I had this preconceived notion of Ayisha before seeing it, and I’m sure many of us had our own after seeing the promos and songs. How wrong I was! I didn’t expect a period movie; a tale of woman-woman bonding; a medium to demonstrate the fleetingly comforting power of storytelling —even the ones we tell each other; a diverse cast speaking various languages, thereby making it ‘international’. Add a stirring portrayal from Manju Warrier as the central character, Ayisha, and an Arab actor (whose name I do not know) who plays the film’s second most significant character, Mama, and you have a fairly engaging experience.
Since Ayisha has Sudani from Nigeria helmer Zakkariya as the producer, one would initially expect it to have a mood along that lines or something similarly rooted. But debutant Aamir Pallikal, who directs from a script by Ashif Kakkodi, has other plans. An original work, Ayisha explores a few emotions that took me back to the days of the early Priyadarshan movies such as Chandralekha, Sibi Malayil’s His Highness Abdulla, or Fazil’s Nokkethadoorathu Kannum Nattu (the bonding between an aged woman and a younger one), for instance.
The only difference—aside from the gender reversal, of course—is that the main character ‘playing a part’ has no ulterior motive other than mere survival. If this were a film made in the 90s, it would’ve probably starred Mohanlal and Nedumudi Venu/Thilakan. When Ayisha finds a job as a housekeeper taking care of Mama, the matriarch of a palace based in Saudi, she has to overcome much hostility from the head staff and a few Malayali colleagues, interact with people of different nationalities and regions, all while keeping her past a secret.
Her past... it’s one filled with glory and much pain. At one point, Ayisha is revealed to be a grandmother (kudos to Manju Warrier for taking on such a role) who used to be a well-known movie and theatre actor. When the whole ‘all the world’s a stage’ aspect is introduced in the film, I remembered that it was only yesterday that I saw a movie with another superstar ‘playing a part’ in a place alien to him and embracing its culture. Ayisha explores this aspect differently in that her past becomes very useful at a crucial moment towards the end, one that strikes a strong emotional chord.
It’s admirable that the makers chose to have the non-Malayali actors speak in their native tongue. But there are also jarring instances where a Malayali actor speaks Malayalam to an Arab actor; it becomes distracting when you consider that it’s only been a year or two since Ayisha met these people. The other offputting aspect is the dubbing in some places, which sounds like the actors were reading from a page instead of having a conversation like real people. I was also not too fond of stretching some of the grim interactions, which naturally accompany when one of the main characters is unwell, more than necessary. It all depends on whether or not you are dealing with something similar in your life. If you are in a relatively much happier place, you might not find these scenes that bothersome.
That said, the film exhibits some neat flourishes, like having the past of Ayisha and Mama play out concurrently as they recall the memories of their happier times. Since these two actors dominate the screen for the majority of the film’s runtime, one becomes more forgiving of whatever little flaws one might encounter because, mind you, the filmmaking approach here has a strong 80s-90s flavour. Oh, and as for that ‘Kannilu Kannilu’ song, I wasn’t annoyed by its inclusion. There is a good reason for its existence, and its placement is apt considering the celebratory moment preceding it. And speaking of, Manju gets a fair share of ‘mass’ moments—the understated kind which arrives when the initially reluctant Mama eventually warms up to Ayisha or when some of the latter’s ‘comrades’ recognise the former revolutionary.
Ultimately, Ayisha is a tale of resilience, and Manju exudes all the necessary strength that a story and character of this nature demand, and for that, I’m thankful.
As you exit the cinema hall and are reminded again of the troubles you’re facing, you might want to remember the image of Ayisha, who, by the way, is based on a real, very familiar—to Malayalis—woman still living.
Director: Aamir Pallikal
Cast: Manju Warrier, Radhika, Krishna Sankar