Ee. Ma. Yau.

Lijo Jose Pellissery’s award winning film from last year is a fascinating story of a death and funeral in a small community in Kerala. Although the story sounds sombre there are plenty of comedy moments along with piercingly accurate observations of human behaviour as the family gathers to mourn and bury Vavachan (Kainakary Thankaraj). Chemban Vinod Jose is fantastic as Eeshi, Vavachan’s son, but it’s the minor characters including Eeshi’s mother and his seemingly unflappable friends and neighbours that make Ee. Ma. Yau. such an exceptional film.

My subtitles translate the title to R.I.P., but google suggests that it’s a reference to Eesho, Mariyam, Yauseppe (Jesus, Mary and Joseph), a funeral prayer in Kerala. The opening credits feature a funeral procession that slowly wends its way across the screen with a backdrop of the ocean on a sunny day. This kind of celebration with a band and an array of church officials is what Vavachan tells his son he wants for his funeral as he reminisces about his own father’s demise while drinking a few glasses of arrack. It seems to be a normal conversation, and potentially one which Eeshi has heard before as he agrees to providing his father with a magnificent and impressive funeral without ever considering that he may need to deliver sooner rather than later. 

The film begins earlier as Vavachan arrives back in the village with a duck, several bottles of booze and a bundle of money that’s basically worthless after demonetisation. He looks serene and at peace on the bus with his duck, but on arrival back at the village first he fights with another villager Chavaro (Kunjunju) and then at home argues with his wife Pennamma (Pauly Valsan) who is unimpressed by Vavachan’s long absence. Along with her daughter Nissa (Krishna P.) and daughter-in-law Sabeth (Arya Salim) Pennamma conspires to add ‘medicine’ to her husband’s stash of alcohol and the duck curry, to make him stay at home. But as Vavachan sings, dances and drinks, he suddenly falls, hits his head and is gone before anyone can react to the sudden crash.

Eeshi has no money, so the sudden burden of his father’s fabulous funeral is a huge problem, which he resolves in time-honoured fashion by selling his wife’s jewellery. His father’s last words resonate in his ears as he arranges for a coffin far beyond what he can actually afford, although it also comes with a free suit and even a beautician thrown in for good measure. Although his friend and neighbour Ayyappan (Vinayakan) tries to rein in Eeshi’s attempts to create his father’s perfect funeral, it’s ultimately lack of funds, a suspicious priest and the inclement weather that combine to give a completely different ceremony than Vavachan had described.

There are so many wonderful characters here, each with their own quirks that together paint a colourful picture of life in the village. Pennamma seems to be a typical housewife as she discusses her husband’s failings while cooking his dinner, but once Vavachan dies she transforms instantly into the chief mourner, wailing incessantly over his body with her cries getting louder and more strident whenever anyone arrives at the house. She has an uncanny ability to know when someone is near and start crying just in time! Every visitor is then subjected to her pointed comments and snide remarks, all made under the guise of talking to her husband’s corpse that ensures Pennamma can pay out every insult (real or imagined) she has endured over the years. Pauly Valsan is excellent here and her Pennamma is a compellingly accurate portrayal of a widow making the most of her brief time in the spotlight. P.F. Mathews screenplay is keenly observational and he captures equally realistic reactions from the other members of the family and various other villagers who come to mourn Vavachan’s passing, or just call in to see what is going on. As Eeshi is out trying to organise the funeral, Sabeth is mostly worried about the appearance she will present to visitors now that her husband has pawned her jewellery. Nissa on the other hand is trying to fend off her rather too amorous boyfriend who wants to take advantage of the upset and keeps trying to get Nissa alone.

More and more issues arise as Eeshi tries to organise the funeral. First of all the doctor isn’t available to come and certify the death, and then the nurse is made suspicious by the strong smell of alcohol and the injury to Vavachan’s head. Chavaro causes problems by suggesting that Vavachan’s death was not natural, and Father Zazcharia Parappurath (Dileesh Pothan) takes his concerns seriously. The priest is a wannabe detective and immediately starts to ask questions and investigate the circumstances of Vavachan’s death while berating the local police officer for his inaction. At the same time, a journalist repeatedly calls Eeshi to get details of the funeral, which Eeshi cannot give as the priest has not confirmed the time. Adding the final straw, Vavachan’s prolonged absences are explained at the most inopportune moment, just before the torrential rain hits.

What I really enjoyed about this film are these minor characters and small vignettes as each plays their role in the funeral. The priest’s investigations, Chowro’s troublemaking, the one neighbour who stays with the body and seems unperturbed no matter what happens, the police officer reluctant to venture out and become involved, even the government worker called out to mend the power line are all realistically drawn and relatable to real life. The situation may eventually end up fairly extreme, but on the way there, Lijo Jose Pellissery touches on many typical reactions and conversations that occur in most funeral’s, whether in India or anywhere around the world.

What also stands out is the sense of community that comes through strongly as Eeshi’s neighbours all pull together  – whether it’s trying to find the doctor to certify the death, getting Vavachan ready for his funeral or putting a tarpaulin up to shield the body from the rain, everyone pitches in to help. But while most of the activity revolves around Vavachan’s death and funeral with all the associated comedy, there are touching and poignant scenes involving a grave digger, who has an epiphany of sorts on the beach along with a scruffy stray dog. Here is the compassion and spirituality that is missing from Vavachan’s funeral, and even more markedly, missing from Father Parappurath’s attitude towards the dead. Although the film is about a funeral, for the most part it’s not sad, excepting when the gravedigger himself dies and is buried in the grave he was digging just hours before.

I love the realism in this film that’s cleverly enhanced by the touch of fantasy that brings disparate elements together to create an engaging whole. The attention to detail is perfect while Shyju Khalid’s camerawork captures the miserable weather, grieving family and curious villagers beautifully. The comedy is well written and funny without ever becoming patronising and the variation of light and shade in both the story and characters seems perfectly balanced. Ee Ma Yau is at heart a simple story, but there is so much more going on here and despite being set in a small fishing village the  characterisations and symbolism could apply to almost anywhere. Add in the wonderful sounds of nature, sharp observations and excellent script, and Ee Ma Yau really is a wonderfully engaging film. 5 stars.

 

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Kumbalangi Nights

Kumbalangi Nights

Kumbalangi Nights finally made it to Melbourne over the weekend, and I was lucky enough to get a ticket for one of the packed out shows in Clayton. Madhu C. Narayanan’s directorial début is a coming of age story, but one where a family grows and matures together rather than simply telling the tale of a single person. With exceptional performances from the entire cast and an unexpected twist at the end, this is a must watch film that hopefully will get a wider release in Australia.

The film begins with Franky (Mathew Thomas), the youngest of four brothers coming home after spending time at a soccer camp. He has a scholarship and is receiving a good education, but he’s ashamed of his poor home and dysfunctional family so he keeps his school friends at a distance. Franky and his two older brothers Saji (Soubin Shahir) and Bobby (Shane Nigam) live in a partially unfinished house at the end of an inlet. It’s definitely not in the best part of town (it’s where trash is dumped), but it still looks to be a pretty spot just at the edge of the water. The house may be rickety but the brothers can navigate home by boat and are able to organise dinner by walking outside and casting a net to catch a fish. The fourth brother Boney (Sreenath Bhasi) doesn’t live with the others, mainly because of incessant fights between Saji and Bobby but Boney has a full-time job and a separate set of friends which may contribute to keeping him away from his brothers.

The story of the family is gradually revealed, but more by small day-to-day actions rather than by any major event. For instance, when Frankie arrives home he’s upset to find an egg shell full of cigarette ash – a sign that his brothers haven’t been cleaning while he’s been away. He’s taken on the role of their absent mother and does most of the cooking and cleaning but his despair at the half-finished state of their house is constant. Boney is seen paddling a canoe over to the house but turns away when he sees Saji and Bobby arguing yet again, while Franky finds a sack of abandoned kittens, proving that they really do live in a dumping ground for unwanted strays. In this way, Narayanan gradually reveals a family in crisis, where Saji seems to be content to live off his partner’s earnings in their ironing business, Bobby wastes his time away lounging around with his best friend Prasanth (Sooraj Pops) and Franky escapes to play soccer with his friends as much as possible.

Meanwhile, across the water, Shammi (Fahadh Faasil) has recently married Simmi (Grace Anthony) and moved in with her, her mother (Ambika Rao) and her sister Baby (Anna Ben). Shammi has a good job and Baby also works in a local hotel while their upmarket house is also used as a home-stay for tourists in the area. Although on the face of it this family seems the total opposite of Franky’s, there is something not quite right – first seen in Shammi’s adamant objection to the local kids playing football on ground outside the house. Fahadh Faasil is wonderfully creepy here, with considered arrogance and a scary smile that he keeps plastered on his face while he asks ever more intrusive questions to his wife and her sister. He’s the quintessential patriarchal male who wants to control everyone in the family and expects them to follow his rigid morality. There are so many small mannerisms that Fahadh Faasil adds that together make up the portrait of a not-very-nice man as he eavesdrops, spys on his guests and makes snide and demeaning comments at every opportune moment. One excellent demonstration is when he uses his razor to remove his wife’s bindi from the mirror in the bathroom showing his toxic masculinity at its most blatant with Shammi even calling himself the ‘complete man’ as he preens his moustache in the mirror. It’s a superb performance throughout and although Shammi isn’t onscreen much in the first half, he always leaves an impression.

Meanwhile, Bobby is in love with Simmi’s sister Baby, but the difference in their social status is huge, and the gap in their personal goals appears even more vast. Bobby is content to spend his days drinking and smoking, while Baby has a much more upwardly mobile mindset. However the romance is a realistic portrayal of a relationship trying to span the social divide and there are some beautifully written scenes here too.  Baby persuades Bobby to get a job, which he hates, but he’s determined to stick it out as the only way he’s ever likely to persuade her family to consent to their marriage. Shane Nigam and Anna Ben are delightful here with each perfectly complementing the other and reacting exactly as would be expected to each new problem. Initially Bobby asks his friend why would anyone buy a tea shop just to get tea, when Prasanth reveals he’s planning to marry his girlfriend Sumisha (Riya Saira), but when he falls in love with Bobby he gradually changes his point of view. Realistically, it’s not an instant change, but one that feels plausible given the development of their relationship. Sooraj Pops and Riya Saira provide the perfect contrast too since although Prasanth is just as job shy as Bobby, he has more get up and go, while Sumisha has the confidence Baby lacks.

Syam Pushkaran wrote the screenplay, and as in Maheshinte Prathikaaram (the only other film of his I’ve seen ….so far!), he uses a mixture of comedy and drama to underpin a story that gets to the basic heart of a society and the social constructs that define what makes someone a good person. Saji is argumentative and hot-tempered, but does want the best for his family. When his friend Murugan (Ramesh Thilak) is killed, Saji takes in his widow and her young baby proving that is heart is in the right place, even if sometimes he forgets to listen to it. This is a beautifully nuanced performance by Soubin Shahir and there are moments of absolute brilliance as Saji has to come to terms with the consequences of his actions. So much is not said, but rather is shown by his mannerisms and the way he deals with every set-back and put down. Shane Nigam too does an excellent job with his role, and his Bobby is the quintessential slacker who realises he needs to change his ways or he will lose the woman he loves. The question is whether or not that’s a strong enough incentive, particularly since Bobby has no strong role model to follow.

My absolute favourite though is Grace Anthony as Simmi. There is a real gender divide in the film with the men generally failing to deal with the issues in their lives. The women on the other hand, just get on with things without any drama or fanfare. Simmi initially seems to be just another long-suffering and put upon wife but she has an inner strength and determination that finally breaks out towards the end of the film in a brilliantly written and performed scene. It’s this combination of normal routine life and small moments of drama that makes Kumbalangi Nights such an engrossing and relatable film. Although ultimately it’s the story of Franky’s family and their gradual transformation as different women enter their lives and help to turn them around, it’s also a study of ordinary human behaviour that will ring true for most of us. There is so much more I could write about almost every scene, but I don’t want to give away any more of the plot, so all I can do is advise everyone to go see the movie!

This is a beautifully told story and Shyju Khalid adds the finishing touches with good use of the camera to capture both the beauty and the ugliness in this small area of Kerala. Sushin Shyam’s music fits perfectly and every single member of the cast plays their role as if it was one they were born to fill. The only odd note comes at the end where the plot takes a sudden turn, but it’s still so well executed that even this doesn’t seem all that out of place. I loved this film and highly recommend watching Kumbalangi Nights for a simply great little slice of life in small town Kerala.

 

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.