Kettiyollaanu Ente Maalakha is, in a lot of ways, a remarkable film. It isn’t easy to make a movie which is equally empathetic to both the perceived victim and an aggressor in a relationship without it seeming creepy or an attempt at victim blaming. But this film, aided by some gripping performances, walks this tight rope with elan and comes out a winner.

Sleevachan is a model citizen and farmer in his village, someone respected and looked up to by a lot of people. His organic farming techniques are soon to be feted by the government and he has a loving mother who lives with him as well as his sisters and their families nearby. However, he isn’t married and doesn’t seem to be showing any kind of interest in the same despite repeated reminders in the bonafide time-honoured manner by his family and friends. But an incident involving his mother forces him to rethink and he finally agrees to tie the knot. The ‘who’ doesn’t appear to matter to him as long as she takes care of his mother, and while we may not agree with that, there seems little more to his indifference than that shown by a lot of people who get married for all the wrong reasons. In no time, his casual and yet tender care on visiting his prospective bride’s home has impressed her grandmother and other family members. The fact that he has barely glanced at her seems to have been brushed aside by everyone in the wake of this. But it’s obvious he has an issue right from the off; their wedding night and nights following thereafter are barely indulged in and the new couple barely share words. Sleevachan is confused and doesn’t know what to do and, to make matters worse, doesn’t seem to understand that communicating his problems to his significant other or to someone else is an important part of resolving an issue. In his desperate ignorance, an unfortunate incident happens and Sleevachan is in hot water. Will their marriage and relationship survive this? Will Sleevachan even be able to understand the rudimentary needs of a marital relationship or even of any bond with a woman other than his mother or sisters?

In answering these questions and portraying these lives, the director has managed to elicit some remarkable performances. I have to admit, for a long time I was not a huge fan of Asif Ali, who I felt coasted in multi-starrers on the strength of others’ performances. However, here he shows that he has truly evolved as a performer and makes as both dislike him and yet also understand his predicament, and eventually cry with him. It’s a lovely, nuanced performance and not at all an easy feat to pull off without antagonizing the viewers against his character. The hitherto relatively untested Veena Nandhakumar plays his wife Rincy, and she is brilliant as well; she manages a perfect balance between distressed helplessness at how her potential happily-ever-after is falling apart and yet firm resolve when she realizes she has been resolved and needs answers. The vulnerability and shock at what happens slowly gives way to strength in recovery and she decides to effectively put her foot down in front of her ignorant husband. Her tender and real face captures the emotional upheavals with perfect clarity and we can forgive the leap of faith it needs for us to believe that a woman who had earlier been in a city for a while would so readily accept marrying a man she has barely spoken a word to. Similarly, we can take that leap of faith in Sleevachan’s character arc as well; after all, would anyone really be as naïve as he is in today’s times about matters of the heart and body? I would suppose it is still possible in rural heartlands.

But those are minor concerns. Their love story is unlikely in how it appears all so wrong initially and yet has us rooting fervently for it to come to a fruitful eventuality by the end. And this makes it a delightful watch. This is not exactly a rom-com. But it turns out to be more soulful and romantic than most rom-coms.