Sudani from Nigeria

Sudani from Nigeria

Sudani from Nigeria is the heart-warming début film from director Zakariya Mohammed that released in March this year. On the surface it’s a simple story about a Sevens football team from Kerala but underneath there is a thoughtful exploration of the relationships between each of the characters and an occasionally rose-tinted reaction of the local villagers to a foreigner in their midst. The film is charming and funny, while the idea that differences in language, culture and religion can be overcome with just a little compassion is definitely one worth spreading. Soubin Shahir stars alongside newcomer Samuel Abiola Robinson, but it’s the supporting cast who make the most impact and bring much of the warmth and humour to the film.

Majid (Soubin Shahir) manages a Sevens football team on a shoestring budget, paying the players out of their winnings each week. But since they play in a local league there is barely enough to ensure each player gets a share, let alone provide any money for essentials such as petrol for the team van. Majid doesn’t have any other job either, so he’s reliant on his mother for a roof over his head, although his estranged relationship with his mother’s second husband makes this difficult. Majid refuses to speak to his stepfather (K.T.C. Abdullah) and goes out of his way to avoid meeting him whenever he returns home. This isn’t as often as might be expected since his stepfather doesn’t live at home, but works as a security guard some distance away and stays there during the week. All of this puts a lot of strain on Majid’s mother Jameela (Savithri Sreedharan) who struggles with her son’s attitude and her husband’s absence. Luckily she has her friend Beeyumma (Sarasa Balussery) for company and with their down to earth humour and solid approach to problems, the pair are the heart and soul of the film.

Despite his financial woes, Majid has managed to recruit three African players, all called Sudani by the locals despite none of them actually being from Sudan. Their star striker Samuel Abiola Robinson tries to explain that they are actually from a different African country, which leads to Samuel being called ‘Sudani from Nigeria’, or Sudu for short.

The African players all seem to live together in a small flat in the town and overall the team seems a typical local side, with everyone knowing everyone’s family and all pitching in to keep the side going. Things get complicated when Samuel is injured during an accident, leading to a period of extended bed rest. Majid’s financial problems mean that the team cannot afford to pay for Samuel to stay in hospital, so instead Majid brings Samuel home to his mother and asks Jameela to look after him. Samuel speaks little Malayalam and mainly converses in broken English, while Jameela and Beeyumma don’t speak or understand English at all and only ever speak to Samuel in Malayalam. Nevertheless, a bond grows between Samuel and his carers, while everyone in the village comes around to speak to the injured striker and welcome him into their community.

The film works well due to the gentle mix of comedy and drama, with a slice-of-life approach that suits the simple story. Attention is given to develop all the characters, even those who only have a small role such as the marriage broker, who is arrogant and secure in the knowledge that he has all the power in his transactions with Majid, or the busy nurse in the hospital who berates Majid and his friends for not alerting her to an issue with Samuel’s drip as they are all too busy watching football on their mobile phones. Even though they only brush up against Majid and Samuel for an instant, each of these roles is important and everyone has their own story to tell. Zakariya Mohammed develops the different relationships well and the interactions between the different characters are beautifully written and filmed. It’s all these small details and the interactions between the characters that make the film work – Jameela arranging a ceremony for Samuel when his mother dies, even though she is Muslim and he is Christian, an elderly man demonstrating yoga positions for Samuel and a young couple who come to take a selfie with the foreigner. Each of these scenes feels incredibly real and genuine, while a light touch of humour and the occasional hint of trouble keep the film from ever feeling too saccharine sweet.

Soubin Shahir is excellent as the football-addicted team manager, who has devoted his entire life to football and his team, despite the effects such devotion has had on other aspects of his life. His difficult relationship with his step-father is woven throughout the narrative and provides a jarring but powerful counter note to the friendship that develops between Majid and Samuel. Soubin brings a number of key elements to his character including a certain nerdiness that has left Majid as a football manager rather than a player and star of the field, bashful attempts to find a wife, a constant awareness of his money problems and a determination to look after Samuel even as he ignores his step-father. Samuel Abiola Robinson has a more difficult role in some respects as he literally has little voice in the film, but he still does a good job at making Samuel an empathetic character. Much of this is down to his smile and determination to get back to playing football. There is a flashback to give some understanding of his situation at home, but it’s his bewildered acceptance of Malayalam village traditions that makes the most impact as he tries to cope with Jameela, Beeyumma and the rest of the villagers.

Savithri Sreedharan and Sarasa Balussery are simply brilliant as Majid’s mother and her best friend, and their method of looking after Samuel is hilarious and at the same time very touching. Their mannerisms are perfect for the characters and although they appear as typical village mothers, there is so much more to each that Zakariya cleverly explores with his screenplay and Muhsin Parari’s excellent dialogues. They each bring a mix of comedy, compassion, drama and warmth that works perfectly and provides a solid backbone for the rest of the story. The rest of the support cast are just as good with Navas Vallikkunnu, Ashraf Thangal and Abhiram Pothuval very funny as  Majid’s friends Latheef, Bavakka and Kunjippa and Aneesh Menon as rival football manager Nizar. Together they all form a tight-knit community that all work together despite having few resources to fund their passion.

Cinematographer Shyju Khalid ensures the film looks fantastic and Rex Vijayan’s songs and background music suit the mood, in particular the enthusiastic anthem to football!

The mix of characters, touches of humour and focus on relationships all ensure Sudani from Nigeria is a touch above the usual village-based drama and although the story might not hold any surprises, the film, and particularly the finale definitely draw on the heart strings. Adding football into a Malayalam film was a new thought for me as I hadn’t realised the popularity of the sport in Southern India, but it works well to add action and a dash of excitement too. If you like your sports films to be more about the action off the field, or prefer a novel approach to family and relationships, then this could be the film for you. 4½ stars.

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One Cut of the Dead

Ueda Shinichiro’s One Cut of the Dead was a highlight of the recent Japanese Film Festival in Melbourne, and possibly my favourite film of the year. It’s a budget horror flick, a movie about movie-making, and a sweet story about the shared love of things that can bring people together.

Opening with Director Higurashi making a low budget zombie movie in a spooky abandoned facility, the film quickly takes a turn as the cast find themselves under attack by “real” zombies. He sees this as an opportunity to get genuine emotion and real horror from his cast so he will not stop shooting and actually pushes the actors into more peril. Bloody, profanity laden, decidedly B movie, unintentionally funny, the story speeds to its conclusion. All in one epic 37 minute take. But then the clock winds back and we get to see how Higurashi and his crew came to be in this place, all the planning and preparation for their movie, and what motivated them to do it. And finally, Ueda takes us back to the day of filming, but this time we see the things happening on and off camera and what that means for Higurashi and co.

The director Higurashi is completely over the top, threatening his performers and demanding they keep filming even when their life may be at risk. He has one shot at making the film and will do what it takes to deliver. I really enjoyed Takayuki Hamatsu’s performance as he would swing from politely earnest to literally spitting with rage and back, all in the service of his film. His relationship with his sulky teenaged daughter Mao (played by Mao) and retired actress wife Nao (Shuhama Harumi), who are both on the set, gives the film an unexpected sweetness amidst all the gore and dismemberments.

Akiyama Yuzuki and Nagaya Kazuaki play Chintatsu and Ko, the stars of the film. I enjoyed their deliberately bad acting in the movie within the movie, and the contrast with their vacuous celebrity sides. When things started to go awry they were the least prepared and therefore, among the funniest. Shuhama Harumi’s Nao is a walking cliché in some respects, intoning warnings and urban legends straight out of every other horror movie. Her hobby and practical application of her skills almost brought the house down, and her character really comes to life in the latter part of the film. The rest of the cast includes stock types like the has-been actor who drinks to steady his nerves, the goofy AD who never challenges an order, the finicky cameraman, and his enthusiastic assistant who just wants a chance to try her style.

Things move at a frenetic pace but there are beats where you can simply enjoy what’s going on before plunging back into the thick of it. I was constantly delighted by small details like the appearance of a hankie wiping blood spatter off a lens as the cameraman gamely ran in pursuit of a screaming actor and zombie.

The narrative structure is brilliant and the editing is timed to perfection. Things that looked like bad acting or glitches in the movie might later be seen in a different light and instead make you want to cheer for this game little bunch of movie crazy people. The jokes were sometimes funnier from the second perspective too, which is quite an achievement. Dolly Parton once said it takes a lot of money to look this cheap. Ueda Shinichiro has managed to make a highly technical and polished film look like it was made on a shoestring, but in a good way. It’s a tribute to the spirit of making do.

I flinched, I groaned, I cheered, I laughed so hard I cried. If you can stand a lot of swearing and fake blood splashing around, see this.

2.0

2.0.jpg

Shankar’s 2.0 is an amazing visual spectacle with incredible special effects and jaw-dropping action, but despite all the thousands of Rajinikanths, clouds of flying mobile phones and an unusually charismatic Akshay Kumar as the villain of the piece, it fails to fully impress due to a garbled and, at times, dull story. Not that the lack of a credible story really matters for a large-scale Superstar movie, but the transition between one incredible VFX scene to another really needed some sort of rationale to develop a relationship with the characters and bring in some suspense. And 2.0 just doesn’t have that connection. No matter how good Rajinikanth and Akshay Kumar are in their roles, or how truly magnificent the visual effects are, at the end of the day for me the film needs a little more soul.

The film opens with mobile phones suddenly gaining a life of their own and zooming off into the sky all over Tamil Nadu. These opening sequences are excellent as Shankar shows just how pervasive mobile phone use is, including the moment when we see an entire family all staring at their phones just as the father announces that of course he spends quality time with his family. Everyone is here – those obsessed with taking selfies, people using their phone for work, for family connections, even one man using a mobile phone as a plaything for his child, and it for a time it seems that Shankar might be making a statement about overuse of mobile phones. But it’s not that simple.

Naturally Chennai is thrown into total chaos by the “great mobile phone disappearance” but the problems are only just beginning. A massive cloud of mobile phones transforms into a bird’s talons and starts ripping cell towers out of the ground, prominent mobile carrier company owners are attacked and a gigantic bird, formed out of mobile phones starts attacking people in the streets. This is seriously inventive stuff, and Shankar has allowed his imagination free rein to create magnificent visuals that really are spectacular, while the fast-paced action just never stops.

Dr Vaseegaran (Rajinikanth) is aided this time round by an android called Nila (Amy Jackson) whose body proportions are reminiscent of a Barbie doll, but who does at least get the chance to show off her superhuman skills in the battle against the villain, Pakshi Rajan (Akshay Kumar). Pakshi Rajan is an eminent ornithologist who ends up suiciding after he fails in his attempts to stop the radiation from mobile phones killing off his beloved birds. Thanks to ‘negative energy’ and all those dead birds, he somehow transforms into an entity capable of animating mobile phones, and sets out to destroy the humans who have caused all the problems in the first place. There is a flashback sequence that paints Pakshi Rajan as an environmental hero with Akshay Kumar playing him as an old, broken man who wears baggy cardigans and weeps for a dead sparrow – so naturally he’s a more sympathetic character than the self-absorbed Dr Vaseegaran. And that’s part of the problem I have with the entire film. Dr Vaseegaran seems to simply want to bring Chitti back to life, and show off his new-fangled invention to save the day, while Pakshi Rajan has a legitimate issue and a real crusade that’s easy to support. So, when Chitti arrives on the scene, it actually appears that he’s fighting on the wrong side since Pakshi Rajan doesn’t come across as a bad guy until much later.

Thankfully when the 2.0 reboot Chitti takes over, his swagger and snappy dialogue helps lift the second half, ably helped by the excellent visuals and inventive ways that a cell phone can be used to kill. Pakshi Rajan develops a villain-worthy sneer and his casual disregard for the thousands of people who end up having to dodge bullets and large pieces of football stadium during the finale does start to make him seem a least a bit nastier. Team Chitti though has an equal disregard for bystanders and finally pulls a stunt with pigeons that’s even more vicious than all of Pakshi Rajan’s gory killings. That has the effect of making Pakshi Rajan actually seem more moral than Team Chitti despite his murderous tendencies. To try and compensate, the last scene makes some attempt to promote Pakshi Rajan’s cause while still chastising him for killing so many people, but it just doesn’t work, although the final action sequences are brilliantly done.

I’m not usually a fan of Akshay Kumar, but he is impressive here and he does an excellent job of humanising Pakshi Rajan and giving him an almost plausible reason to attack mobile phones. I also appreciated his bird-like mannerisms when he transforms into a giant birdman and his dedication to the role by using feathers for eyebrows. For the most part he simply screams at the camera in bird form, but during the flashback sequence he does display the demeanour and despair of a broken man very well.

Rajinikanth is on screen for most of the film in one or more of his different characters – Dr Vaseegaran, Chitti or 2.0. He is as charismatic as ever in every appearance, although Dr Vaseegaran is even more annoyingly self-absorbed here than he was in Endhiran. Despite playing a robot, as Chitti and his alter ego 2.0, Rajinikanth gets to display plenty of personality and each time he appears he brings life and energy to the screen. Thankfully the annoying Sana only appears as a whingey voice over the phone this time round, while the rest of the cast only appear briefly, either to be killed by Pakshi Rajan or as part of the government trying to cope with the crisis. Sudhanshu Pandey appears as Dhinendra Bohra, the son of Bohra from Endhiran, but this seems to be a real wasted opportunity and his character isn’t well utilised despite a promising start.

I’m not sure exactly what Shankar was trying to say here – if indeed he was trying to say anything at all. Could this be a film against mobile phones and the way they have come to take over our lives? Is there really an environmental message here about radiation and the dangers purportedly associated with cell towers? It’s all rather muddled and the emotional back-story for the villain doesn’t help matters either. However, as an all-out action adventure 2.0 works well enough. A.R. Rahman’s music is used sparingly throughout the film, although there is one montage song and a dance track over the end titles, which is fun. Thanks to Rekhs for the excellent subtitles (in yellow too, so very readable) and kudos to cinematographer Nirav Shah for making the regular shots just as good as the VFX. Yes, most of the money has been spent on the effects in this film, and little on the screenplay, but given the end result I’d say overall it’s money well spent. I didn’t see the 3-D version, but even in 2-D the effects are simply superb and for that alone the film really does need to be seen in the cinema. For the rest, Rajinikanth is excellent, Akshay Kumar totally nails being a murderous birdman, Amy Jackson does well as an animated robot, and best of all with this plot, no-one was using their cell-phone during the show. That’s definitely a win!