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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Oppam – Mohanlal’s Masterful Performance as a Blind Man Accused of Murder Elevates This Thriller

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In the thriller Oppam [Together] Mohanlal plays a blind man suspected of murder.  Mohanlal was predictably fantastic and subtle in the ways he portrays his blindness.
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Because it’s Mohanlal, with his innate intelligence, we can totally believe that the blindness of his character has led to super senses of smell and hearing.  He’s not quite  Daredevil level superhero, but he does have a couple of dramatic fight scenes.  He’s proficient in martial arts despite his blindness.  (Of course he is.)
I still need to see Drishyam (the DVD is in my pile!), so this is my first Mohanlal thriller.  Without him, this film just would feel formulaic.  Mohanlal brings just that extra special something to every film.
The film starts with the negotiations at his home village for his sister’s wedding.  Innocent has a nice cameo as Mohanlal’s uncle (shades of Devasuram!)  There’s some money issues as Mohanlal has loaned someone money and hasn’t had it returned, and the family is worried that there will be enough both for the wedding and to keep the ancestral home.
 This is just the beginning of the lengthy setup before any real action occurs.
Mohanlal is an elevator operator at a fancy apartment building, but he has a close relationship with a retired judge who lives in the building (Nedumudi Venu).  The judge has secrets, even from his own family, but entrusts Mohanlal with them.  He explains that he made a mistake in an old rape case and the perpetrator’s entire family committed suicide.  (This part was a little confusing to me, and I felt like the subtitles left something key out.)  He drives Mohanlal out to the country so he can meet with someone involved with this old case, as he has heard that anyone involved with it has been murdered with their index finger cut off.
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Then he drives Mohanlal to a boarding school.  Mohanlal is the  guardian of this young girl, but the judge has been paying all her school fees.  The judge’s family think it’s a bastard born out of wedlock, but she has something to do with this old case.
 The song sequences in this film were all just delightful.  This one, Minungum Minnaminuge shows the close relationship of Mohanlal and Nandini and how he teaches her a song for her class assembly.  He is the father figure in her life, the only one that she has seemingly ever known.  Baby Meenakshi as Nandini is one of the better Indian child actors I’ve seen.  She did a great job.
The murder happens during a wedding scene, which is kind of brilliant.  The judge has helped broker an interfaith marriage when two young people are found in a compromising situation in the apartment complex.  The wedding celebration is at the apartment building and there are tons of extra people around for it.
This song sequence was my favorite of the whole film.  I think the marriage is a Sikh girl and a Hindu boy so the lyrics seem to be a mix of Malayalam and either Punjabi or Hindi.   The dance goes from bhangra which the girl’s relatives teach the groom, to garba all wonderfully mixed together.  Mohanlal manages to dance along, as a blind man, and make it believable, which is not easy.
Who the villain is, is never a surprise to the audience, and Mohanlal fights with him at close quarters after he discovers the body.  But since he is blind, he can’t identify the man, except by his smell.  There’s a really unnecessarily long Who’s On First type attempt at a comedic scene with the police officer who comes to investigate as he questions the watchman.  “So he saw the body first?”  “No I saw it first after he found him.”
Chemban Vinod Jose as the police officer just wants to solve this case quickly, and is happy to frame a blind man for it.  The second half of the film is this cat and mouse between Mohanlal and the villain who keeps turning up.  There’s a really great scene in an elevator with the villain and Mohanlal.   Mohanlal is desperate to keep little Nandini safe, as he’s convinced she will be the next victim.
Malayalam films can be so sprawling, and a thriller like this could just be more tightly edited to be more scary and effective.  I felt like the film dragged at several points.
I also have issue with the music background score —  Not scary enough!!  I kept thinking that while we needed quiet in certain scenes for Mohanlal’s super sense of hearing to work, some soft tense violin held notes would have done wonders for tension.
Mohanlal has almost ninja like fighting skills in a couple scenes, but there is one police beating scene that gave me flashbacks to Devasuram.  There’s something about seeing big Mohanlal beaten that just really gets to you.
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He is so intelligent and so great an actor, that I could fully believe he had super smell and super hearing like a blind Sherlock Holmes, but this big bear of a man is also completely vulnerable with his handicap.
I wasn’t shocked or stunned by the ending reveal, and while I jumped a couple of times, I think there could have been more tension and thrills in this film.  Mohanlal is what elevates the whole thing, and I just adored the special relationship he had with little Nandini.
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