Trance. Brings blinding lights and electronic music to my mind, and the viva voce sessions from my final semester at the University. Anwar Rasheed’s much anticipated film definitely has the former elements but if you ask me if there’s more to it , I might as well go into a Trance. This is the second Fahadh Faasil film that I have had a hard time figuring out, in fact I haven’t .This is also without doubt Anwar Rasheed’s most complex film to date and the most ambitious in terms of content. Anwar Rasheed turned legend from a promising mainstream director with just one film, Ustad Hotel. My personal favorite remains his debut though. Then he turned producer for another millenial sensation, Bangalore Days. Trance had big names associated with all departments of filmmaking from the production to the cast to the technicians. The only novice was the writer. The most exciting factor was that Fahadh Fasil was teaming up with Anwar Rasheed. You don’t need more reasons to be entranced as a viewer, considering they didn’t take you for granted. Did they ?
It’s a bold film, someone told me, when I asked for an initial response. Indeed it is. It attacks the many evangelical churches who have turned belief into business without mincing rather beeping words. But if the film hoped to turn controversy into business and do another Padmavat, the people on whom the cameras are trained here have turned out to be a bit smarter than their counterparts up North. It has to be the shrewd Malayali mind at work here when the film is being greeted with a rather cold response in terms of the blowback it expected to trigger. But then, these organisations have always operated incognito.Personally, to me, the movie was a visual and auditory experience that left much to be desired in terms of writing and content. In fact it looked like a derived version of Bradley Cooper’s Limitless. No, it’s not just the pill-popping that makes me feel this way. The protagonists may be totally different in their professions but the themes and the arc of the storylines and the fates of the main protagonists are indeed very similar. Then there was that scene right out of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which had a Malayalam version already with Dileep and Jagathy doing the honors.The film primes the audience with some complex questions and situations for most of its running time and then settles for some real simple cliched answers. Now I may have missed something too, but Anwar Rasheed is not that kind of a filmmaker, who is into ambiguous endings and storylines, which brings me to the writer again, of whom I know nothing about. There are questions that remain unanswered for the average audience when the movie endd and it shows on the rather empty halls, considering it’s a Fahadh Fasil vehicle.
Fahadh Fasil holds the film together with his performance and one would be tempted to say that he carries the film almost entirely on his shoulders if it wasn’t for Amal Neeras’s work as DoP and Resul Pookkutty’s immersive work in the sound department. I was curious early on as to what Pookkutty’s association with the film was all about. He more than just does his bit here, even when the writing falters. Aiding the writer also is the background score by Sushin Shyam, though it invoked the James Bond theme and another film which i took a note of can’t recall as I write this. Will save that for another update down the road. Gautam Menon as the baddie makes quite the impression though he fizzles out as if the writer just hit a block with the character. Dileesh Pothan is a changed man here and his character is the only one the audience could relate with, I felt, that of the quintessential middleman. Soubhin as a news show host looked odd early on but he returned to his bumbling on screen self quickly. Nazria remains an enigma, much like the film’s second half. You could always blame the audience for not getting a movie if you are from the Lijo Jose Pellissery school of filmmaking and just say that you have no plans to change and impress, which is an oxymoron if you ask me though. But then yeah Anwar Rasheed produced this film and spent his own money, but so did I when I purchased the ticket. Where’s my closure as a viewer ?
The names Fahadh Faasil, Soubin Shahir, Shyam Pushkaran, Shyju Khalid, Shane Nigam, Sreenath Bhasi and Dileesh Pothan in the credits for a single film, now that’s something you don’t get to see as often as you’d like to, if you happen to speak this language called Malayalam and have a thing for movies too. Ever since Aashiq Abu broke new ground in Malayalam Cinema a decade back we have seen subsets of these names coming together in every other film with someone from this unofficial collective of like minded artists, at the helm. These artists have played a role is establishing Kochi as the hub of Malayalam Cinema in the new century too, I think. People from this school of filmmaking were part of the teams that delivered gems like Maheshinte Prathikaram, Thondimuthalum Drikaskshiyum, Parava and Sudani From Nigeria, to name a few. Shyam Pushkaran’s writing was something that you looked forward to, as much as to watching Fahadh working his magic, in recent times. Kumbalangi Nights looked promising early on for these very reasons exactly.
Set in the island village of Kumbalangi, which to me is familiar only as a nameboard on “ordinaries” and “fast passengers”- the flavours of the State bus service on offer to the commoner- the film tells the tale of a band of brothers from another mother, and father, to put it bluntly. It would be nothing less than a disrespect to the film itself if I start with any other aspect but the cinematography. If Shyju Khalid were to shoot your weeded backyard with his camera and then show it to you, you’d believe him if he told you that it was from a cottage set in the Swiss Alps. His frames make even the most ugliest structures look magnificent. The night shots are exquisite. It’s almost as if he has some kind of spell over light. Saiju Sreedharan works his magic too. The last time I saw a landscape so beautifully captured was in the Turkish film Once Upon A Time In Anatolia. Shyam Pushkaran’s writing has never taken us anywhere as viewers because his tales are set in places you have walked around yourself, youre at home, literally. It’s always far removed from the homes and social circles that we have come to accept as the norm in Malayalam Cinema over the years. There are deliberate attempts to break stereotypes and to infuse progressive narratives throughout here too, which is why the film disappointed me towards the end for it’s insensitive portrayal of mental illness. But that’s just me. Maybe it’s because the rest of the film is almost perfect why the climax hit me the way it did. Life in Shyam Pushkaran’s Kumbalangi is idyllic. The lives of the main protagonists are much like the tiny islands and groves where the story unfolds. They are isolated and aloof for most parts but they’re still an ecosystem that sustains eachother and do not have an existence on their own. This is ultimately the essence of the tale, I felt.
Soubhin Shahir, Shane Nigam, Sreenath Bhasi and Matthew Thomas play the brothers. Soubhin surprises us yet again with a moving portrayal. So does Shane Nigam. Sreenath Bhasi is subtle and effective. Matthew is the new kid on the block. But it’s Fahadh who is an enigma here. From playing lead in films as varied as Varathan and Njan Prakashan to playing second fiddle to a bunch of his peers here, that too as a character with absolutely no visible positive traits. He is indeed the antagonist here but you hardly notice that because you’re simply overawed by his performance. Debutante Anna Ben makes an impression in her girl next door avatar. Grace Antony plays sister to Anna’s and wife to Fahadh’s characters in a role that’s unlike that of the sisters and wives we have seen on the screen up till now, but are absoutely familiar with, in our daily lives. Madhu C.Narayan makes his debut as a director and honestly, with names like Shyam Pushkaran, Dileesh Pothan, Shyju Khalid and Saiju Sreedharan aiding him in crucial departments, it’s too early to judge his skills as the man at the helm. There’s a Maddona and Child frame in the film at one point and if it’s indeed the director who actually conceived it, there’s promise I’d say. Kumbalangi Nights is great cinema, almost.
When Aamir Khan made a movie on wrestling, he told the unconventional tale of a father in the heartland of patriarchy, who chose to defy the norms and went on train his daughters as champion wrestlers. Anurag Kashyap made a movie on boxing and chose to tell his story against the backdrop of the rampant castesim and jingoism in his home state,UP. And then you have Zakariya Mohammed, the debutant director who has gone ahead and made a movie based on the football frenzy in Kerala, reflecting the culture of brotherhood and love across borders, ethnicities and identities that has always stood the state apart from the rest of the world.My personal theory about this inclusive culture and general lack of animosity of the people in the region is that, we have been exposed to outsiders through centuries of trade rather than invasions.I have always believed that Cinema is a universal language which transcends the barriers of the mind and lands reiterating the fact that the human condition is the same, everywhere.Sudani From Nigeria reinforces that belief.
Like how every Malayali in the Middle East is a Malabari, every African player in the fiercely competitive Sevens football scene in the state is a Sudani to the locals, hence the title of the movie. Though there’s isn’t much of actual football in the movie, it’s an indispensable part of the story here and revolves around it, much akin to the life of the team manager Majeed played by Soubin Shahir. He’s no Arsene Wenger though, and splits the prize money between his players per game and sleeps with them on the floor of the one room atop a building which passes for the players’ accommodation, when he can’t find peace at home.The player who is the focus of the tale is Samuel Abiola Robinson, a Nigerian actor. The crux of the tale is the bond that develops between Samuel’s eponymous character and the people in Majeed’s life which ultimately transforms him as a person too. It was not enough it seems, that the Nigerian’s addressed a Sudani, he’s sudu to Majeed’s mother and neighbors, in true Malayali tradition. No one goes without a pet name here.
The characters who will actually blow you away are played by three, elderly actors who are not exactly familiar faces in Malayalam cinema.Savithri Sreedharan as Majeed’s mother has successfully translated the six decades of her experience as an award winning theatre artiste onto the silver screen.She is in fact a representative of the unconditionally loving mothers of the world, here.Sarasa Balussery, another award winning drama actor who’s making her mark in this movie plays the wisecracking ,tough neighbor who competes with Majeed’s mother to take care of Samuel.She’s no different from those tough as nails aunts and neighbor ladies in our own lives who have showered us with affection.Delivering the most moving performance of the three is another veteran stage artiste, KTC Abdullah as Majeed’s step-father. It’s a role and performance that would leave Stone Cold Steve Austin teary eyed. It would be unfair not to mention Muhsin Perari’s writing, which i suspect has contributed heavily in capturing the charms of life in the small towns and villages of Malappuram.One can’t but help feeling that a film as unique and refreshing as this could have avoided the controversy that was stirred up post release and though any publicity is good publicity these days, the film deserved better.