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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Fukri – A Mediocre Malayalam Family Farce

fukriFukri is an amusing timepass family comedy directed by veteran Siddique who also acts as the Fukri family patriarch in the film.  Jayasurya stars as Lucky.  Lucky is a wannabe engineer who with his band of friends tries different get rich quick schemes.  They accept a job for two young women caught skipping school for a Salman Khan film.  They girls want Lucky to pretend to be their cousin to meet the school principal.  Of course Lucky falls for the beautiful Nafsi (in the red scarf below) played by Prayaga Martin.

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The girls say he is the son of their long lost uncle who left after a violent argument with their grandfather over his interfaith marriage.  The girls saying that Lucky is their cousin sets everything in motion.  Both his Brahmin “grandmother” and his Muslim grandfather (Fukri) then want to meet Lucky and welcome him back into the family fold.  To complicate matters, the real child (Anu Sithara) of that long lost son reveals herself to Lucky.

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At first Lucky and his friends are enjoying staying in the wealthy homes of his “family”, but Lucky’s good nature lends him to try to mend the rift between the two families.  I’m sure you’ve suspected that the long lost son makes a dramatic appearance, and it’s Lal, so it’s quite the entrance.

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Family farce comedies like this are a staple in Indian film.  Mistaken identities, family feuds, arranged marriages to the wrong partner, all with happy ending wrapped in a bow.

I’ve only seen Jayasurya as a supporting player in films like Mumbai Police and Classmates, and he has impressed me in those roles.  He is charming here as the mischievous scamp with a heart of gold.  I don’t know if he quite though has the magnetic star power to carry a film like this however.  Lal has a powerful impact as the estranged son of patriarch Fukri (Siddique).  None of the actresses in the film blew me away.  They were fine, but not exceptional.

I’m not sure I’ve seen another of Siddique’s Malayalam  directed films, but I did enjoy the light Hindi film Bodyguard (remake of his Malayalam hit) starring Kareena Kapoor and Salman Khan.

I wouldn’t tell you to run out and catch Fukri in the theaters.  It’s a decent timepass to watch on a streaming service.  It had some amusing moments, but wasn’t consistently laugh out loud.

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Ayalum Njanum Thammil – Prithviraj in the story of a young doctor and his mentor

ayalum-njanum-thammil37436Ayalum Njanum Thammil (Between Him and Me) is a 2012 Malayalam film starring Prithviraj as a young doctor and the relationship he has with his mentor and teacher.  It has a tragic romance in it, but the main focus of the film is Prithviraj as Ravi and his first job out of medical school in a rural hospital.

I’m on a bit of a Prithviraj kick at the moment.  I am absolutely amazed that this actor is only 33.  He’s made over 80 films!  He’s just so great in any film that he is in.  He has a worthy actor to play against in Ayalam Njanum Thammil as director and award winning actor Pratep Pothen plays his mentor, Dr. Samuel.  I really loved Pratep Pothen in this role.

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Lal Rose, who also directed Prithviraj in the classic Classmates, uses a similar flashback structure in Ayalam Njanum Thammil that he did in Classmates.  We start in the present day, and Prithviraj is a dedicated doctor at a large city hospital.  He’s brought in to consult on a young girl that needs heart surgery, but he can’t convince the parents to approve the surgery.  He does the surgery anyway, and the girl dies.  A mob forms outside the hospital, and Prithviraj gets a call, and leaves out the back way, but gets in a car accident and vanishes.  His friends and family try to reconstruct where he could have gone, and through the flashbacks we learn about how he became the dedicated to maybe an extreme surgeon he is in the present day.

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His best friend relates how they nearly flunked out of med school together, and even tried to cheat on tests.  They all thought it was a big lark.  Prithviraj’s family is Christian, and he had a long term relationship with his Muslim classmate Sainu (Samvrutha Sunil).

Prithviraj is given an ultimatum by the school dean.  Pay the rest of his tuition bill, or serve as a rural doctor for two years.  He’s confident his father will pay, but his father thinks doing some growing up away from home will be good for him.

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Dr. Samuel (Pratep Pothen) takes Prithviraj (Dr. Ravi) under his wing, and shows Prithviraj just how much he has left to learn in his medical education.  One of my favorite moments comes when Dr. Samuel accidentally calls Dr. Ravi Rahul which is his estranged son’s name, showing that he’s come to think of Prithviraj as a son.  There’s another young woman doctor at the rural hospital, Dr. Supriya (Remya Nambeesan) who becomes his fast friend.

Prithviraj has a run in with a local cop with a car accident that comes back to haunt him later.  His love Sainu is about to be married off by her parents, and Prithviraj has arranged through his friend to meet her back at the medical school to get a registry marriage.  But he’s delayed by helping Dr. Supriya with a touch and go patient.  When he finally starts driving at 3 am, there’s a roadblock and the cop won’t let him through.  How he retaliates against the cop later when the cop has an ill family member is a very tense scene in the movie, and a key moment in his relationship with his mentor, Dr. Samuel.

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I don’t think this movie will go down as one of my favorite Prithviraj performances, but it was very good.  He believably goes from mature competent dedicated super surgeon in present day, to madcap goof off student in the flashbacks.  Prithviraj’s acting carries us through the journey of Dr. Ravi growing as a person and a caring physician.

The ending is not what I would call happy, but more wistful.  It’s not the typical tidy ending one usually expects.

Three and a half stars out of five.

Read Margaret’s review of Ayalam Njanum Thammil on Don’t Call It Bollywood where she compares it to Dr. Kildare.

 

Mumbai Police – Prithviraj’s stunning performance in this film gobsmacked me

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I was absolutely gobsmacked by the amazing performance of Prithviraj in the Malayalam crime mystery drama Mumbai Police.  I had seen Prithviraj in a stellar if unflashy supporting role in the Hindi film Aurangzeb, also as a cop.  Then I saw Classmates as I was told how influential it is in modern Malayalam cinema.  He was very solid also in the romantic drama Ennu Ninte Moideen.  I had been impressed by his body of work, but nothing prepared me for his incredible performance in Mumbai Police.  Essentially, he’s almost playing a double role.

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In the opening scene, Tony (Prithviraj) is driving down an empty street at night in his police jeep.  He is speaking into a phone saying, “I have found the culprit.” in Malayalam and then repeats it in English.  Suddenly a refrigerator falls off a truck in front of him, and he swerves and the jeep rolls over.  The next scene has a bewildered scarred Tony in a car with Farhan who tells Tony he is his best friend.  Tony has lost all his memory, and this fellow cop friend and the doctor are the only people who know that.  Tony was in the middle of the investigation of the murder of a fellow policeman and the political and press pressure is intense for the case to be solved.

Tony doesn’t know who is friend and who is foe.  After Farhan drops him off at his apartment, Tony is attacked by several men, and is stunned that he can quickly dispatch all of them.  He asks his doctor if he can really return to work, and she has him solve a sudoku puzzle.  She explains that before the accident he was “Person A”, and after he lost his memory he is “Person B”.  He may have different likes and preferences as Person B, but all the skills he learned as Person A, any languages he learned, he will still know.  She brings up that Steve Wozniak lost his memory the same way for five weeks after a plane accident.  (All the computers in the film are Macs).

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So, Tony returns to work, bluffing his way through his interactions with subordinates and poring over the investigation notes.  He learns the murder victim was his good friend Aryan, and Tony, Farhan and Aryan were known as the “Mumbai Police” since they had served there together before returning to Kerala.

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The films Memento and Ghajini deal with short term memory loss, but Mumbai Police reminded me more of the old Harrison Ford movie Regarding Henry.  In Regarding Henry, Harrison Ford plays a hard charging lawyer who loses his memory and has almost a complete personality change after being shot.  He’s two different people and his family has to adjust to the “new” Henry.

Tony at first wants to get back to what he was before, but in the course of reinvestigating the murder, he discovers that he was quite the asshole. He was confident and arrogant, with a certain swagger, but his staff walked on eggshells around him waiting for him to explode.  There is a scene where Tony is questioning a possible witness, and grabs the guy’s wife and manhandles her, molesting her in front of everyone.  His female subordinate looks on in complete disgust at his abuse of power.  And we in the audience had been falling for this super competent cop, and then his darkness slaps us in the face.

Gradually, Tony finds that the murder happened from a specific kind of sniper gun from a nearby building to the murder parade ground.  Aryan was about to be decorated with a medal for bravery and his speech is cut short by the bullet to the heart.  Tony was the one who actually deserved the medal, but was letting Aryan take the credit.  Tony’s team lose confidence in him because they can see that he had steered the investigation to protect someone.  And you sense, that maybe it was Tony himself.  But WHY??  It makes no sense!

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The last 20 minutes of the film are shocking.  Yes, the film has been out for three years, but I’m not going to spoil it, in case you, dear reader, have not seen it yet.  I was sitting there with my mouth hanging open.  It’s Six Sense or Crying Game level shocking and I wouldn’t spoil the reveal in those films either.  Prithviraj in those final scenes had a level of acting that was just so beyond anything I had ever seen him do.   He is raw, completely vulnerable and just devastating.

The script of this film is put together like clockwork, written by the team Bobby-Sanjay who also wrote Traffic.  A lot of Indian films can feel like they have slap dash scripts, or maybe had no written script upon filming (ahem), but this was almost like a Hitchcock film in how it was so carefully crafted.  Solid directing by  Rosshan Andrrew, and a nice moody soundtrack.  The supporting players are all good, but none really stood out to me as exceptional.  What is extraordinary is Prithviraj’s performance and he gave his all for this film.  Everyone needs to see this superb tour de force movie.

Four and a half stars out of five, and now one of my all-time favorite Malayalam films.

Only if you’ve already seen the film and know the surprise ending, read the Don’t Call It Bollywood analysis of the film which has tons of spoilers.

Why I Love Indian Cinema

A few weeks ago, I answered a question on Quora, “Does anyone besides Indians watch Indian movies?”  This post is adapted from the answer I gave.  At first I gave a brief answer, but then people commented and wanted to know WHY?  Why would a non-Indian love Indian films?  Many commenters were at first incredulous, but then thanked me for showing them an outsider’s view of their cinema.   As of this writing, the answer has garnered over 170,000 views, and made me a Most Viewed Writer about Bollywood on Quora.  (Which still blows my mind.)

Netflix in the US has over 80 Hindi films at anyone time.  Because of the kind of films I enjoy, Netflix recommended I watch Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge about 2 years ago.  Since I fell in love with Bollywood, I’ve seen over 200 Indian films.  I’m lucky that in my area new release films play in a few local theaters.  I was able to see Kapoor and Sons just last night and I absolutely loved it.

I’m not the only non-Desi in America to love Bollywood movies, but I wouldn’t say it’s very common.

My father’s church has a monthly movie night, and he asked me to show a Bollywood movie last week.  I chose Dil Se, and showed it to 15 people, including my parents, who had never before seen a Bollywood film.  They all loved it!

Editing to add my answer from the comments below, WHY I love Indian films:

I also love old Hollywood musicals like Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly films.  Hollywood does not make them anymore.  I love the singing and the dancing in Indian cinema, but also the earnest love stories are not the kind of films that Hollywood makes either.  Rom Coms are becoming rarer and rarer in American films which tend to be more cynical.  The emotions in Bollywood films are something that is rare to see in Hollywood or English films.  People joke about how much Shahrukh Khan cries in his films, but I really respond to the emotions shown in Indian cinema.  Also, the colors on screen!  Bhansali’s film Ram-Leela is an example of this.

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I listen to Bollywood music all the time, as well.

Indian films just give me things I cannot get from Hollywood or other Western cinema.  Plus Shahrukh Khan.  I’ve watched 47 of his films alone (which doesn’t count the countless times I’ve watched DDLJ.)  🙂

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I do love South Indian films as well, and I have seen a little over 30 South Indian films.  I fell in love with Prabhas after watching Baahubali last year (four times in the theater!).  I now own many of his Telugu films on DVD.

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Recently, I’ve been watching quite a few Malayalam films, especially recent ones with Nivin Pauly and Dulquer Salmaan.  I have watched fewer Tamil films, but I asked my neighbor to bring me back some DVD’s from her recent trip to Chennai, and have been working through the dozen films she brought me.  Last week, I watched Raja Rani, and liked it.

For those interested, I keep track of all the Bolllywood films I’ve watched on Letterboxd.com, and here’s my list of Regional films I’ve seen, up to 32 now after watching the Malayalam film Classmates last night.

I asked for commenters to recommend their favorite Indian films — and oh boy, did they.  I’ve created a Letterboxd list now of all the films recommended there in the comments that I have not already seen.  Now up to 372 (!!) films in several Indian languages:  Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, Marathi, Punjabi, etc.  The question now is will I live long enough to watch even half of them!

My first Bollywood film ever was Lagaan, back almost 15 years ago when it was nominated for the Foreign language Oscar.  That was back when you could only rent Netflix movies via DVD in the mail.  I then watched Dil Chahta Hai, because that also had Aamir Khan.  But it was not so easy back then for a non-Hindi speaker to find out about other Bollywood films.  The internet has helped so much, and Netflix’s recommendation engine is the reason I fell in love with Bollywood 2 years ago.  DDLJ was recommended to me, then I was able to watch Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi right after that.  I texted my Indian next door neighbor for other suggestions, and she loves Hrithik Roshan and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara was also streaming on Netflix and I was off to the races with my new obsession.

I have been mentored by two other non-Desi lovers of Bollywood who then suggested many other films for me to try, and in some cases pushed the DVD’s into my hand saying, “YOU HAVE TO WATCH THIS!”

Kathy Gibson of AccessBollywood.net  and Margaret of DontCallItBollywood

Shout out also to the gang at Bollywhat forum!