and sari-wearing, pulling herself away from the earlier modern young woman characters, and fitting herself comfortably into this role of a village teacher, leading an all too practical life. For the first several minutes she does not even smile but passes through the daily motions like a robot, a frown forming on her face every morning. It is only when a folksy song opens on the screen that there is some joy, some exchanges between her and the students, some camaraderie between teachers.
The songs are mostly calming that way (music by Maathan and Rajat Prakash). The title song cleverly tells the story of Archana growing up, loving cricket. It explains her calendar markings but you don’t really get how cricket comes into her adult life, except as nostalgic recollections and a frequently falling old trophy. It is to be understood that she left behind the game when the responsibility of running the house fell on her shoulders. The father is aged and unwell, the mother apparently little concerned about what’s going on, except to gossip with neighbours.
Watch: Trailer of the film
Archana seems detached from them all, though she has a soft spot for the nice and affectionate father. In her role as the breadwinner of the family, she has also taken the matter of her marriage into her hands, dealing directly with a broker (Rajesh Madhavan), arranging visits of prospective grooms, like a parent would. Even when she agrees to a marriage proposal it doesn’t seem to come out of love, but convenience.
All through the first half of the film, you get reruns of Archana’s days handling proposals and schoolwork and the many kinds of neighbours around her. It is enjoyable to watch different village lives, two sparring women and half a dozen old drunkards among them. They are all wonderful actors, who unfortunately seem like props arranged on a big stage, playing their part on cue, rather than fitting into the natural setting of the film.
The movie does manage to build suspense, introducing the character of Indrans as a strange old man loitering around Archana’s house; and planting midway a phone call that disrupts everything. But in the second half, it suddenly appears like the script has changed hands, that someone thought there was not enough fun or action or fantasy in it and set out to change that.
The way Archana deals with a disaster that falls into her lap makes the rest of the film. While the message it tries to give in the end is commendable, the script weakens in its attempt to reach there. The simple straightforwardness of the earlier scenes disappears. You are suddenly lost in the mayhem – Ramesh Pisharody dropping in with a song and dance, stretched sequences on saree colours (violet or blue, nobody cares), a fantasy popping into Archana’s head and trying to be funny. Akhil Anilkumar, the director, has a wonderful vision, but somewhere, his film loses ground.
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