Angamaly Diaries movie review: Whattefun! This is black comedy at its best
Director: Lijo Jose Pellissery
Black comedy and slice-of-life cinema meet in director Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Angamaly Diaries, a delightful, unexpectedly hilarious take on the squalid underbelly of Kerala’s Angamaly town.
If ever there was an example of the committed cinephile’s dictum “it is not the story but the treatment that makes a film”, you have it here. Because if you think about it, Angamaly Diaries – funny and insightful in equal measure – does not have a story in the conventional sense, yet that, among so many other reasons, is what makes it brilliant.
In the film’s opening sequence, we witness a fight between two local gangs. We are soon introduced to the protagonist Pepe Joseph, who turns out to be the quintessential boy who never grew up. We learn that as a schoolkid, Pepe was captivated by a particular gang of ruffians – or “team” as he calls it – drawn from an Angamaly football team. His childhood goal was to have a “team” of his own.
Despite the distractions that accompany such an ambition, Pepe manages to pass school, make it through most of a B.A. (History) course and notch up some long-term relationships with women along the way. Aggression is a constant in his life, yet he treats nothing with a sense of urgency. At one point, events take what you and I might consider a dramatic turn, causing his plans for his future to go awry. He treats that episode too as just another occurrence – albeit a challenging one – rather than an earth-shattering, potentially ruinous affair.
When I was not keeling over with laughter at the accent, vocabulary, style of speaking and eccentricities of the characters in Angamaly Diaries, I was busy pushing my eyes back into their sockets since they kept popping out in reaction to the nonchalance with which these volcanic people draw blood, literally. The casualness of violence and the unending cycle that every action unleashes is the underlying theme of the film, despite its comedic overtone.
Pellissery has a reputation as an avant-garde filmmaker so it should come as no surprise that he has extracted so many acute observations from Angamaly’s everyday affairs. However, the notable new voice emerging from this film is actor Chemban Vinod Jose who makes a smashing debut as a writer with Angamaly Diaries.
It is a huge achievement for a film revolving around amorality, to not normalise or deify anyone’s attitudes or actions. Angamaly Diaries manages that. It remains largely inoffensive although it is filled with offensive characters constantly indulging in objectionable behaviour.
There are just two passages where I found myself feeling uncomfortable, when it seemed like the writer and director’s blasé tone might possibly be emerging from their own casualness towards Pepe and gang’s disturbing conduct: once, when the voiceover mentions that as children these chaps would peep into bathrooms to ogle bathing women; second, when a man they are roughing up gets a fit and collapses with a foaming mouth. Obviously this is just a hunch, but I am mentioning it because I felt no such confusion in the rest of the film.
Pellissery’s you’re-watching-life-as-it-happens narrative is greatly helped by some clever editing at the hands of Shameer Mohammed and Girish Gangadharan’s seamless cinematography, especially in the execution of that gasp-inducing long-drawn-out finale in the middle of a noisy church festival. The director has also used Prashant Pillai’s music very effectively, never once allowing it to overshadow the people at the heart of his unusual film.
Angamaly Diaries’ exceptional cast reportedly features 86 debutants. This might explain why they all come across as ordinary folk who happened to stroll on to a film set rather than performers. They are all as easy before the camera as veterans might be. Their highly convincing performances are among the film’s many USPs.
Antony Varghese playing Pepe combines his natural talent with remarkable good looks that shine through despite the protagonist’s scruffy appearance. There is a potential matinee idol in Varghese, waiting to be tapped by Mollywood.
The other notable presences in the film are the pretty and charismatic Reshma Rajan playing Pepe’s friend Lily Chechi a.k.a. Lichi, and Tito Wilson as rival gang member U-Clamp Rajan.
Humour combined with realism are the immediate attractions of this engaging, uncommon film. Foodies please note that there is also much pleasure to be derived from the many cooking shots and conversations about culinary experiments in Angamaly Diaries. You are not human if your mouth does not water at the description of Pepe’s mother’s signature recipe, or sundry pork and beef dishes, kappa (tapioca) with potato (how deliciously unhealthy that sounds!) and tapioca with egg.
Okay… that’s it… I can’t take this any more. Sorry for my abruptness, but I must wind up this review immediately. First, I must pick myself off the floor where I fell laughing after watching Angamaly Diaries. Then I must wipe the drool off my mouth, the embarrassing after-effect of writing that last paragraph. Most important though, I am now overcome by the urge to consume kappa in various sinful combinations, so excuse me for taking off in this fashion.
Angamaly Diaries is my favourite Malayalam film of the year so far. It is, to use a somewhat untranslatable Malayali expression, kumbleet adipoli.