Angamaly Diaries – A Fresh Malayalam Crime Film that Knocked My Socks Off

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I saw a Malayalam film tonight that absolutely blew me away.  Margaret of Don’t Call It Bollywood emailed me that she’d heard great things about Angamaly Diaries — did I want to join her tonight?  So, I went in knowing pretty much nothing about it, other than that @Mozhin123 raved about it to me on twitter, too.  Every single face in the film is new except one cameo by the debut screenwriter, actor Chemban Vinod Jose (Charlie, Kali, and Oppam).  I had director Lijo Jose Pellissery‘s film City of God recommended to me, but this is my first film of his.  Oh. My. God.  Pellissery is the rock star of this film!  The direction and editing knocked my socks off!

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Chemban Vinod Jose and director Lijo Jose Pellissery

From the very first moments of the opening credit sequence I could tell this was going to be a very different kind of Malayalam film.  There were lots of street shots, and close ups of real people, intercut with food, glorious street food, being made.  The food in this film is a whole character in itself!  From the first, I got a strong sense of this place, Angalamy, that pretty much the entire movie takes place in.  I looked it up when I wiki’d the movie when I got home tonight, and it’s a town of about 33,000 people.  The name means batttleground, an ancient battleground, which is so fitting for the script!

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The quick editing is a hallmark of the film, as well as steadycam shots that took me right inside each and every scene.  To get a sense, here’s a behind the scenes making of video, showing how the camera men ran along with the actors in chase scenes and got right into each fight.  I felt like I was right there in the middle amongst the characters in the action.

 

Another key aspect of what made this film so great was the soundtrack and the Foley sounds!  They added such tension and rhythm, with screeching metallic sounds in key action sequences that evoked pigs squealing — and pigs are key to the drama.  I have often complained that the soundtracks of Malayalam films just aren’t scary enough when they need to be – Ezra, I’m looking at you!  This soundtrack is a standout.

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As I was driving home, I reflected that the story of Pepe (newcomer Antony Varghese) is not that original in the crime drama Angamaly Diaries.  We have the familiar flashback to childhood, and the formation of the key male friendships that form the “team” or gang.  We have the innocent teen romance, and more serious relationships as he’s older. We have a rivalry with other toughs in town.  But it all still felt fresh because of the way it was filmed, and the fast paced editing.  This is not the sleepy paced drama that I’m used to in Malayalam film.  The bones of the crime and gang story and the set up feels familiar, but how it’s presented is new and original.  It just felt so gritty, so real and visceral!

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Tito Wilson and Sarath Kumar

 

There is a dramatic turn in Pepe’s life that happens just before the interval.  I was holding my hands over my mouth, stunned.  I needed that few minutes of the intermission to process it.  After the interval, the plot turned in some surprising ways. Sarath Kumar as Ravi and Tito Wilson as Rajan are Pepe’s rivals throughout the film.  They kill Pepe’s mentor Babuji in the first half, and then have a competing pork business to Pepe’s gang.  Things come to a head and fisticuffs, and then turn deadly.  If this was a Telugu movie, these seeming arch villains and rivals would be killed off by the end of the film by our hero, but that’s not what happens here.  Things are more complex, and I loved that, and how it surprised me.

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Pepe has two main romances in the film, one with Sakhi played by Binny Rinky Benjamin, but my favorite was Lichi, above, played by newcomer Reshma Rajan, the older sister of one of Pepe’s pals.  I just adored how she literally pounced on Pepe to let him know she was interested!  I also loved how Pepe’s main friend in the gang, ‘Pork’ Varkey (Kichu Tellus) has troubles because he’s dating a police woman!  Their wedding is one of the highlights of the film.

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The climax of the film is an incredible 11 minute tracking shot with no editing cuts.  We are immersed in a festival in the town and the procession, and follow the characters in and out of houses and encounters, and finally in a big fight and chase sequence.  That sequence is stunning filmmaking.  I was gobsmacked by it.

I was fascinated by just about everything in this film. The food.  The depiction of Christianity in the town, as most characters are Christian, and the festivals.  Even the pork business the gang was in was fascinating, with the open butcher stalls and all.  This film reminded me in some ways of the gritty Kammatti Paadam, but that film and its Dalit characters are all viewed through the perspective of the middle class Dulquer Salmaan.  This film was all about working class people and their lives in a way that I don’t really think I’ve seen in Malayalam films.  Most of the films I’ve seen, the recent ones at least, have been about middle class people.

I was really impressed that all these newcomers to film acted so well, even the child actors.  Antony Varghese is quite the looker, and I thought he did a great job.  Reshma Rajan as Lichi had sass and spunk, and I’d love to see her in another bigger role.  Going in, I kind of dreaded that I wouldn’t know a single actor in the film, but it served the story better that all the faces were fresh.  It made the drama more real feeling and visceral.  I am so excited that director Lijo Jose Pelissery has some older films for me to watch.  I will be seeking them out pronto.  Pelissery is such a talent.  He is one of the greats already.  This film is groundbreaking, and is garnering praise from everyone.  Anurag Kushyap tweeted that this is this is his film of the year so far.

I need to see this film again.  I’ll likely buy the DVD, because I have to see that ending tracking shot again, at the very least.  It was amazing.  I am so glad Margaret invited me to see this film!  Here’s her rave review.

Update:  Margaret and I did a podcast about this wonderful film.  Check it out!

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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.

 

Kammatti Paadam -Dulquer Salmaan is the star in this gripping gangster movie, but Vinayakan and Manikandan steal the show

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Kammatti Paadam is a gangster epic. This film has a lot of depth and meat to it.  Dulquer Salmaan was amazing.  I’m admiring his choices of films and roles this past year.  He’s breaking into new ground and showing his acting chops outside the charming romantic lead type.  The poster shows him present day as a salt and pepper haired 42 year old security guard living in Mumbai.  (Yes, we see him doing security for a Bollywood film doing a street shoot!)  Just a touch of gray to his hair and mustache.  And I think he must have gained weight for the role.  He just looked more like his father Mammootty than ever with that substantial thick mustache.
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I looked up during the interval who the director is – Rajeev Ravi.  He’s only directed a few Malayalam films, but he’s worked extensively as a cinematographer in Bollywood, with Anurag Kashyap especially.  He was cinematographer on Bombay Velvet, Gangs of Wasseypur, Dev D, etc.  And key in Malayalam cinema, he was cinematographer for Classmates.  There were some really interesting shots — into plate glass windows, some shaky handheld work during action scenes, etc.  It just was visually interesting and not all straight forward shooting as we sometimes see in Indian film.

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The story is shown in a series of flashbacks after he gets a call in Mumbai from an old friend in Kerala who is in trouble.  Dulquer is Krishnan, a Hindu middle class kid and the name of the movie is the neighborhood he grew up in and the name of his gang.  We see his exposure to violence as a very young child, as he and his best friend Ganga see a local tough kill three men who challenge him.  Then another actor plays Dulquer as a young teen and we see that he has fallen in love with a Dalit girl.  The trouble is, so has Ganga.  Ganga and the whole gang are dalit, and the ringleader is Balan, Ganga’s older brother.  The actor who played Balan was incredible – newcomer Manikandan.

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Balan is played by newcomer Manikandan
We see Krish’s descent into violence as a teenager.  He gives a necklace to Anita, the dalit girl, and another reviewer pointed out that it was an echo of Michael Corleone in Godfather.  I recognized a Nayakan poster in one scene, but evidently there are more references and posters to other Indian gangster films in flashbacks.

Krish is jailed after he saves Ganga from being arrested by slashing a cop with a knife/machete in an impulsive act, ending up killing the cop.

When he gets out of jail, it’s young Dulquer acting the part.  We keep flashing back and forth in the narrative, and we can see present day Dulquer/Krish is injured with a bound torso, trying to keep conscious while riding a bus.

Balan, Ganga and the gang introduce Krish to their current operation — mostly transporting illegal hooch and bootlegging.  They also are hired to run off some poor families who are refusing to sell to a real estate developer.

Balan’s grandfather confronts Balan with his shame that his relative could do this to their relatives and people, and then the grandfather dies of the shock and shame.  This changes Balan and he wants to get out of the business as does Krish.  But they know too much, and a new rival in the organization won’t let things stand.  Balan is killed and Ganga blames Krish for it.

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Ganga, Krish and the gang go after Johnny, the rival and then lay low after the altercation.  Ganga tells Krish that he knows that Krish and Anita love each other but their families will never allow them to marry as it would be intercaste.  He says that he will marry Anita and try to make her happy.  Krish then goes to Mumbai.  The mystery through much of the film is how if Ganga was his romantic rival and “stole” his girl, why would he leave everything to help him and look for him all these years later?

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Vinayakan as the young and older Ganga

The guy who plays Ganga as an adult, Vinayakan was also fantastic.  I just looked him up and he was the villain John in Kali! The director found some great actors, and your sympathies are with the Dalit and how they keep getting screwed.  Their boss goes respectable and becomes a business tycoon in legal liquor and real estate, but the gang are left with nothing.

There is a final revenge scene, and Krish looks out over the city Ernakulam, Kerala.  He says to the person he’s killing that the city was built on the thick black blood of the Dalit people.  And then I realized that the idyllic country place from the childhood scenes, to the motley semi-rural shacks in the young men section to then the present day bustling city were all the same place.  And the point of the movie was that this vibrant young new city was built on the Dalit community being dispossessed and they did it for quick money to their own community.  That was probably obvious to the Kerala audience but I didn’t really get it until the end.

The women in the movie didn’t have much to do, much like many gangster pics.  One interesting note was that Balan’s wife seemed to have become a don herself after his death (and more successful.)  She assists Krish to find the answers at the end.  And there is an unrequited romance for Krish, and a whisper of a song motif for them, but no full fledged song numbers at all.  It was very much parallel cinema.  I’m guessing it’s much like Gangs of Wasseypur (which I haven’t seen yet), Kerala version.

Krish is our entre to their world, but he’s more a witness to what happens to the Dalit community.  He’s still middle-class and Hindu in the end and can move to Mumbai to start over, unlike the rest of the gang.

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The film felt long to me, and I wished it had been edited a little tighter.  (The filming ended in March evidently.)  It’s a sprawling gangster epic in the mode of Nayakan, Godfather, Casino, etc.  It’s not my favorite type of film.  So, so violent.  Shockingly violent in several parts.  The acting was great, but it’s a story of brothers of circumstance if not of blood or caste.   It’s the story of Ganga and Balan, and also Krish.

I admire this movie very much, but it’s not something I want to see over and over again.  It’s just very dark and violent and searing.  It was hard to see Dulquer be so violent in Kali, and this is even steps beyond that.  It’s not a silly action Masala movie.  He does the action scenes well, but he’s not a hero.

I thought we were seeing Dulquer play an adult in Kali, but this film shows him really, truly coming of age.  I’m excited to see him take on that mantle, and looking forward to see what roles he’ll take on next.

Four stars out of five.