It is both eye-opening and reassuring how many great films of late, especially from the southern industries, have been honest to, and unabashed about showcasing, their specific cultural milieu. In 2016, there was Rajeev Ravi’s Malayalam film Kammatipaadam, which traced the decay of a civilization as a Dalit dwelling is usurped by the land mafia. The film starring Dulquer Salmaan and Vinayakan; the latter won a State Award for his performance – a landmark decision, considering this was a film with a bonafide star in the lead. Last year also saw the release of Raam Reddy’s Kannada film Thithi, a drama about death in which a village comes alive through its multifaceted citizens. What’s more, Thithi had the village’s residents performing in the film.
Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Malayalam film Angamaly Diaries, which released this month, has 86 debutantes in its cast. Unlike Thithi, not all of the actors are from Angamaly (a town in the Ernakulam district of Kerala), yet you wouldn’t know that from the pride the characters have in hailing from there. For them, roots – and pork – are everything. Both the films explode with wisecracks both literal and stylistic – the finale of Angamaly Diaries is set amidst a blaze of firecrackers. Events and details dovetail without as much as a warning. It’s quick, disorienting, and yet, organic.
Of late, the Malayalam industry has been churning out such films, within the mainstream, almost as a matter of urgency. Though far grittier and bigger in scope, Kammatipaadam has a lot in common with Angamaly Diaries, least of which is a reference to genealogy in the title. There is also Maheshinte Prathikaram, Dileesh Pothan’s slice-of-life feature from last year, which romanticized the quaintness of a place like Idukki, where everyone knows everyone.
There’s a great urgency to Angamaly Diaries’ narrative, which has a butterfly-effect structure – things are mentioned in passing and we see their impact only later. The filmmaking has a Scorsese-like magnetism; in the testosterone-charged atmosphere of Angamaly, a short circuit can occur at just about any moment. People are always on the lookout to run after someone or run away from someone. The camera is only too happy to follow them and just as fast. Pellissery teases us with several short claustrophobic tracking shots before unleashing, unannounced, the fantastic finale, which lasts almost 11 minutes.
There is so much manic energy from start to finish in Angamaly Diaries that you wonder if it began with a script or just a stack of storyboards. There’s a colourful, graphic novel-like quality to the proceedings, like a flip book revealing images endlessly. What the film does very well is crystallize this culture and way of life. Writer Chemban Vinod Jose and Pellissery are committed to selling ordinariness in the most extraordinary fashion. Every character is, at face value, ordinary. Not one of them is a swashbuckling, gun-toting gangster. One man, while making a bomb, hugs a tree to protect his face and torso in case something goes wrong. They conduct business, they beat people up, they even kill. And then they compromise, drink and consume pork. This is the most endearing and transparent bunch of contemptible souls you’ll ever come across.
Pothan’s Maheshinte Prathikaran too celebrated the ordinariness of its protagonist, who finds his unremarkable lifestyle hampered by an out-of-character wager. That film is as striking as Angamaly Diaries, if not more. Why didn’t it receive the national attention that Pellissery’s film has got this year? Do slice-of-life films like Maheshinte Prathikaram (or even Thithi) get ignored in favour of audacious, violent bildungsroman features like Kammatipaadam or Angamaly Diaries – possibly because the former holds a mirror to the all-too-familiar trenches of daily life while the latter represents something exotic, something that is unreachable for the average audience member?
That’s a discussion for another place. Yet, all these films, within their respective genres, have one thing in common – they bend the social fabric of their setting to their advantage, not by trying to turn regional cultures into something palatable but by projecting them with their history and politics intact, be it the villagers in Thithi, the self-contained universe of Idukki in Maheshinte Prathikaram, or Kammatipaadam’s tragic gentrification.
You can take the boys out of Angamaly but you cannot take Angamaly out of the boys. The message to upcoming filmmakers in India’s corners is not to pack their bags and head to the nearest cinema capital but to go home and find themselves.