City of God – Lijo Jose Pellissery’s moving hyperlink New Generation Malayalam film may have been ahead of its time

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After seeing the fantastic Malayalam film Angamaly Diaries last week, I couldn’t wait to seek out director Lijo Jose Pellissery’s other films.  City of God was the one recommended to seek out first, and glory be, it’s on Google Play for rental and purchase.  At $4.99 to buy, I snatched it right up.

City of God is part of the New Generation of Malayalam films with a hyperlink non-linear narrative of four interlocking stories.  It came out within months of Traffic, the first of the new wave Malayalam cinema, but City of God was pulled within a week of release.  It may have been a bit ahead of its time.  It felt much grittier and more violent than Traffic, and isn’t really suited to a broad family audience.  I felt Traffic relied a bit too much on the audience’s familiarity of all the actors in that multi-starrer, and I didn’t really get to know any character that well.  I liked City of God much more.

A signature of Malayalam New Wave films is an accident, and coincidences that bring people together and set off the events of the film.  City of God starts with a horrific car crash.  Prithviraj is driving a car that crashes into a street light pole, after hitting a motorscooter with a young couple.  There’s also a van full of toughs that pile out to confront Prithviraj after the crash, and then we flash back.  We see the events of the film from several perspectives, replaying various key scenes from the point of view of different characters.  This is a movie where you have to pay attention a bit to catch on to what is going on.

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Prithviraj is sort of a capo or enforcer for his rich friend Sony (Rajeev Pillai).  He gets lots of very cool fight scenes, mostly just kicking and punching his way out of various jams, but in the photo above wielding a firehose like a urumi sword!  Prithviraj looked pretty bulked up, and this film was around the time of the filming of Aiyyaa.  Hubba hubba.  It was super fun to see Prithviraj be a sort of gangster tough guy, smacking people down first, and asking questions later.

Sony is obssessed with a young actress, Surya (Rima Kallingal).  He had a romance with her in the past, but his parents made him abandon her, and he’s trying to get her back, even though she’s married to an abusive husband.  Surya is a big actress, and one of the big musical numbers is cleverly one she’s doing for a film within the film.  The director was very clever about the songs.  There  was this one during a film shoot, one big one at a wedding, and then a couple more playing on a radio and so on.

There’s a complicated land deal going on between some corrupt business types, Sony, and some mafia.  Prithviraj is sent out to “deal” with one guy, and his wife then vows revenge.

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My favorite story line involved the migrant Tamil laborers who were working on the building project for Sony.  My reader Mohzin let me know that half this film is in Tamil, including half the songs!  He said that the Malayalam audience didn’t need subtitles for the Tamil speaking parts.  The love story of Swarnavel (Indrajith) and Marathakam (Pavarthy) is just so wonderful.  It’s the heart of the whole film.  Marathakam has fled Tamil Nadu and her abusive husband.  Swarnavel obviously loves her, but holds back as she is already married.  Marathakam’s friend Lakshmi (Rohini from Baahubali!) urges her to marry again, but Rohini has other ideas than poor Swarnavel.  She tells both the other thinks of them as either brother or sister, and so Marathakam, heart broken, agrees to marry a supposedly wealthy man.  Then comes my all time favorite scene of the whole film.  The  cops come and arrest her husband, and then she finds the drunk Swarnavel to chastise him for letting her marry this thief.  Then the sparks just FLY once they realize they don’t view each other as siblings AT ALL!  When he breaks off her mangalsutra — so hot!  Another favorite thing is that she won’t kiss him as he’s drunk, and sobers him up with a bucket full of water over his head!

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This is the couple from the opening scene accident who were on the motor scooter.  Why they were so frantically racing on that bike gradually is revealed.

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Prithviraj doesn’t get a full on romance in the film, but he does rescue a damsel in distress and gives her very swoony longing looks through the rearview mirror.  Mostly, in this film, he just gets to kick ass in very cool fights, and he seems much more savvy and smart than anyone around him.  But then Prithviraj usually does seem like the smartest one in the room.

The tone of the film can change dramatically from scene to scene,as we’re going from one character’s point of view to the next.  There are several side characters who have comedic moments — quite a few sort of comedy uncle characters.  The main actors were all pretty good, but the guy playing Sony didn’t make much of an impression on me.  Prithviraj, Pavarthy and Indrajith were the standouts. Indrajith stole the whole movie, in my opinion.  I don’t really remember him from Classmates, but he’s in Amen, which I’m going to try to watch next.  Pavarthy looks so completely different from any other character I’ve seen her play, that I honestly did not recognize her until I saw her name in the end credits.  Once I went back and rewatched that HOT love scene song, I could tell it was her, maybe with darker makeup?  Quite the different look than in Bangalore Days or Charlie!

The cinematography was quite interesting.  Some cool different angles to many shots, and great editing.  The fights didn’t feel quite as intimate as the recent Angamaly Diaries.  There was a steadicam being shook up, I guess to  imitate the Bourne films, but it just made me dizzy.  It worked in Angamaly Diaries, and didn’t work for me here in the same way.

As I said earlier, I didn’t really enjoy the hyperlink in Traffic, as there were too many shallow stories that weren’t developed.  Here, there were four key stories that interconnected, and the characters were more fleshed out.  This film can be gritty and violent like Kammatti Paadam or Angamaly Diaries.  Maybe the audience 6 years ago wasn’t quite ready for an innovative film like this.  Angamaly Diaries is still the better film, but it was really fascinating to see this director developing his signature style.

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Aiyyaa – How can a movie be so sublime and so awful all at the same time

I love Rani Mukherji so Aiyyaa was on my watchlist, but it moved right up to the top after I saw this video:

I have only seen a few Prithviraj films, and my impression was of a very good serious actor in Ennu Ninte Moideen, Classmates and Mumbai Police or even Aurangzeb.  But I hadn’t seen him like this:

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Holy moly.  (Is it getting hot in here?)

Aiyyaa means Oh, My!  Aiyyaa was a comeback film for Rani, but was Prithviraj’s Bollywood Debut.  (He made Aurangzeb around the same time.)  The film was produced by Anurag Kashyap and was directed by Sachin Kundalkar.

Rani is Menaskshi, a young woman who loves zany Bollywood films, the more over the top the better.  The songs in Aiyyaa are her fantasies.  She imagines herself at the beginning as Madhuri, Juhi and Sridevi.  Her parents want to arrange her marriage, but first she gets a job at the local art college.

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She is struck speechless by the appearance of art student Surya, and is entranced by his smell.  (The director Sachin Kundalkar, had done a previous Marathi film about the senses.)  She asks around to learn more about her crush Surya.  He always has red eyes so the rumor is that he’s on drugs or spends all his nights drinking.  He barely ever speaks to Rani, and is very mysterious and standoffish.  She finds him sleeping in doorways and hallways.  She knows he speaks Tamil to the chaiwallah boy, who she bribes to teach her to speak Tamil.  “How do I say I like dark skin people, not fair skin?”  The chaiwallah recommends she watch the Tamil Midnight Masala TV channel.

Rani dreams she’s in a Southern Masala film, and we get this insane number that made me just laugh in delight:

As Prithviraj said in an interview — it’s Bollywood’s crazy view of Southern films.  What I absolutely love about this song sequence is that I’ve never before seen Prithviraj so silly, and you can just see him going for it with gusto.

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He just has this crazy grin through the whole song.  They rhyme humping and thumping, and he bobs his head following her waist gyrations.  Prithviraj’s having his own fun spoofing regional song sequences.  Having seen several South Indian films, I felt like I was in on the joke.

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Rani’s eccentric family have placed a matrimonial ad and she grits her teeth through meetings with several suitors.  One very nice average guy she reluctantly agrees to see again.  He’s kind and sweet, but he just doesn’t float her boat like Surya – who seemingly doesn’t even know she exists.  While shopping for wedding saris, she has the lustful Aga Bai fantasy song from the top of the review.

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I wouldn’t have minded if Surya had just been a fantasy and she ended up with the nice average Maadhav (Subodh Bhave).  On the day of her engagement, she escapes the house and follows Surya.  Finally she discovers the source of his intoxicating scent, and they connect.  The romance is just so swoon worthy.  It’s sublime.

But unfortunately, Prithviraj, Subodh and Rani aren’t the only people in the film.  Rani’s family is at first amusingly eccentric.  In the first half, it’s not so bad, but her brother character especially in the second half just goes off into crazyland.  The very worst character is her co-worker Maina, who has big buck teeth and comes to work with vodka in a bear shaped water bottle.  She’s not only un-funny, she’s just blatantly offensive.  The writer-director was going for zany, and he veered too far on the wacky spectrum.  You know it’s bad when Johnny Lever would have brought subtlety to this film. If this film instead had had the comedic tone of something like Dum Laga Ke Haisha it would have been perfect.   It was just so uneven lurching between the extreme awful comedy and then the swooniness of the romance.

I loved the romance bits of this film so much I have rewatched it already, but I fast-forwarded through all the family scenes and the Maina bits.  Rani in her fantasies in Aiyyaa reminded me a bit of Amelie, that magical realism French film:

 

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So dear reader, I have trouble whole-heartedly recommending this film.  The film has a great message about cross-cultural romance and even with a male director is interested in the female gaze and point of view.  If you’re a big fan of Rani like I am, you’ll agree that she was fantastic as Meenakshi.  If you love Prithviraj as I am beginning to, you’ll love seeing him be almost Mr. Darcy like, and also having zany fun being a sex symbol.  If you can stand to watch not so great films for the transcendent good parts, just do yourself a favor and keep your finger on the fast-forward button.

Three stars out of five.  Aiyyaa is available on ErosNow, which is where I watched it.