We live in a world where even God, who is supposed to be all-good and all-powerful, is used by Man to dictate his terms and gain power. People who are on the lower rungs of the hierarchy — whether concerning caste, creed, religion, or gender — have to abide by Man and faith plays a vital role in ensuring that the oppressed stay in the dark about the bigger machine. It’s a narrative that is very relevant, and in ZEE5’s web series Ayali, writer-director Muthu Kumar explores how such socio-religious factors oppress women through a unique story.
The eight-episode series begins with an animated sequence that tells the fable of how the village of Veerapannai came to be. As per the legend, when a young girl from the village of Pannaiyur eloped with a man from a neighbouring village, the folk were subjected to the wrath of their deity, Ayali, leading to the entire village relocating to a new place in Pudukottai district that later came to be known as Veerapannai. In the new village, they built a temple for Ayali and decided that from thereon, all girls from the village would have to get married immediately after she attains puberty. Jump to 1990, and we see how this custom is used to oppress women. The kaalachaaram and kattupaadu now state that girls who attain puberty can neither enter the Ayali temple nor go to school. Both faith and education are stripped away from them and they are married away. Protecting this sanctimonious practice, controlling their women, and ensuring the purity of the caste are of utmost priority to the men of the village, who follow their local MLA (Singampuli) and his son (Lingaa, in a very promising role).
Thamizh (Abi Natchatra), a young ninth-grader who questions the lack of sense in these practices, is our protagonist. Thamizh desires to become a doctor, but fear grips her when she sees her classmates get married off one by one, only to suffer later. So when she attains puberty, she hatches a plan to keep her dreams alive — she hides it from literally everyone. Much of the initial episodes revolve around how Thamizh goes ahead with her plan and becomes the only girl child in the village to enter a tenth-grade classroom.
Obstacles ahead of her are aplenty. For instance, during the full moon festival, the children of the village are to enter the Ayali temple and offer their prayers. However, as the age-old belief states, no girl who has attained puberty should enter the temple. If they do, the deity would take their life within the next full moon day, or the village-folk would cut off her hair and isolate her from the village. What would a 14-year-old girl hiding her period stains from even her mother do in such an instance? Every passing obstacle only becomes more and more dangerous for Thamizh, and we take part in celebrating both her small and big wins. Notably, not many titles have questioned the customs that are still followed when a girl comes of age, as much as this series.
Ayali is built through its emotional beats, and there is enough substance and thrill to keep you engrossed. At the centre of all the drama is also a beautiful story about a daughter and a mother, and how women are forced to come together when pushed to the extreme. In multiple tear-jerking instances, the constant lump in our throat tightens; like when we realise that a mere bus ride to a nearby town was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for some, or when a father realises what true love is. Or when a subplot shows two elderly step-wives, who are usually bickering at each other, sharing a nice moment. Or in the story of Thamizh’s friends who are forced to get married.
Director Muthu uses the long format to write many such subplots with enough characters to accentuate the central theme. Barring a few poor comedy tracks aimed to provide some levity, everything else works in the favour of the story. It’s also interesting how the warm colour tones of the visuals not only establish the period of the story, they also complement the scorching emotional tone and in compounding the world that Ayali is set in.
But the series needed a novel screenplay and better treatment. Even when we see what is awaiting us at a certain juncture, we are asked to wait a bit too long for the pay-offs. Many characters, like the one played by Lingaa, end up coming off as under-developed despite showing potential early on. The lukewarm ending, which should have been doubly impactful, is another minus.
Still, telling a story like Ayali isn’t easy, and Muthu takes a strong stand against every silly patriarchal idea that makes no sense and yet is relevant even today. He questions why the dignity of the caste and creed are hidden between the legs of the women; why women are defined only by their body and their role in child-bearing; why all customs apply only to women and why boys don’t get punished for their crimes. He also ensures that he doesn’t offend the genuine faith that the people have in their deities, as maintaining the balance there is usually a slippery slope. The music by Revaa plays a strong supporting role, and performances, especially by Abi Nakshatra and Anumol, are praiseworthy as well.
Every time you see Thamizh or any other women in the series raise their voices and question the idiocy of the men, you imagine a crowded audience whistling their support; that imagery only makes you ponder over who the audience of Ayali is. Is this a story for those who have access to streaming platforms and care enough to check out a title with not many known faces? Or is this a story for the rural and urban men with such regressive ideas and the women who are oppressed by them? It certainly should be for the latter, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that Ayali is a necessary, timely story that needs to be told louder every now and then.
Ayali is currently streaming on ZEE5