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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Chaappa Kurish

chaappa-kurish

Chaappa Kurish tells the story of two men: one a successful land developer who lives in a smart uptown apartment and the other a slum-dweller who works as a cleaner in a small supermarket. It seems unlikely that their lives would ever intersect, but when Arjun (Fahadh Faasil)) loses his phone and Ansari (Vineeth Sreenivasan) picks it up, their lives intertwine in an unexpected way with unintended consequences. Sameer Thahir’s debut film is a study in power relationships and how even a small amount of advantage can alter outlook, change relationships and even affect personality. While one man starts to gain control the other begins to lose it and the fall-out has far reaching effects for both.

The film opens by contrasting the lives of the two men. Arjun is woken in his modern apartment by the ringing of his smart phone and wanders into his spotless kitchen to have cereal for breakfast. Ansari also has a phone, but his is an old-fashioned mobile and his single room is a long way from Arjun’s luxurious apartment. He sleeps with his mattress on top of his shirt to press it for the morning, and has to pay and queue for his turn in a shared toilet. Breakfast for Ansari is a roti in a local café and his journey to work by bus and ferry is vastly different from Arjun’s smooth ride in the back of his chauffeur driven car. Their relative positions define their personality too. Ansari is quiet, pushed around by everyone who comes into contact with him and unable to stand up for himself. He walks apologetically – hunched over and hesitant, and he doesn’t meet anyone’s eyes even when they are talking to him. Arjun on the other hand is autocratic, demanding and very well aware that he is the boss.

Although Arjun is engaged to be married to the daughter of a family friend, he is also in a relationship with a work colleague Sonia (Ramya Nambeeshan). Sonia is a modern working woman who seems to be in control of her life but despite her apparent comfort with her relationship with Arjun, she is devastated when she discovers he is engaged and is organising his wedding. Her despair and sense of betrayal is made even greater when she discovers that Arjun has filmed the two of them together on his phone during their lovemaking session. Sonia has lost her lover and her self-respect in an instant and seems likely to lose her job too, all as a result of Arjun’s selfish behaviour. She threatens to tell his fiancée Ann (Roma) about their relationship and it’s during the resultant argument that Arjun loses his phone. As well as the video, Arjun’s phone contains details about his latest dodgy property deal and it’s a toss-up as to which concerns him more – the loss of the deal or the possibility that the video might make it onto Youtube.

Ansari picks up Arjun’s phone when it falls at his feet in a café, and in the spur of the moment decides to keep it. He has little idea of how to operate the phone and is frightened by Arjun’s demands for his phone’s return when he does turn it on. However slowly as Ansari realises Arjun’s desperation, he starts to feel the effects that holding even such a small amount of power can bring. His new found confidence spurs Ansari on to pay back his various tormentors but it also affects his relationship with his co-worker Nafeesa (Niveda Thomas). She doesn’t like the new Ansari and eventually persuades him that he has to return the phone – but it may already be too late.

Sameer Thahir’s story is simple but very effective as he takes time to establish his two main characters and how they each fit into their place in society. The contrast in the two men is well described and the characterisations of each are natural and realistic, while still maintaining their differences as each are at opposite ends of the social scale. The gradual transfer of power is subtly done but very effective and the alteration in each character occurs almost imperceptibly at first. Although the story is at times very dark, there is a strong sense of hope that runs throughout, mainly shown by Nafeesa who is the one bright spot in Ansari’s life and by the end it seems possible that both men have altered for the better. It’s a film that gradually draws you into Arjun and Ansari’s struggle for control while at the same time showing exactly how difficult life can be for those who lack confidence.

Both Fahadh Faasil and Vineeth Sreenivasan are excellent and their performances ensure the effectiveness of Sameer Thahir’s story . Vineeth Sreenivasan does a fantastic job with his portrayal of a downtrodden man who slowly starts to gain some confidence. His body language and demeanour is perfect throughout and his facial expressions brilliantly capture his thoughts. Ansari is a man who has had little to hide in his life and he lets his emotions play out over his face when he thinks no-one is looking. The furtive sullen looks gradually make way for sly grins and rising excitement when Ansari realises the power he has over Arjun and that finally he can tell someone else what to do. Everything just works to build up a detailed picture of a lonely underdog who has a miserable life but no real motivation to change anything and no awareness that change is even possible.

Fahadh Faasil is just as good in his role as a rich and conceited businessman who rarely thinks of anyone other than himself. His fiancée is an inconvenience and he avoids her phone calls whenever possible – although given how inane and annoying she is; I can understand his reluctance. Sonia is beautiful and convenient since she works with him and he initially treats her distress as an annoyance, until his friend John (Jinu Joseph) manages to get through to him just how much more Sonia has to lose if the video becomes public. It’s a classic picture of a self-absorbed jerk, but what makes Fahadh Faasil’s performance so good is the way he gradually changes and shows Arjun’s desperation so clearly. The realisation of what he is about to lose and his absolute frustration with the situation is excellently shown while his fraying grip on his composure is perfectly done.

The rest of the cast are good too. Ramya Nambeeshan doesn’t have a lot to do, but her outrage and then absolute despair are nicely portrayed and she is good as a woman brought to the very edge by emotional upheaval. Jinu Joseph and Niveda Thomas provide the stability and act as the ‘voice of reason’ to the two main protagonists while Sunil Sukhada brings a good dose of oily sleaziness to his role as the Store Manager of the supermarket where Ansari works.

Rex Vijayan’s soundtrack is excellent and this song is beautiful. The picturisation here isn’t the same as in the film where it’s shown over Arjun’s search for Ansari and his phone, but this does give a good overview of the film and the main characters.

There are a number of things I really liked about Chaappa Kurdish. The many differences between the two men are well characterised without being too clichéd and provide a revealing look at society in general. The slow shift in the balance of power is nicely done, even if in real life I don’t think Ansari would have have been quite so brave. I also like that Sonia has some resolution and that having a physical relationship with her boyfriend doesn’t mean that she is automatically a ‘fallen woman’ with no possible options. With all the positives there are only a few negatives. The climax is repetitive and goes on for too long – a shorter, sharper resolution would have helped and I would have liked a little more of Nafeesa and her relationship with Ansari. Overall, Chaappa Kurdish is an excellent début film from Sameer Thahir and definitely well worth a watch. 4 stars.

Sapthamashree Thaskaraha

PosterIn his second film Sapthamashree Thaskaraha, Anil Radhakrishnan Menon takes a number of ideas from various Hollywood heist movies and expertly gives them an Indian flavour with a collection of memorable characters and an appropriately Keralan setting. It’s an entertaining film with more comedy than I expected in a crime thriller, and as with North 24 Kaadham it’s the clever characterisations that stand out. The story is well written with some clever twists and engaging dialogue while the heist itself, although improbable, is not completely impossible. Anil Radhakrishnan Menon keeps the action tense during the heist scenes but manages to add in plenty of genuinely funny moments too, while the excellent cast work well together to make a better than average movie.

The film starts with one of the ‘seven good thieves’ of the title disclosing his crime in a church and his rambling confession becomes the narrative for the film. The priest in the confessional is ably played by Lijo Jose Pelissery, more commonly found on the other side of the camera, but he does an excellent job here as the fascinated recipient of Martin’s (Chemban Vinod Jose) recollections. It’s not just a bare rendition of events either, as there is some excellent comedy woven into these scenes and both the priest and Martin add snippets of background information as they go along.

The seven thieves meet in prison where they are all sharing the same cell. This does seem a little strange to me given the variety of their crimes, although perhaps the common theme is that they all have relatively short sentences. Martin is a fairly inept thief, mainly involved in petty crimes and hindered by his assistant Gee Varghese (Sudhi Koppa) whose incompetence in the art of crime is reflected in his wardrobe choices. Martin’s journey to jail introduces another two characters, Narayankutty (Neeraj Madhav) and Krishnan Unni (Prithviraj) who both stand out as different from the other prisoners on the bus. Narayankutty is intimidated by the other inmates, and as his back story is revealed it becomes obvious that he’s basically a computer geek with little awareness of the real world. He was convicted of supplying a camera secreted in a soap box to a couple of peeping toms, although it’s clear that he never thought about why the two men wanted such a thing. However his talents ensure he is invaluable to the team later when his computer expertise is vital for their convoluted robbery plans. Neeraj Madhav seems perfectly cast as the nerdy Narayankutty with his generally bemused attitude and facial expressions underlining his naiveté while his attempt at distraction during a bodybuilding contest is just hilarious.

Three of the prisoners have a connection to Pious Mathew (Joy Mathew), a wealthy local businessman who has acquired his money through a series of illegal extortions and schemes. Krishnan Unni attacked Pious when he was involved in the death of Krishnan’s wife Sarah (Reenu Mathews) and it’s for this assault that Krishnan is serving time in jail. Prithviraj has the longest and most detailed backstory here and his character is also the brains behind the operation, but despite this the film doesn’t make him the central hero and Prithviraj doesn’t appear as the ‘star’. For much of the film Krishnan Unni is just a member of the gang, albeit the one who organises the heist and delegates roles to each of the other thieves.

Nobel Ettan (Nedumudi Venu) is in jail after his family owned chit fund collapsed owing a significant amount of money. He lost everything, including his son to suicide, after being conned by Pious who also stole most of the fund money. Nobel’s plight is the reason that the thieves unite against Pious, although the lure of big money is probably the major factor in their decision. The final connection to Pious is through ‘Leaf’ Vasu (Sudheer Karamana), a driver and hit-man for Pious until he sustained a head injury that left him mentally incapacitated. Despite his confused state Vasu remembers where Pious keeps his money and that’s enough information for the rest of the gang to start making plans to rob the crooked businessman on their release from jail.

The final two gang members are Salaam (Salaam Bukhari) and Shabab (Asif Ali). Salaam is a Hindi-speaking magician who has many useful skills and an acrobatic girlfriend Paki (Flower Battsetseg) who is also drawn into the plot. Shabab is mainly shown to be a capable fighter with a strong sense of justice whose finest moment comes when he lures Pious’ brother Christo (Irshad) into a fight with a group of tiger men. There is something very satisfying about watching a group of men with tiger faces on their bellies turn round and suddenly become menacing after having been dancing only moments before.

After their release the thieves set up shop in Nobel Ettan’s house and organise their plan to break into the Charity hospital where Pious and his family keep their ill-gotten loot.  Luckily Noble Ettan’s daughter Annamma (Sanusha) works at the hospital, and with her help and the skills of the seven thieves the intricate robbery starts to take shape.

The first half is relatively slow as the various characters are established, but the film doesn’t drag due to a good mixture of action and comedy in the back stories. Some of the stories are longer than others, and Prithviraj’s does include a song which isn’t entirely necessary but does fit well into the narrative.

The second half has just as much comedy but also increased moments of tension, particularly during the robbery itself where Ammanna’s nervous participation provides a good contrast to the antics of Martin outside the hospital. However there are a few sequences which drag on a little too long, such as repeated shots of the church procession, which break up the momentum and reduce the impact of the heist scenes. It’s the individual performances and characterisation of each of the thieves that make the film so watchable. Each has a reason to be included and all of the actors fit perfectly into their roles. Nedumudi Venu for example is blissfully unaware of his wife and daughters’ displeasure when he brings the released prisoners to his house, making it even more plausible that he was easily fooled by Pious and swindled out of his business while Sudheer Karamana includes repetitive mannerisms and childlike behaviours that make Vasu a more convincing character.

Joy Mathews as the main villain is nicely smug and vindictive with no redeeming features, which makes it easy to enjoy his discomfort and that of his equally nasty brothers at the end, and in true Robin Hood fashion, all the thieves have enough good qualities to ensure that the audience will be on their side. It’s simplistic but works due to the quality of the cast and good writing of their characters.

There are only a few songs in the film penned by Rex Vijayan and they are mainly used as background while the gang scurry around getting everything they need for the heist. Jayesh Nair’s cinematography is excellent and I love his use of bars, windows and other framing effects to heighten the claustrophobic atmosphere and increase tension as the film reaches its conclusion.

There is much to like in Sapthamashree Thaskaraha. The mix of different characters works well to keep the story moving forward as each takes part in the robbery. The set-up gives a clear insight into each character and the final heist is a good mixture of clever plot, heightened tension and a good dash of humour to wash it all down. I loved the final twist – of course there’s a final twist – which reminded me of British films such as Shallow Grave and Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, which are also comedy/thrillers that end not quite as expected. Highly recommended – 4 stars.