Every beginning is a dragon. It spits fire with pitiless ferocity. An event, a journey or this piece that I am trying to construct, it’s the beginning that refuses to be tamed. In such a conundrum, Angamaly Diaries inspires intemperate envy. Lijo Jose Pellissery’s new film gets it right from the onset, beginning with a euphoric musical piece, celebrating the sights and sounds of Angamaly, the fast developing satellite town of Kochi, Kerala.
Working on Chemban Vinod Jose’s original material, Angamaly Diaries is about a town and its people.
So instead of heroes, we are offered a bunch of local boys each dressed as a nun, a Roman warrior and Jesus guzzling booze, in a clash with another gang. The violence erupts like an incoherent ballet, the camera swooshes, music swells, and a voiceover stops it midway to initiate us into the life of Vincent Pepe.
Pepe is a church going mama’s boy, who grows up idolizing Babuji, a goon whose team manages to win every trophy at the locally held soccer tournaments. Babuji’s muscle and his team makes Pepe daydream about his own team, and soon we meet his potential mates one by one. Soccer apart, following Babuji’s footsteps, violence becomes a way of life for Pepe, but not before his mundu gets the desired folded swag during combats. Pepe and his team’s decision of doing pork business escalates violence even further in a battle of one-upmanship with another gang.
Pellissery deviates from desi gangster tropes quite deliberately, and refuses to give in the wisdom of making a larger than life portrait of Pepe.
Antony Varghese playing the lead doesn’t get punch lines like Bollywood anti-heroes. There is no single-minded focus on his actions. Even his romantic life in parallel with his violent verve, flows like a practical passage of anguish ― finding love, losing and finding it again. Only the blinking of his twin eyes punctuated with smiles gets consideration, staged in wordless compositions designed to make hearts flutter.
Featuring 86 newcomers, Angamaly Diaries presents an array of characters with quirks and timidities. The pickpocket who delivers musical numbers with animated hands, but hugs a tree to prepare a bomb to save his face even if he loses his hands. The smooth talker who insists on celebrating every deal by gulping down exactly 10 ml alcohol. The woman who confesses her love for the man who recently dumped her friend. The fixer who insists on having his food even if his guests want to discuss a serious matter. The cop who tells criminals with clinical calm to not run and waste his time. The father who is more concerned about keeping his land for his daughter’s marriage even if his son is about to go to jail. The goon who can kill but can’t control his brother-in-law. This is a film bursting at the seams, and there is no red carpet in the proceedings to muffle the screams. In scorching heat, violence erupts in feverish pitch, and Gireesh Ganghadaran’s lens arrests it with determined lust, not letting go of a single grain of intensity and ferocity.
Each of the fight sequences are soaked in intimate but hyperbolic realism, sometimes in slow-motion, sometimes in galloping speed but always shooting up the adrenaline in a way that overwhelms the eyes, ears and mind. Whether it’s a bomb about to explode, an approaching vehicle that hides a killer or the long climactic take, we hold our breath, almost drained by the exhilaration.
The elements of the crime genre are evident, specially Fernando Meirelles’ City of God, but what makes Pellissery’s film distinctive is that he internalizes those influences to distil his characters as organic saplings of the soil. These are the characters who may not own the town’s history, but in the imagination of the director, they co-exist to form the pages of a diary that’s not sanitised for popular comfort.
So we have a young hero who along with his friends ogle at a woman bathing, and later, doesn’t agree with his girlfriend’s choice of clothes. In the business of pork, pigs squeal to death, and meat gets chopped interminably. When an attempted robbery meets the unexpected seizure of the victim, robbers abandon the victim but take his wallet. A dead body even gets beaten to accommodate the coffin during its funeral. The masculine energy is uninhibited, but it steers clear of veneration because pitch black humour thrashes the patronizing hypothesis that such effects are just gratuitous clatter.
The frantic humour, the riotous energy, and the pulsating music (a marvellous score by Prashant Pillai), Angamaly Diaries offers many cumulative joys. But this is a film that should be remembered for the way it cherishes food. We belong to a cinema rich nation where characters live without eating, and even if they do, they do us a hurried favour, unless there’s a heroine consuming colourful gola in a sun-drenched nowhere. For those who developed a sense of yearning after watching Juzo Itami’s Tampopo, Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman, or Gabriel Axel’s Babette's Feast, here’s a film that celebrates the cuisine of Kerala like a man nursing an ungrateful belly which remembers tastes of the past, but always wants more. Not only does Pellissery use food as a metaphor, the entire narrative is also stitched with the smell of cooking and the joy of eating.
We are living in a time when bigots are running amok to ban meat, not because those airheads love animals, but due to a religious superiority that apparently makes them pure. This is also the time when national politics is defined by parties telling us what’s good for our belly.
At such a juncture, Angamaly Diaries is not only an anomaly, it feels like a subtle revolt. Chicken, mutton, pork, or beef, meat is everywhere in the film. If a scuffle breaks out for the last plate of rabbit meat, a man also wonders why would someone really ask for vegetarian food at a wedding. The chief contention of the gangs is also about the pork business. And what if the film had dealt with beef business instead of pork?
In a way, watching this film feels like an act of defiance, for it makes us salivate at the variety of meat dishes in our politically charged nation.
Pellissery’s greatest achievement is that he mythologises a small town with warmth and affection like Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero, making us homesick for a place we've never been to. With a stomach-aching fire, he makes us long for Angamaly and its people who are bathed in a glow to occupy our afterthoughts as if they were someone we knew from the place we left behind. It’s the portrait of a town that will long live in our subconscious with Pepe and his friends.
(The writer is a journalist and a screenwriter who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise; he tweets @RanjibMazumder)