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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Jomonte Suvisheshangal – Dulquer Salmaan in a sweet family drama

What spurs me to drive 40 minutes to the only theater in Chicago that shows Malayalam films? – a new Dulquer Salmaan movie!  A woman stopped me as I walked out of the theater, “Do you like Malayalam films?” I told her of course and that I’m a big Dulquer fan.  She was incredulous and asked me if I understand Malayalam.  Not a word, I replied.

The trailer for Jomonte Suvisheshangal [Jomon’s Gospels], as with many Malayalam films, doesn’t tell you much about the film.

Like me, they probably assume that viewers don’t need to know much more than Dulquer looks good in a film very different in tone from Kali and Kammatti Paadaam.  Jomonte Suvisheshangal, a film you can safely bring the entire family to see, was also probably a refreshing change of pace for Dulquer from the intense acting in 2016’s Kali and Kammatti Paadaam.

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With bad news coming at us in America like a fire hose, it was just what I needed to go see a sweet family film starring Dulquer.  He’s getting a bit old to play the spoiled young man, it felt like a bit in the first half.  Just in looks though.  He acted it perfectly.  Dulquer was very much a mazik in the first half.  That’s a Yiddish word for someone mischievous, especially a young person.  He constantly got into trouble, but would just kiss his father after being scolded, “You still love me!”

A perfect example is in the clip below.  He badgers his father, Mukesh, for a motorcycle, “Petrol is so expensive!” and his father relents saying that he won’t give him cash, just have the shop send him the bill.  Then he rolls up in the most expensive bike possible, costing 18 lakh.

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No one in the family feel they can count on the irresponsible spoiled Jomon.  He misses his sister’s wedding, can’t seem to pass his MBA exam, and spends his days running errands for the family.  His father tries to get Dulquer involved in one family business after another, the most hilarious his stint supervising their bus fleet, enjoying all the female attention he gets.

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Not much happens in the first half except a flirtatious romance with a rich girl, played by Anupama Parameswaran of the Premam films fame.   That gives us the one non-montage song sequence in the film.  The machinations of Dulquer’s family to get him attached to this rich girl I found quite amusing.  Innocent plays Dulquer’s uncle who relishes matchmaking to try to unite with this wealthy family.

(On a petty note, I don’t think that super skinny jeans style is flattering on Dulquer!)

And then, right before the interval, everything in the family comes crashing down.  Mukesh has taken a bet on a business expansion, putting even the family home and cars in a money lender’s name.  While the rest of the family just heaps scorn on the family patriarch, Mukesh, Dulquer is the one to take him in the middle of the night away from it all to safety.

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I have not yet seen what Margaret told me is Nivin’s very similar son-coming-of-age film, Jacobinte Swargarajyam.  This film is very much a story of the relationship of a son and his father.  I don’t think I’ve seen the actor Mukesh in another film yet, and I really thought he was fantastic.  He has some very emotional moments as he goes from powerful businessman, to a crushed man who tries to help his son by making him a tiffin lunch.  Both Dulquer and Mukesh are terrific actors, and were very believable as loving father and son, each hiding painful truths from the other.  In the second half, Dulquer has to really grow up and become the man of the family.  He is betrayed by a close friend and learns how to succeed through hard work and moxie.

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Unlike the superficial romance in the first half, he gradually comes to get to know a prickly young Tamil woman, Aishwarya Rajesh, from his job selling textiles.  She doesn’t have time for his slick ways, but he gradually wins her over, daring her to smile.  “God wants us to smile at least once a day.”  This is one of his many pronouncements.  Her boss puts her in a tight spot keeping a rich French client happy, and she turns to Dulquer in desperation.  Like Dulquer, she lives alone with her father.  I wish their romance had been fleshed out a bit more, but what was there was very nice to watch.  I wasn’t completely happy with the ending to their story, which involved a prank on Dulquer’s father, Mukesh.

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Does Dulquer learn the value of hard work and create a company out of nothing with his friends and win the big client?  Does he reunite his father with the rest of the family after proving just how responsible he can be?  What do you think?  While the story can be predictable, I found the journey a welcome time pass, especially with the warm father-son relationship portrayed by Dulquer and Mukesh.  I was also fascinated at an inside look at the textile industry in India!

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Margaret and I saw this film together, and her review has a very interesting take on Dulquer’s character’s expressions of love contrasting with the rest of the family’s obsession with commerce and money.

 

My Top 10 Indian Films of 2016

It’s still January, if barely, right?  This is a list of my favorite films in Indian Cinema released in 2016.  I have not seen every film released, by a long shot, but I’ve seen quite a few of the top releases in Hindi and Malayalam cinema in theaters.  I still haven’t seen Pink, although that is definitely on my list, and it’s now on Netflix streaming.

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1.  Kapoor and Sons (Since 1921)

Kapoor and Sons  was hands down my favorite Indian film of the year.  I just love the way the cast interacts.  It feels like you’re a voyeur in a real family and their drama.  I will admit that Sidharth is the weak link, but Alia and Fawad are so great in this.  Fawad Khan especially just blew me away.  And the soundtrack!  Kar Gayi Chull is my phone ringtone for a reason, because I never tire of hearing that hook.

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2.  Kammatti Paadam

Dulquer Salmaan had an amazing year, but Kammatti Paadam is just a masterpiece.  I’m so glad I saw this Malayalam gangster epic in a theater.  I was nearly shell shocked by the experience of seeing this Rajeev Ravi film.   Dulquer is our eyes into this world of gangsters, and dalit toughs.  He is very, very good, but the two actors, Vinayakan and Manikandan steal the show.

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3. Udta Punjab

Alia Bhatt also had a great year.  I’m still thinking about how fantastic she was in Udta Punjab, a film filled with great performances.  This is the film that introduced me to Diljit Dosanjth.  And how great was Shahid Kapoor as the comic relief?  This was an entertaining film, but also one with an important message about how the drug trade affects everyone– a message the censor board tried to suppress, and thank goodness they did not prevail.  Udta Punjab is currently streaming on Netflix.

kali-malayalam-movie-wallpaper-0922-006394. Kali

Oh my goodness, Kali is such a tense thriller.  Kali means rage.  I admire the script and how the director kept me on the edge of my seat. I did not know what would happen next at any given moment. I felt that anything could happen. And I loved that about this Malayalam movie!  The first half is a personal story of a marriage with young man with anger issues.  Then the second half grips you by the throat.  Dulquer Salmaan gives another stellar performance in a great year, matched by Sai Pallavi.

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5. Dear Zindagi

I adored Shahrukh Khan and Alia Bhatt in Dear Zindagi.  We were afraid when the film was announced it was going to be a romantic relationship, but SRK is her mentor and therapist in this fantastic film.  This is my first Gauri Shinde film, and she is a wonderful director.  This was a nice crossover film that I took some Bollywood virgins to see, and they loved it.

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6. Fan

Although not a perfect film, I submit Fan may be the one of the best performances of Shahrukh Khan’s career in the double role of Guarav and Aryan.

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7. Neerja

This really felt like a year for women in Hindi cinema.  Sonam Kapoor was perfect casting for Neerja.  This film reminded me very much of United  93 – you know what’s going to happen, but you’re still on the edge of your seat watching it unfold, filled with tension.  Neerja is currently streaming on Netflix.

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8. Dangal

I love that Aamir Khan made this movie about girl empowerment.  He let the young women at the center of this true story take the lead, and he was brave enough to play a father with a paunch, no less.  Dangal was one of the biggest family films of the year.

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9. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil

I’m still not happy with the ending of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, but man it has some glorious moments.  It’s full on lush Karan Johar film making – actually my first Karan film on the big screen.  I’m reading his autobiography now, An Unsuitable Boy, and he says that Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is about his own unrequited love story.  It’s a very personal film.  I wish there hadn’t been all the controversy about Pakistani actors, and Fawad Khan had a bigger part.  That soundtrack!!  I listened to the title track on constant repeat.

 

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I really enjoyed Sultan, and Salman made a great pairing with Anushka Sharma.  It was another Hindi film with a message of female empowerment, even if the majority of the film was about Salman’s character.  Great soundtrack, too!

Special mention for Brahman Naman which I saw the premiere of at Sundance back in January.  I’m not sure if it’s a purely Indian produced film, but it’s a quirky and wonderful teen sex comedy. It’s currently streaming on Netflix.

Sahasam Swasaga Sagipo – Very Satisfying Romance Thriller with an excellent Naga Chaityanya

saahasam-swaasaga-saagipo-movie-ratingOne of my followers suggested I try to catch Sahasam Swasaga Sagipo (Live Adventurously) with Naga Chaitanya in theaters this week, after he read my Premam review.  I’m so thankful T.J. told me about it before it was gone!  It’s the start of the hectic holiday season here, and I did not even realize Naga had a new film in theaters.  I caught the ONE showtime it played today, and it was pretty darn good.  Guarav Menon filmed it concurrently in Tamil with another lead actor, but the same lead actress.

I LOVE the film allusions right in the dialogue itself.  First there’s a title card that says “Inspired by a scene in The Godfather“.  It has been a loooooong time since I saw The Godfather, so I had to look it up when I got home.  It was the hospital scene.  That is key to the action second half.

Another interesting thing is that the hero’s name is never revealed until the very end of the film, and it has a dramatic punch when it is revealed — And a touch of humor to it.  The heroine doesn’t even know his name until almost the end.  She jokingly puts his number in her phone under “Unknown”.

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The first half is swoony innocent romance and the second half action thriller.  Sort of like how Kali had two very different moods to the two halves of the film, but here the romance is almost Premam level innocent and sweet.
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There’s a prologue where we see a man and woman attacked in their home, and then we see our hero beat up 6 guys who had been harassing his sister.  “Stalking like that is so 80’s!”

He sees them approach backlit and there’s overlay voiceover that had me chuckling.

“Four men suddenly appeared approaching me like in a Mani Ratnam film so I knew I was in trouble.”  LOL!  He dispatches them easily and comments on how it was his first taste of violence.

Then the friend of his sister, Leela, moves into their family house for a few weeks, and they shyly say not much more than “Hi” to each other for awhile, and then gradually, sweetly become friends.  Naga finished with school and wants to travel before settling down, and plots to hit the road on his motorcycle with a friend “His girlfriend probably won’t let him go.”

Leela unexpectedly shows up when he’s leaving and asks to go with him.  I LOVED this.  That she asks to just be one of the guys and share the adventure, not be his girlfriend/lover right away.  They have a wonderful trip to Kanyakumari, the southern most tip of Tamil Nadu to see the sunrise.  It was spectacular scenery of a place I’d never seen before.

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There is a really exceptional “I’m a good decent boy” moment in the romance.  For money’s sake, they book a hotel room in Kanyakumari with two twin beds.  When it’s her turn to shower, he offers to leave the hotel room so she’ll be more comfortable.saahasam-swaasaga-saagipo-movie-stills-05

THEN the whole movie turns on a dime into a thriller. They should part, as she is due home in Maharashtra, and he offers to take her all the way home.  Their trip has been a secret from everyone.  Neither family knows they are together.

There’s a road accident, and then The Godfather moment comes.  It was her parents that were attacked in the beginning, and our hero rises to the occasion to protect Leela and her family.  The cops are corrupt, and there’s one particular bad cop that is their nemesis.  The action is pretty gripping and I didn’t know what was going to happen from one scene to the next.  Not quite the unbearable tension of Kali, but pretty darn good.

The final resolution ending is SO satisfying as only South Indian films can be.  They’re so violent, but there’s just a YEAH!! moment when the villain is vanquished and the hero is triumphant.

The lead actress, Manjima Mohan, was okay, but I am continually impressed by our boy Akkineni Naga Chaitanya.  Innocent romance he excels at, and he was very, very convincing as an everyman who rises to the occasion in the action sequences.  He was very good in the fight scenes.  I think the cinematographer was non-Indian, maybe from Hollywood because it was more of a Hollywood close camera work kind of style in the fist fights.

The music is A R Rahman which is always good, but it didn’t blow me away like Mental Manadhil from O K Kanmani.  I did really like this haunting love song which in the film is intercut with the road accident, which was a really interesting editing choice.  This slow passionate song –

So, T.J.  thank YOU for giving me another reason to be thankful this week of American Thanksgiving!

On a shallow note, I was also thankful that Menon gave us a few Naga shirtless scenes (he’s been working out!) and this particular shot.  😉

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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.