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!
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!