*Some spoilers ahead
As a woman viewer, watching a romance on screen usually involves looking at love from the shoes of a man. The way his heart trembles when her hair blows in the wind, how her earrings shake as she nods her head, how her eyes widen in surprise when he gives her a gift.
You buy the fantasy even if it feels strangely alienating.
You can never imagine being that woman because you know so little about her other than her smiles and gestures. Also, you know you can never look so pleasant all the time. You are not that guileless and pristine, the child-like innocence that the heroine wears is something you abandoned at 12.
You are rooting for the hero to conquer her heart, triumph in his pursuit. Because that is what popular culture tells us about love – it is about the hero winning her heart, it is about her losing her heart to him. Team A vs Team B, a game that must come to an end.
But in real life, you know love isn't about winning; it is about enduring. Minus the background score, the beautiful clothes and the stunning locales, love is mundane. It is comfort, familiarity. The lack of surprise. But you need it like the air you breathe. It's only when it's gone that you are left gasping, bereaved.
Mayaanadhi (written by Syam Pushkaran and Dileesh Nair) is the closest I have come to experiencing this ordinariness on screen. Appu and Maathen, played by Aishwarya Lekshmi and Tovino Thomas respectively, are that imperfect urban couple in your social circle. Or they could be you and your ... ? Your what, precisely? Is there a label for that person you keep returning to, like a habit? You are on and off with them, they get on your nerves, they say the wrong things, they make the same mistakes, they never change. And yet, you return because it seems like a law of nature. A river must flow.
Aashiq Abu's triumph lies in gifting his audience with an intimate knowledge of both the characters we watch on screen. If the average romcom gives us the man's perspective, films like Ohm Shanti Oshana have subverted the genre to give us the woman's take on relationships. But Mayaanadhi does not make us choose – we are bystanders, witnesses to a slow unravelling of the story of this man and woman who met, loved, lost, and need to find each other again. We are watching but without that ugly feeling that we're intruding, turning into voyeurs.
Maathen is crazy about Aparna, aka Appu. But never for a moment does the film make us believe that Appu is anything but a person, a human being, before being a woman. This, despite the film having one of the best choreographed love-making scenes in Indian cinema in recent times.
When Maathen takes a luxurious bubble bath in a hotel tub, his associate calls and tells him he knows what Maathen is doing – probably masturbating. Maathen, at the moment, is looking at Appu's pictures on the phone, but he's smiling, a besotted look in his eyes. He is indeed thinking of Appu but it isn't necessarily because he's horny. He's looking at her because she's comforting – like that glass of Boost he always turns to.
Appu – fragile, vulnerable, insecure and ambitious – is so genuine that the actor makes you believe Aashiq Abu just followed a real woman around with a camera.
Her mother curses and abuses her; Appu still ranks her as one of the two people in the world she really loves. Her housemate wants her to listen to her sob story; Appu asks her if it can wait till she eats her kuboos. Her ex-housemate Sameera becomes a star while Appu is still struggling to find work as an actor; Appu resents her success but is still supportive when Sameera's world comes crumbling around her. She is assertive when you don't expect her to be, hesitant when you think she will break out.
Mayaanadhi has a plot beyond the love. It keeps invading the story, reminding us that Appu and Maathen, Maathen and Appu, are not the only people in the world, though we want them to be. The characters who wait in the margins are also sketched with heart. The cop who doesn't mind kissing his newly-wed wife on the top of her head though he knows his seniors are watching, another cop who is embittered by a woman's betrayal, Sameera's fear of her conservative ikka – these are moments, lines and expressions that connect with the story of Appu and Maathen in a butterfly effect kind of way.
The ending leaves a lump in your throat though you knew all along that this is where it was headed.
Maathen has his pot of gold but he can never catch the rainbow.
Despite knowing what will happen, the final sequence takes you by surprise. Lines from Invictus came into my head, unbidden: "Out of the night that covers me, black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be, for my unconquerable soul."
Once in a while, I resent the fact that I live in the 21st century, where the idea of people crossing deserts and mountains for love sounds cheesy and foolish. Move on, the world tells us. Don't waste your time. There is no heroism in waiting and pining.
For the most part, I agree.
But just sometimes, once in a while, I want to hold dear to my heart a story like Mayaanadhi. Not because it has the grandeur of the epics, but because of another less-celebrated quality it shares with them – that of endurance against the tyranny of time and distance.
Thank you, Aashiq Abu, for sharing Appu and Maathen with us.