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.