Major spoilers ahead
Neena is beautiful, we're told multiple times. She's single and has the habit of falling in love frequently. When a new neighbour moves in, Neena is attracted to him and thus begins a romance. You can't be blamed if you were imagining a 20-something woman actor in the role, given how our cinema has consistently made romance the right of the young. However, in Varane Avashyamund, Anoop Sathyan's debut film, the heroine is a middle-aged single mom who has an adult daughter. And what's more, Neena doesn't think there's anything wrong with her pursuing the romance despite the daughter's disapproval.
Neena (Shobhana) and Nikki (Kalyani Priyadarshan) rather remind one of Vanaja (Urvashi) and Achu (Meera Jasmine) from Achuvinte Amma, Sathyan Anthikkad's (Anoop's father) 2005 film. Both are about single employed mothers and their changing relationship with their adult daughters. Neena is learning French; Vanaja is learning English. But unlike Vanaja of Achuvinte who struggles with the language, Neena's French rolls off her tongue smoothly. While Vanaja was easy to love as the middle class mother with a comic, sharp tongue who gets emotional about her daughter, Neena is a whole other package.
To begin with, it's only middle-aged male superstars who're usually flattered on screen about their looks. This customary ego massage happens well before he develops a romance with the heroine who's half his age in real life. The opposite never happens. But in Varane, even men who are much younger than Neena hit on her and not in a sleazy "aunty" fetish way. Neena, played by a stunning Shobhana, enjoys the attention though she doesn't exactly flirt back. When a retired army officer, Major Unnikrishnan (Suresh Gopi), moves into their building, the two of them develop an attraction towards each other.
The 2017 Tamil film Pa Paandi, directed by Dhanush, also had two middle-aged people falling in love. There, however, the two already have a history together and it's the man who leaves his family behind in his new journey. The woman, played by Revathi, has a daughter too. The daughter is however supportive of her mother's chance to renew an old romance. What's interesting about Varane is that Neena persists in her romance with Major even when her daughter tries to slut shame and guilt trip her about it.
In fact, Nikki's boyfriend Aby (whom she meets through a matrimonial site because she believes only in arranged marriage) breaks up with her when she tells him that her mother is interested in a man. Even when Nikki throws this at Neena, the latter is dismissive about Aby's tantrum, telling her daughter that he wasn't worth it in the first place if this is his attitude.
Single parents on screen are usually portrayed as extremely attached to their children and never putting their own needs above that of their offspring (Uyare, Helen, Finals...to name a few recent Malayalam films). In the Telugu film Oh! Baby, Samantha plays an elderly woman (Lakshmi) who finds herself in the body of her 24-year-old. There is a possibility for her to find the romance she missed out in her youth in her new avatar, but she sacrifices it for the sake of her son due to circumstances. The film ends on a note that suggests the elderly woman is embarking on a romance with a friend but like Pa Paandi, there's no disapproval from the family.
We've also had Indian films where young people try to fix their single parent up with someone (the most recent example being Darbar), but it's quite unusual to have a single parent, especially a mother, override her offspring's views and look for a partner for herself - and to have this portrayed positively.
Achuvinte Amma, which is a more hard-hitting film than the 'feel good' Varane, is about a woman's sacrifice when she takes on the mantle of motherhood. Vanaja adopts Achu and decides to stay single forever because she doesn't want to risk a man coming into their relationship. The title itself defines Vanaja's primary identity - Achu's mom. In Varane, however, Neena is unapologetic about the number of times she's fallen in love in her past. She walks out of an abusive marriage but she doesn't use this to emotionally blackmail Nikki when the latter fights with her over the romance with Major.
Neena does not see the need to justify her decisions; she doesn't fall in line with Nikki's plans, ashamed to confess her desires. She knows people gossip about her but she doesn't let that stop her from doing what she wants. That explains the title too - 'Groom wanted'. The want is for Neena, and it is her thirst for life that is her identity. Such a character arc for an older mother is rare to come by.
In Bangalore Days, Anjali Menon gave us Kuttan's mother, played by the delightful Kalpana, who is unapologetic like Neena and is actually happy that her husband has left her. She uses the opportunity to move from a small town to Bangalore and enjoys her second innings. However, Kuttan's mother was meant to be comic and she also does not get involved in any romance. In How Old Are You? Manju's Nirupama goes against the wishes of her husband and daughter to follow her dreams, but it was about her career and not romance. In Varane, we're meant to empathise with the romantic that Neena is - a woman who loves to dress well, sing, dance and find new things to appreciate in life despite being single.
Varane also gives us another interesting older mother - Dr Sherly (it's lovely, how all the women in the film have jobs, including the elderly Akashavani, played by KPAC Lalitha). She's Aby's dentist mother who loves Nikki and is heartbroken when her son decides to call off their relationship. Sherly meets with Nikki and tells her that her son is unfortunately like his father, and that she can do better than marry into a family like this. Neena, Nikki and Sherly continue their friendship despite Aby breaking up with Nikki. In the average film, Sherly would have been the villain, castigating Neena for her "immorality" and declaring that her son was "too good" for the likes of Nikki.
Sreeja Ravi plays Cooker Amma, the domestic help who rushes from one home to another in the building, and here too, Anoop gives an unusual touch to the character. Early on, we see her placing a bindhi on her forehead and checking herself out in the mirror in the elevator. It's a scene that needn't be there at all - but it holds up with the rest of the film. The women here are not afraid of taking care of themselves, including their appearance, in the absence of a protective husband figure in their lives. Even Neena's overweight student signs up to lose weight not to please her boyfriend but because she wants to fit into a dress.
It's not that Varane is an especially brilliant film. It's determined to be genial and sometimes you wish Anoop had fleshed out some conflicts more. The resolutions come a little too easily; some of the minor characters, particularly those belonging to the lower classes, come off looking simplistic. The scenes that are meant to evoke laughter because of someone's appearance could have also been avoided. But it's still a film worth applauding precisely because it manages to sneak in...no, proudly showcase...a woman like Neena in this genre, meant for family audiences to lap up.