Express at Marrakech: Mahesh Narayanan Ariyippu puts the focus on migration, misogyny

It’s 9.30 in the morning, and I’ve interrupted his breakfast, but Mahesh Narayanan is nothing if not wholly disarming and engaged in the way he comes across, interested in having a conversation about filmmaking, and the world we live in.

His new film Ariyippu (Declaration) is at the 19th edition of the Marrakech International Film Festival, and though it’s a film set in far-away UP’s Noida about a couple from Kerala trying to find their feet in an alien landscape while at the same time trying to escape it , and the complexities that arise from that situation, it resonates strongly at the screening here. Aren’t we all migrants of a kind, flitting from one place to another, in search of a better life?

Hareesh (Kunchako Boban) and Reshmi (Divya Prabha) work in a plastics gloves factory in one of those faceless buildings that dot the highway that leads to Ghaziabad. The cold, impersonal setting inside and outside (Noida is filmed through a dark, dystopian lens) seems to have settled into the very bones of the pair who, like so many of their compatriots from the South, are here strictly temporarily.

Their patience has already been stretched thin. Their wait for a visa is being extended endlessly by an agent who claims that everything has come to a halt during the lockdown (the film is set during the height of the Covid period). That’s not all. Their troubles go through the roof when Reshmi’s ‘skill video’, doctored with pornographic clip, goes viral.

Cracks soon appear in an already fragile marriage. Will Hareesh and Reshmi be able to get past the sly whispering they are subjected to at their workplace, and at the cop station, where a crass, uncaring policeman (Sidharth Bhardwaj) treats them more like suspects than victims?

Racism rises its ugly head, with slurs flung at the couple, but misogyny and patriarchy isn’t just region specific: Hareesh’s changing behavior towards Reshmi is a case in point, and in one chilling moment, there seems to be no difference between him and the other men in the movie.

Narayanan, whose previous work includes Take Off, CU Soon, and Mr Malik, says he got inspired by a news item in which a woman asked a court to give her a declaration that she was not the subject of a similar video. The judge said that the document would not hold water legally, but she still insisted. That clean chit, for her, is the most important thing going forward: she is innocent, and she wants everyone to acknowledge it.’My film is strongly feminist, even if I’m not using specific dialogues to state it’, says Narayanan .

Why didn’t he think of his constant collaborator Fahad Faasil for this film? Both Boban and Divya, also part of his ‘crew’, were cast because he didn’t want actors with a starry image for this story. Apart from these two who fit right in, one of the most interesting characters is played by the terrific Loveleen Mishra as an older, more experienced hand, loyal to the factory, but also clearly on the side of the wronged woman. As is the film.

Narayanan is part of the Kochi-based filmmaking set (Faasil, Boban, Shyam Pushkaran and others) which is creating what he calls ‘midstream cinema, neither from the arthouse nor from the blockbuster zone’. ‘I want my films to be entertaining and at the same time, to have meaning’, he says. ‘When I was making Ariyippu, people asked me who would see this film, 50 percent in Malayalam, 50 percent in Hindi, with a smattering of Tamil? But isn’t this what India is?

Yes, it absolutely is.

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