While Manju’s recent pattern of playing defiant, strong willed women continues with Ayisha, it is in the moments of the character’s vulnerability where the actress really shines.
Last Updated: 11.08 AM, Jan 20, 2023
Single mother Ayisha faces a number of challenges in her journey to go to Riyadh to find work as a domestic worker, so that she can provide for her family. Her efforts bear fruit, and she finds herself employed as a gaddama in the royal palace, in 1988’s Riyadh. But there is more to Ayisha than meets the eye, as her employers soon find out.
After her action packed performance in Thunivu, Manju Warrier returns to the silver screen with a leading role in Ayisha, a Malayalam-Arabic bilingual directed by debutant Aamir Pallikkal. Manju continues her recent pattern of playing defiant, strong willed women with her latest release, playing the titular protagonist. Although Aamir had earlier spoken of how the film was inspired by true events, the director masterfully weaves the tale in a way that unravels the story of the protagonist steadily, which keeps viewers intrigued as to what makes Ayisha so special.
The film’s first act takes viewers through the grueling challenges Ayisha has to face to get to Riyadh to work as a domestic worker, and how an unexpected change in her luck leads her to the royal palace to work as a gaddama. The first act is where viewers get to see Ayisha in her rawest and most vulnerable state ever, away from everything she’s ever known and facing uncertainty about her future. These moments are where Manju really shines. As Ayisha tries to navigate her new life, she is met with several roadblocks, from a domineering supervisor to a short tempered employer. Manju beautifully captures Ayisha’s moments of vulnerability convincingly indeed, letting her eyes and expressions genuinely convey every ounce of emotion Ayisha feels.
As the story progresses, the film soon becomes Manju’s vehicle, losing a lot of the realism in the writing that the first act could boast of. Ayisha’s growth arc seems to be hastily written, and ends up as predictable as ever. Her rise to power in the house and the way she manages to become loved almost instantly, is more theatrical than believable. But as the film starts to seem like yet another display of Manju’s star power, the writing manages to take fuel yet again, by introducing a few elements that give Ayisha a curious and enigmatic past.
From that point on, it is as though a curtain is lifted, and viewers are able to get a better sense of the story Aamir is trying to tell. The rest of the film becomes a balancing act between shifting the focus between Ayisha’s past and her present, when it comes to her purpose in life.
Although Ayisha does tend to become quite one dimensional a character at several points in the film, the writing does manage to give her a certain degree of nuance and authenticity, especially in the instances in the story where her emotions and reasoning clash. Although this does make the message that the film tries to convey a bit hazy, these are yet another set of moments where Manju is given more to work with as an actress.
Another thing that stands out in the film is how the makers gave an up and personal view into the extravagant and opulent lifestyle of the royal family in Riyadh at the time, and their culture.
One of the main drawbacks of the film seems to be how the writing seems to be over simplified and a bit too idealistic at times. Although the writing was able to capture a bit of the nuances in Ayisha’s character in the beginning, both her characterisation and the way the story unfolds quickly takes on idealistic hues, which do not gel well with the fact that the story is based on true events.
Ayisha, the true tale of a daring and defiant woman, features Manju Warrier in superb form, in the moments where the script gives her enough material to work with and showcase her range. Aamir Pallikkal’s debut does stand out enough to be enjoyable, but is weighed down by an oversimplified script.