Aishwarya Lekshmi
Aishwarya Lekshmi Image Credit: Supplied

“When are you getting married?” is a personal and intrusive question, but South Indian actress Aishwarya Lekshmi has become adept at swatting it. She’s no longer shocked that her marital status seems to be of public interest and is often singled out for being single.

Consider this: Lekshmi an accomplished 31-year-old actress from Kerala and a qualified doctor who famously laid down the scalpel to pursue her acting ambitions. She’s financially independent and can afford to buy her own diamonds, but her unmarried status continues to be a matter of intrigue to many of her ‘well-meaning well-wishers’.

“It’s almost like all the problems in our life will be solved if I just get married. As a society we have been taught that while growing up … Marriage is never the answer here,” said Lekshmi in a Zoom interview with Gulf News.

“Even during the promotions of films related to marriage, I am finally asked: ‘So Aishu, when can we see your special day?’” said Lekshmi breaking into Malayalam often.

Her blockbusters such as the stirring romance ‘Mayanadhi’ with Tovino Thomas and thriller ‘Varathan’ with Fahadh Faasil aren’t the talking points as much as her personal life. According to the actress, her parents have made peace with the fact their darling daughter will not succumb to an arranged marriage, but the public at large isn’t as understanding.

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Aishwarya Lekshmi and Tovino Thomas in 'Mayanadhi' Image Credit: Supplied

So what does she do next? Lekshmi has channelled all that righteous rage by making an engaging social satire about a society’s obsession with getting young women married in haste. ‘Archana 31 Not Out’, out in the UAE on February 18, is an upcoming Malayalam drama about a small-town young woman who submits herself to the humiliations that accompany an arranged marriage scenario.

The anatomy of 'Archana 31 Not Out'

She plays the titular role of a gainfully employed schoolteacher who’s happy with her rustic life, but her advancing age minus a suitable groom has become a cause for concern in her hamlet.

When she’s riding the local bus to her school, an aged woman asks her aloud about what’s happening on the marriage front and why things aren’t moving at a rapid pace. News flash: Every young woman in her 20s and 30s in Kerala and beyond is often required to field this pesky question about why they remain unmarried as they cross their 20s. The stigma attached to a single, even if self-reliant, woman is immense.

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Aishwarya Lekshmi in 'Archana 21 Not Out' Image Credit: Phars Films

“The intent of this film is to start conversations around it. The intent is to make you understand how uncomfortable people get when you ask about these very, very personal questions … Archana is a pretty girl, but later you find out that marriage proposals aren’t just working out … It all boils down to whether her family is financially sound or not and how she cannot give dowry that they are expecting,” said Lekshmi.

In Kerala and beyond, it’s common practice for marriage brokers or agents to act as a conduit between a potential bride and groom. Those belonging to the same caste and financial class are often the perfect match. Veiled questions, such as how much gold a bride would wear on her wedding day, are sneakily woven during the icebreaker sessions.

Arranged marriages debate

“I had deep conversations about this with my close friends where we have always questioned the entire process leading up to marriage. We have wondered how people are supposed to be happy in a marriage … And about the wedding day, why do we spend so much money on that day? All these questions are touched upon in this film,” said Lekshmi.

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The movie takes a hard look at society and how families are trapped under the social norms and archaic conventions. Arranged marriages, a common practice in India, have been often blasted for being discriminatory and transactional. Potential proposals are brutally rejected based on caste, family wealth and class.

“Sometimes we have shown such scenarios with a hint of sarcasm and that should work too. Intentionally, I have only worn two or three chains of gold on my wedding day in this film to make a point … I often wonder why it’s so important that a girl should have a lot of gold on them,” said Lekshmi. She’s disgusted by the idea that brides in Kerala are often dipped in gold on their wedding day to prove a point. Many brides often play along as their family ‘emotionally blackmails’ them into protecting the honour of their clan. More gold translates into more credibility in many states.

“I have endorsed jewellery brands before and you can buy gold if it makes you happy and is a good investment. But what gets to me is when gold is worn to show how much money you have … When I hear the word 101 pavans [approximately a kilo of gold] on a bride, I look at them with contempt,” said Lekshmi.

Aishwarya Lekshmi
Aishwarya Lekshmi Image Credit: Supplied

The lure of blingtastic weddings in Kerala

Kerala, a state with high literacy, is India’s biggest consumer of gold — both in urban and rural areas — as per the National Sample Survey Organisation statistics. An average Kerala bride wears 320 grams of gold and people from the South Indian state are notorious for their ‘bling is king’ approach towards weddings.

“And it’s high time we change our perspective and attitude towards wearing so much gold. We have made such social and intellectual progress over the years. We have such good education and Kerala has 91 per cent literacy or more … But in spite of all that, our wedding expenditure has gone sky-high. And I don’t get it,” said Lekshmi.

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Aishwarya Lekshmi in 'Archana 31 Not Out' Image Credit: Phars Films

On a personal level, just like her on-screen firebrand character Archana, Lekshmi is dying to denounce regressive traditions. She doesn’t believe in the institution of marriage, she tells Gulf News. Lekshmi is one of Malayalam industry’s most promising and rising talents.

“Marriage is not the sole intent of our lives. You don’t have to get married to have a happy life. You can still have a companion … But why give a certificate so much power?” said Lekshmi.

‘Archana 31 Not Out’ is Lekshmi’s first female-fronted film and she claims that she chose this movie carefully because she wanted her producers not to bleed money while backing such ventures. ‘Archana 31 Not Out’, which opened to mixed reviews in Kerala, has already covered its cost, Lekshmi said.

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Aishwarya Lekshmi in 'Archana 31 Not Out' Image Credit: Phars Films

But this isn’t your usual women-centric weepie, she warns us.

“The minute you say you are a part of a women-centric film, they think of a film with women sufferings … But our film is a small one and it’s presented in a simple way … I want people to rethink the stigma attached to a woman crossing her thirties and labelling her as she’s going to have a ‘late marriage’.”

Her own parents — who got married in their early 30s — are a prime example that age shouldn’t dictate when a couple should get married.

“They were tagged as ‘late marriage’. And I simply don’t understand why we have to tag marriages like early, late and all those things … And even if your planned marriage plans gets dropped in the last minute, you don’t have to hang yourself or live your life in agony and pain, there is no need for that,” said Lekshmi.

The self-made actress, who loves marching to her own tune, hopes that her family-friendly entertainer ‘Archana 31 Not Out’ would push parents and 20-somethings to reconsider traditional methods of matchmaking and finding love.

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Aishwarya Lekshmi and Fahadh Faasil in her earlier film 'Varathan' Image Credit: Supplied

“I hope my film provokes you to think a little differently … This may not be a flawless movie, but I hope it makes people think about forcing their girls to get married … And I hope people will stop thinking of arranged marriages for their children. Everybody should somebody for yourself and then everything will be fine.”

Don’t miss it!

‘Archana 31 Not Out’ is out in the cinemas on February 18

As a person, I don’t believe in marriage. But when I did, I wanted it to be very small like getting married in an old-fashioned way in Guruvayoor temple or under an old coconut leaf structure. A small affair with just 20 or 30 people. But now I just want to find a companion. And the minute we are unhappy with each other, we should have the freedom to get out of it

- Aishwarya Lekshmi on her idea of a dream wedding