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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Kammatipaadam

Kammatipaadam

Rajeev Ravi’s 2016 film Kammatipaadam is a dark thriller that tells the story of an ex-gang member’s search for his estranged best friend, who has disappeared under suspicious circumstances. It’s also a stark social commentary, as the film documents the urbanisation of a rural area and shows how poor farmers were forced out to make way for high rises and shopping malls for the rich. P. Balachandran’s screenplay explores the violent world of the gangs and the harsh realities of life for the marginalised poor while adding mystery and suspense with the search for the missing Ganga. Although Dulquer Salmaan is excellent in the lead role, the film really belongs to Vinayakan and Manikandan Achari who are both outstanding as the missing Ganga and his gangster brother Balan. While the film is overlong at almost 3 hours, this is an excellent slice of gangster life, Kerala style, and impresses with a realistic, brutal storyline and gritty memorable characters.

The film starts with an injured middle-aged Krishnan (Dulquer Salmaan) flagging down a bus somewhere in Kerala. In a series of flashbacks, intercut with current events, he remembers his childhood and his life as a young man in the fields of Kammatipaadam before they vanished under the high-rises of Kochi. Krishnan and Ganga’s friendship is gradually revealed in an intricate and detailed story, painting a vivid picture of life for the poorest and most marginalised members of society, but also describing a rich and deep friendship that is enough to draw Krishnan from his settled life in Mumbai back to the dangers of his youth.

The scenes describing Krishnan’s early life are detailed and set the scene to explain why later, despite everything that has happened between them, Krishnan still responds to Ganga’s call for help. When Krishnan’s father (P. Balachandran) moves the family to Kammatipaadam, young Krishnan and Ganga become inseparable friends despite their different backgrounds – Ganga comes from a Dalit family, while Krishnan’s family are middle class and generally appear better off. However, caste is no barrier to the two boys and although Krishna’s older sister (Muthumani) seems appalled by the friendship, Krishnan’s father doesn’t seem to have any real issues with his son’s relationship with the local Dalit community. Ultimately though, it’s Ganga whose influence takes Krishnan away from his family and leads him into a life of crime.

As children, the boys witness a brutal killing when Ganga’s elder brother Balan (Manikandan R Achari) attempts to murder a local thug. This seems to set them on the path of rowdyism and as they grow older, they become part of Balan’s gang, doing odd jobs and fighting as required. What makes this part of the film so watchable is the persona of Balan. He’s charismatic and outspoken with a larger than life personality and an almost theatrical approach to defending his place in the local underworld. There is an awesome fight scene outside a movie theatre where Balan fights everyone before leaping up on a car to sell movie tickets – making his entire performance a brash advertising stunt as well as driving away his rivals in the business!

Balan runs an illegal alcohol business with local entrepreneur Ashan aka Surendran (Anil Nedumangad) Both Ganga and Krishnan eagerly join in with Krishnan acting as a driver for the smugglers. However not everyone is a fan of Balan’s style and Johnny (Shine Tom Chacko), a rival for the smuggling trade, sets out to bring Balan and his gang down.

While all this is going on there is another rivalry developing closer to home. Almost since their first meeting, Krishnan and Anitha (Shaun Romy) have fallen in love, but Ganga expects to marry his cousin and resents her attachment to Krishnan. Ganga’s path seems easier after Krishnan is sent to jail for attacking a police officer, but this is only a temporary hiccup and the two reconnect on Krishnan’s release. Dulquher and Shaun Romy have good chemistry at the start, but it’s the change to their relationship when they meet again years later that really impresses. Anitha reveals her resentment at the way Krishnan and Ganga treated her as a commodity while Krishnan has to deal with his memories and regrets. Unfortunately, Rajeev Ravi doesn’t go back to this part of Krishnan’s story, so we’re left to wonder what will become of Anitha who seems to be the loser in every respect.

Balan and his gang act as enforcers, and one of their jobs is to evict farmers from areas where the developers want to build. They don’t even seem to notice when their own land starts to be fenced off, but when Balan’s grandfather objects to his family being involved in pushing other Dalits off the land, Balan sees the error of his ways and decides to ‘retire’ from his life of crime. Balan has also become married to Rosamma (Amalda Liz)) but before he can settle down, Balan is killed and Ganga blames his childhood friend for his brother’s death. This is the final straw for Ganga and it leads to the estrangement between the two men.

However, when he is in trouble, Ganga calls his old friend, sparking Krishnan’s return to Kammatipaadam to find out what has happened.  As Krishnan searches for Ganga he is forced to face his past and come to terms with the bleakness of his friend’s life after Balan’s death. While members of the gang like Majeed (Vijay Kumar) have prospered, Ganga is still living in the past and involved in the seedy underbelly of Ernakulam. The mystery deepens when Krishnan himself is attacked and it seems as if no-one else wants to know what has happened to Ganga.

Kammatipaadam is a study of characters and each is so realistic and well-drawn that it’s easy to become involved in their lives and care about what happens to them. The film spans roughly thirty years and I was amazed at how successfully Dulquer shows his character’s aging in his mannerisms, gait and stance. As a young man, he is arrogant and cocky, with a confidence that shows in his walk and his dialogues. But when he returns to Kammatipaadam, he’s older, moves more slowly and stiffly and to some degree, thinks before he speaks. He really gets into the heart of Krishnan and his friendship with Ganga comes alive onscreen, while the small glances and covert looks are enough to convey the entirety of his romance with Anitha. However as good as Dulquer is, he is equalled by Vinayakan who puts his heart and soul into his portrayal of Ganga. Here there is loyalty and devotion. Here too, a poor man who makes his living exploiting other poor men and pisses away the profit with his drinking problem. Manikandan R Achari is also superb as Balan with his loud brash exterior hiding a man capable of greater understanding but without the wherewithal to allow his dreams free rein. These are the petty gangsters who so often make up the fodder in the big herocentric films, but this time the story is about them and their short and violent lives. The actors who portray the young Krishnan and Ganga are also excellent with Shalu Rahim in particular setting up Krishna very well for Dulquer Salmaan to smoothly take over as the character matures. But even the young kids at the start are fantastic, and again have all the same characteristics as their older selves.

The minor characters all have their own brief story arc that adds layers of complexity to the film. Krishnan’s father has his own issues, illustrated perfectly when he goes to pick up his son from prison but leaves empty-handed. Even Rosamma, Balan’s wife and surely an inconsequential character in most other gangster films, has a greater role to play than expected and turns out to be a better gangster than her husband or her brother-in-law. The story of Ganga’s disappearance and Krishnan’s search is simply the top layer that sits over the excellent character studies and underlying thread of the exploitation and eviction of the Dalits. The film also looks amazing, with excellent cinematography from Madhu Neelakantan although I would expect nothing less from Rajeev Ravi given his own work as a cinematographer in Hindi cinema. The songs too are interesting, with references to the plight of the Dalits and their lack of a permanent and safe place to live while Krishna Kumar’s background score is unobtrusive but effective in adding to the overall richness of the film.

However all of this depth of characterisation and attention to detail comes with a price. The film is overlong and does drag in places, particularly in the second half. A fight scene in the prison and one in a bus station are overly drawn out and the build up to the final scene is rather indulgent. Still, the film succeeds at drawing a picture of the violent and desperate side of life as a small time gangster, and the brilliant performances and characterisations ensure that Kammatipaadam is a film that stays with you long after the end credits roll. Fascinating, thought-provoking and a lesson in the birth of Kochi all in one – 4 stars.

Kali (2016)

Kali

I’ve been looking forward to the combination of Dulquer Salmaan and Sai Pallavi onscreen in Sameer Thahir’s Kali, and thankfully they don’t disappoint. It’s an interesting film too, with a simple but effective screenplay from Rajesh Gopinadhan, following the story of a young man who cannot control his temper and the unexpected consequences of one of his episodes of rage. The first half sets the scene for a compelling thriller in the second half and with excellent performances from all the actors, Kali is definitely well worth a watch.

The film starts with a violent fight at a roadside restaurant. It’s beautifully choreographed and includes the displeasure of the restaurant’s resident cat whose meal is disrupted by the conflict. The snarling cat adds a touch of wildness and lawlessness to the fight that’s echoed later on in the film when the action returns to the restaurant. The short but vicious opening also sets the scene for another fight, although this one is less physical but equally damaging in its own way.

Siddharth (Dulquer Salmaan) is a man with a very short fuse and the simplest of things makes him lose his temper. After the fight at the restaurant, the next round is between Siddharth and his wife Anjali (Sai Pallavi). Anjali is seen leaving their house in tears and carrying a suitcase, while inside Siddharth is angrily throwing objects at the wall. It’s a scene of domestic life that rings true, particularly since Anjali isn’t staying around to accept any abuse and sensibly heads for the door. However it’s late at night and Siddharth at least doesn’t leave his wife walking down the road by herself, managing to pick her up in their car even though he’s still clearly very angry indeed.

The film moves into flashback to show how Siddharth has always been quick to lose his temper, even as a child, and how the years haven’t mellowed his reactions at all. Throughout his time as a student and even during job interviews, Siddharth shows no patience and absolutely no control over his angry reactions. He’s a man who reacts first and rarely thinks about the consequences of his behaviour. It seems strange that Anjali does stick with him and it’s hard to believe that Siddhartha hasn’t had any previous problems as a result of his behaviour. No-one ever seems to react badly to his outbursts for example. What’s good about the flashback though is that there is little about the love story between Siddharth and Anjali. Their romance is simply a fact, and the film instead shows Anjali’s struggle to cope with Siddharth’s temper outbursts and her attempts to keep him on an even keel. Many of the situations are drawn from routine day-to-day hassles and while Siddharth’s irritation is understandable it’s his inability to control his reactions that make him such a difficult person to deal with.

There is a kinder side to Siddharth too though, and he’s not all rage and temper. He does make some attempt to keep his temper and tries to control his frustration with his bank customers using a stress ball Anjali gives him, with at least some partial success. However he has an incredibly irritating colleague in Prakashan (Soubin Shahir) who is deliberately provocative and obnoxious, although Siddharth does his best to ignore him as much as possible. Dulquer Salmaan and Sai Pallavi have excellent chemistry in their scenes together which makes their relationship believable. It’s easy to see why Anjali stays with Siddharth despite his anger management issues – the two are clearly in love and outside of his temper tantrums Siddharth is a caring and attentive husband. I love the end of this song where Anjali dances with Siddharth in their living room. It seems very natural and spontaneous, plus Sai Pallavi is simply gorgeous in that red sari!

The film steps up the pace in the second half when Siddharth and Anjali find themselves in a frightening situation as a result of Siddharth losing his temper with truck driver Chakkara (Chemban Vinod Jose) on the road. The couple end up at the restaurant seen in the opening scene of the film where Siddharth’s anger puts him and Anjali in real danger and Siddharth has to curb his natural aggression to try to ensure their safety. The tension rises steadily as the situation escalates further out of control and both Gireesh Gangadharan’s cinematography and Gopi Sundar’s music work well to add further pressure.

Dulquer Salmaan does a fantastic job of conveying his rage without going too far and over dramatising his outbursts of temper. Despite his ever-present anger he manages to make Siddhartha at least a partially appealing character  and I even found myself in sympathy with him as I was just annoyed by Prakashan and the bratty child that visited Siddharth’s house! Dulquer also is excellent in the latter half of the film and allows his inner struggle to show clearly on his face as he deals with the staff and clientele at the restaurant. It’s another brilliant performance and despite the negative tones I thoroughly enjoyed his characterisation here.

After her critically acclaimed début in Premam, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Sai Pallavai but she puts in another fantastic performance in Kali.  Her frustration and disappointment with her husband come across beautifully and she gets the level of embarrassment and distress just right when Siddharth loses his temper in public.  On top of all that she still manages to have great chemistry with her co-star and makes their relationship believable too. She’s just as good in the second half and her terror and helplessness are a major factor in maintaining the tension in the latter part of the film.

The support cast are also uniformly good with Vinayakan and Chemban Vinod Jose perfectly cast as the main villains of the story. They effortlessly exude menace and both have great evil grins and good use of their expressions to help increase the tension every time they appear onscreen. Soubin Shahir is incredibly annoying as fellow bank employee Prakashan and as such manages to win Siddharth some sympathy for having to deal with such an idiot on a day-to-day basis! However thankfully Prakashan is never too over the top and Soubin Shahir doesn’t just play his character for laughs but actually makes him a more plausible character than expected.

Kali is a film of two halves. The first sets up the situation for the rest of the movie, and concentrates on the personality of Siddharth and his relationship with Anjali. It’s a well constructed observation of human interactions and the painful cost of unreasoning rage and unsociable behaviour. The second half on the other hand is an out-and-out thriller where the characters are more broadly drawn and the action tense and frightening. And yet, despite the different pace in the first and second halves the film works well as a whole story and makes for an enthralling two hours of cinema. Highly recommended.