How does one manoeuver a pretty conventional trope into a product as marvelous as this?
Sudani from Nigeria is directed by debutante Zakariya Mohammed with Soubin Shahir (Majeed) in the lead. What I meant by conventional (in a good way) is the motif of viewing the universe of the film from a foreign perspective. In films like Enthiran and PK, the narratives are mainly from the perspectives of a robot and an alien respectively. In this case, it’s in the most literal sense. There is actually a Nigerian (Samuel) who is here on a contract to play club football for money. And the people staunchly refuse to call him anything but a sudani. Hence, the name.
This whole milieu that comprises of a football team with players from the Third-world, its managerial operations, backdoor dealings, logistics and the emotional bearings it has on the people, is absolutely refreshing and little known to people outside of Kerala. The most stunning aspect of the contemporary Malayalam cinema is its ability to possess volumes of details about the concerned geography and its people in almost every frame they compose. You get to know what their water tastes like, what their weather is like, what they eat, what they wear, what they study, what plants grow there in what seasons, and sometimes even how they think. This obsession of intricate detailing and immense frame density in each of their scenes has become its own thing.
I remember director Vetrimaaran quoting his mentor Balu Mahendra in one of his interviews, “The more regional your film is, the more international it goes”. And Sudani from Nigeria is exactly what an international movie-goer would love to watch. It’s rich in emotions, conflicts and details, driven by a seamless screenplay performed by the best in the business.
The film opens with a sevens football match between two local teams and Majeed is the manager/owner of the MYC team and he takes immense pride in his vocation. But the director immediately hits us with his everyday struggles to sustain the finances of the team. Majeed has a broken home with a hanging-on- a-thread relationship with his mother and an almost non-existent stepfather. He seems anxious to get married but the bride-seeing rituals cut abruptly to a football match each time implying the obvious nature of what would have happened there. His life revolves around his team and the sport he loves dearly and there is too little space to worry about trivial matters such as a wedding.
The plot thickens with an interesting plunge when Sudu (Samuel) is taken to Majeed’s house after he fractures his leg and undergoes a surgery. We get equations of a son-mother, father-son, player-manager, people-sport and several other match ups with each one making a deep impact on the viewer. Not one of these is superficial or cursory. And also, the film does not employ any run-of-the-mill devices that its mainstream counterparts so shamelessly use to make the audience weep like a child. For instance,when Majeed tells his mother that Sudu is not coming home and he is going to make him stay in the hospital, his mother rages and orders his friends to bring him back home as soon as he is ready. This could have easily been manipulated into a melodrama with a page length dialogue over high pitched background music and it had the perfect premise for it too (what the hell! It’s an Indian interval scene). But the director shows it with enjoyable lightness.
Even the scene where a “Nair”character visits Sudu and performs a bit of Kalari at the request of the youngsters, he says,“I know you are pulling my leg, but I did this to entertain him”. Every dialogue and every character, however small, contributes to the film as a whole. In this scenario, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I say this because every sub-plot/relationship equation could be made as a film of its own. I’d give anything to watch a triangular relationship drama between the stepfather, the son and his mother.
But the film does not delve deep into what actually happens in Nigeria and the plight of Samuel’s family. I am not sure if it was the director’s intent or if it was due to budgetary issues since it was originally planned as independent film. What could have happened if there was a separate track in Nigeria about his family and their struggles and if the director used parallel narratives? Would it have been better? Or would it have been all over the place?Who knows.
This is Soubin Shahir’s first full-length lead role and we know he means business. He is so real, his reactions palpable, his aura infectious and his genius unmatchable. When Sudu apologizes to him and says that he would pay him back his money, we could feel his guilt when he replies, “Money will come…money will come” and suddenly he starts talking in Malayalam and says, “I know you will not understand but it’s for my relief”. We could feel his love for football when he is asked to sell his team. We could feel his pain when he opens up to Sudu about his mother’s remarriage and how he was tormented when his friends saw him serve biryani at his mother’s wedding. All these scenes are beautifully written but he makes it so much more. I wonder if his acting process is more organic or if it involves tedious homework. Savithri Sreedharan is fantastic as the mother and we hope to see more of her in meaty roles like this. Veterans like KTC Abdullah and Sarah Balussery play their characters to perfection and own their scenes with grace.
The film is not a Jallikattu or a Super Deluxe; dense, multilayered experiments that push the boundaries of cinema by breaking away from all the conventional notions of filmmaking. But don’t we all need something like this to resort to on our worst days? And what is worse than being locked up in our homes for indefinite stretches of time? Sudani would make us want to reminisce and cherish all the goodness that still exists in our world, to mend fractured relationships, to come out (figuratively!) and talk to the people we love, to give ourselves a chance to heal the wounds of our past. The film is far from flawless. But when you are experiencing something as rare as this, your brain cease to work and it’s all heart. We can’t bring ourselves to talk about the mediocre production design after watching a film like Thithi, can you?
I am not comparing the both but I think we can all afford to discard our microscopic lens, sit back and enjoy this beautiful piece of cinema.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.