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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Theevandi (2018)

TheevandiSmoking is not something you see very often in Australia since there are laws that prohibit lighting up in most public spaces. As a result, a film that’s all about smoking seems a really strange topic to me, especially one that seems to treat the subject matter so lightly. It’s also quite ironic that the story ensures there are statutory warning notices displayed on the screen almost constantly, and in addition to the smoking and drinking warnings, there are also warnings about not wearing a motorcycle helmet, not wearing a seat belt and a declaration at the start advising that violence against women is a crime. However, Tovino Thomas makes this meandering story worth watching as he transforms from a clean-shaven school boy to a bearded and chain-smoking adult with an interest in local politics. Not a must-see drama, but a pleasant excursion in good company that benefits from a strong central cast and a generally upbeat approach.

The film starts with a birth, but the baby doesn’t breathe until his uncle blows a puff of smoke into the baby’s face – not a recommended way to start a child breathing! After this medical miracle, young Bineesh (Maheen) grows up as a normal village kid, although the local shopkeeper (Jaffer Idukki) is used to him buying cigarettes for his uncle Sugunan (Sudheesh) and using the change to buy sweets and snacks. This makes the teenage Bineesh (Tovino Thomas) the ideal person to send for cigarettes when the group of school friends decides to try smoking one day after school. While the others cough and splutter, Bineesh has no problems, since after all, his first breath was full of cigarette smoke. Oddly, while the students are having their first experience of smoking, their cigarettes are blurred out, I guess in some sort of censorship decision. It must be the school uniform that’s the issue, since the same actors are shown moments later without any blurring when they are supposedly older, but it still makes very little sense.

Tovino Thomas makes a convincing teenager, mainly due to his posture and body language, but he really hits his stride as the adult Bineesh. By this stage his smoking has become a chain habit that earns him the nickname of Theevandi, after the old-fashioned smoky steam trains. Bineesh hangs around the village with his friends, and doesn’t appear to have any gainful employment, although he seems to have a reasonably ready supply of cash to keep buying cigarettes. I was expecting some of the usual family rows with Bineesh being forced by his father to find a job, but his family seem happy to let him drift, although there is an undercurrent of concern about his smoking.

There’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon though as Bineesh is in love with Devi (Samyuktha Menon) who has promised to marry him only if he gives up his disgusting and smelly habit. But Bineesh doesn’t take her seriously and only pays lip-service to the idea, with his nonchalance and lack of commitment eventually resulting in a breakdown of their relationship. Samyuktha Menon is very good here and she gets the balance between heady romance and responsible common-sense just right. She’s the one who climbs up ladders in the middle of the night to speak to Bineesh, but she’s also the one with a job and a much clearer idea of where she wants to go and how to get there. Devi is a strong character who has the determination not only to stand up to her parents, but also to turn her back on Bineesh when he lies and hides his habit from her.

Bineesh is an interesting character and Tovino is excellent in this portrayal of a young man who his happy to drift until he works out what he wants from life – although he’s pretty clear that he wants Devi to be a part of it. As long as he can continue smoking , which is really his only other passion. To be fair, he’s probably more passionate about smoking than Devi, and certainly shows more emotion when faced with circumstances that force him to give up cigarettes. Despite this imbalance, the relationship between Devi and Bineesh is charming and sweet, with a realistic approach to the conflict between them. Oddly, although there is a warning at the start of the film, it’s Devi who slaps Bineesh every time she sees him smoking, and not surprisingly this isn’t a strategy that succeeds.

Writer Vini Vishwa Lal brings in a political angle with Vijith (Saiju Kurup) who is married to Bineesh’s sister. Vijith is active in the local party and Bineesh and his friends become involved as a result. One of the leading party members is Devi’s father Madhu (Suraaj Venjatammoodu), who generally disapproves of Bineesh and isn’t keen at all on the proposed marriage with his daughter. Adding fuel to the fire, Madhu becomes involved in a struggle with Vijith for the leadership after the party leader Balachandran (Shammi Thilakan) meets with an accident. After arguments and posturing on both sides, the leadership contest comes down to a bet that Bineesh will stop smoking until after a major protest organised by the party. But with Madhu and his supporter Libash (Vijilesh Karayad) determined to win at all costs, Bineesh’s struggle to overcome his addiction becomes a more public battle that he seems unlikely to win.

This is an interesting story that could have made more of Bineesh’s struggle to stop smoking. His initial attempts appear realistically half-hearted and the lengths he goes to in order to hide his smoking from Devi ring true, but the latter half of the film fails to show just how difficult it is to break the habit. Although Tovino Thomas gives a good portrayal of a man driven to the brink by his cravings, director Fellini T.P. takes the easy way out and gives Bineesh no choice other than to break his addiction. The methods employed by Vijith aren’t likely to be useful to anyone genuinely looking for a way to stop smoking and that to my mind seems to be a lost opportunity. The political bun-fighting also seems rather contrived and isn’t helped by Surabhi Lakshmi overacting as the corrupt party secretary. In fact, overall the political thread is weak without any real focus for this part of the story and it’s difficult to know if Fellini was trying to send a message about corruption, or just play the situation for some laughs. The best parts of the film are undoubtably those that focus on Bimeesh’s struggle and the song Oru Theeppettikkum Venda is a perfect example of how well Tovino Thomas portrays this inner conflict.

What also works well are the relationships , particularly between those between Bineesh and his friends, family and Devi. Tovino Thomas makes his character work and despite the vagueness of the screenplay, he keeps his part in the story focused and engaging. The support cast too are generally good and Suraaj Venjatammoodu, Saiju Kurup and Sudheesh excel in their supporting roles. The music from Kailas Menon is lovely and although the songs in the second half are less effective, those in the first half fit well into the narrative. Gautham Sankar does a great job behind the camera and the film looks beautiful with scenes set on an island appearing lush and colourful. This is a thought-provoking concept for a film, but Vini Vishwa Lal and Fellini T.P. seem to have run out of steam half way through, resulting in a film that doesn’t quite succeed as a whole. Nonetheless, it’s worth watching for Tovino Thomas and Samyuktha Menon, and it may perhaps convince people that smoking really can be injurious to your health.

Ira (2018)

 

Ira posterIra is billed as a thriller but unfortunately it rarely manages to elicit any suspense or excitement as it plods through an investigation into the murder of a politician accused of corruption. All the elements are there, but the execution is clunky with the sort of dialogue where the characters carefully explain to each other exactly what they are doing and why. Unni Mukundan is good as the main lead, but the rest of the cast get little opportunity to make an impression while director SS Saiju seems to have let the film take its own meandering course.

The film starts with a crowd of reporters waiting outside a hospital for Minister Chandi (Alencier Ley Lopez) to quiz him on a corruption scandal within his administration. However, the mood quickly changes when the minister dies of a heart attack during his check-up and the plot thickens when junior doctor Aryan (Gokul Suresh) is accused of his murder. Right away this seems strange. Why would reporters gather for an interview at a hospital when the intended interviewee is there for a check-up? Surely this is ghoulish and unethical. Also odd is the speed with which the police decide that the death was murder and not a heart attack, since there never seems to be an autopsy or any internal investigation. The decision to blame Dr Aryan is also difficult to understand, since there are a few other potential suspects who never seem to be considered at all. However, the media are quick to follow-up with the story and move quickly to suggest Jacob Chandi (Shanker Ramakrishnan) as his father’s successor in politics.

The police torture a confession from Dr Aryan, but that’s pretty much the whole extent of their investigation and they almost vanish from proceedings to allow Special Investigator Rajeev (Unni Mukundan) free rein to carry out his own enquiry. This mainly consists of speaking to various work colleagues of Dr Aryan at the hospital while some of the other gaps in Aryan’s history are explained in a good flash-back.

However, what’s particularly annoying is the treatment of these character witnesses at the hospital. All are female and are solely defined in terms of their relationship with Aryan despite both having taken part themselves in the events on the day of the murder. Nurse Tara (Neeraja) and Kavya (Mareena Michael) go through exactly the same process of denying any romantic relationship with Aryan before carefully explaining how wonder Aryan was and how happy they were to work with him. Even his girlfriend Jenny (Niranjana Anoop) is simply seen as ‘the girlfriend’ even though she is also Jacob Chandi’s daughter and her relationship with Aryan may provide a possible motive for her grandfather’s murder.

After ignoring plenty of potential clues and viable suspects, the second half starts with an extended flashback that develops some backstory for Rajeev. Unfortunately, it takes a long time to reach the point where any of this is relevant to the main story and the central character, Karthika (Mia George), is just as poorly written as Jenny and Tara. From here the plot continues to unravel as coincidences abound, and the bad guys reveal their secrets at opportune moments for no good reason. Saiju throws in a few songs at random moments and adds key characters late in the screenplay, adding to the overall haphazard feel of the film.

Performance wise everyone is fine, although for the most part the roles are straight forward without too much emoting required. Unni Mukundan has the most to do and is generally good as a police officer investigating a crime. Niranjana Anoop and Mia George have the best female roles, but they are simply there to provide a reason for Aryan and Rajeev to act the way they do, so there is little else for them to do once that reason has been established. Gokul Suresh is fine as the rather naïve Dr Aryan, although the character is too one-dimensional to say anything more than he gets across the idea of wrongly accused innocence well.

Disappointingly, Naveen John’s story just doesn’t feel plausible and there are too many plot holes and contrivances to allow any suspense to develop. Small details are explained by the characters in blatant disregard for the cardinal rule of ‘show, don’t tell’, while other crucial points are introduced and then completely ignored. There is a really important message at the very end of the film too, but it’s glossed over so quickly that I’m not even sure if this was added intentionally or not. Ira isn’t a terrible movie and it’s even reasonably well filmed, it’s just very average without anything that stands out to mark it as sufficiently different from the great commercial sea of current Indian cinema.