Ambili movie review: Soubin Shahir's sweet earnestness diminishes over endless vacuous wanderings
The appeal of the pre-interval portion of Ambili is its light touch - complemented by Vishnu Vijay's lively music.. Post-interval the film becomes ponderous and stretched.
castSoubin Shahir, Thanvi Ram, Naveen Nazim, Vettukili Prakash, Neena Kurup, Sreelatha, Jaffer Idukki
When they were children, Teena could not tell that there was a difference between her and her friend Ambili. Now that they are adults, she knows. He is a guileless soul, a child stuck in a man's body, a man-child whose innocence almost everyone exploits.
Soubin Shahir, fresh from his stupendous performance in Kumbalangi Nights, plays the titular Ambili who wants nothing but to be loved. Teena is his rock, but her brother Bobbykuttan - current national cycling champion and Ambili's best buddy from his childhood - is less reliable. This new film by writer-director Johnpaul George (of Guppy fame) is pivoted around a felicitation ceremony being planned for Bobby's glorious return to his rural home in Kerala and an excursion he plans to take.
Up until Bobby's arrival, the film seems firmly headed somewhere. Ambili is a darling, his conversations and his writings are hilarious, the manner in which locals take advantage of him is heartbreaking and Shahir is brilliant. When Bobby comes on the scene though, the narrative takes off on a trip that the screenplay does not have the muscle to sustain.
This part of the film actually involves a physical journey. It is an emotional and figurative ride too, and I totally get what George is aiming at. Sometimes, watching human beings at peace with rather than in conflict with nature can be deeply moving. Venu's Carbon and Jayaraj's Ottaal from recent years deployed genius cinematography at divine locations within a minimal script to portray our species in communion with our Earth, and both were near-spiritual cinematic experiences. Sadly, once Bobby's expedition begins, Ambili mistakes lack of substance for minimalism.
Through the second half, even Shahir's performance delivers diminishing returns, with the film occasionally taking a somewhat patronising tone towards his character. Ambili is a sweet man with a clean heart, there was no need to cutesify him in his interactions with random members of the public. An extended shot towards the end when he is seated alone and the camera dwells on him, his crumbling face and his physical tics is transparent in its effort to emotionally manipulate the audience.
The dialogues too go downhill in the second half, whether it is the tacky lines given to an old lady in Goa or a maudlin voiceover from a doctor in Maharashtra (no fault of the charismatic actor in that part).
Ambili's obsessive stalking of Bobby might have borne fruit if the actor playing the friend had the chops to match up to Shahir. Debutant Naveen Nazim - brother of the sprightly Nazriya Nazim - does not. He is bland and his Bobby is, consequently, an unattractive character.
Thanvi Ram playing Teena is far more competent. However, Ambili is superficial in its writing of her bond with the protagonist. (Some people might consider the rest of this paragraph a spoiler) That Teena is a loyal friend is clear. But is she genuinely attracted to Ambili? Or is she submitting to his attraction out of a sense of duty and compassion? (Spoiler alert ends)
The appeal of the pre-interval portion of Ambili is its light touch - complemented by Vishnu Vijay's lively music - in spite of the leading man's grave circumstances. Post-interval the film becomes ponderous and stretched. Sharan Velayudhan's lush camerawork within Kerala becomes less striking despite the vast potential of the varying landscapes traversed in the second half. He does manage to serve up some good-looking frames here, but they are not half as stunning or as all-pervasive as his work in Ambili's home state. It almost feels like the film had a lower budget for cinematography outside Kerala. This lacuna robs Ambili of much of the magic it could have had during these passages, the weak writing, direction and a few poorly chosen bit part players take care of the rest.
Apart from its vacuous meandering nature, this part of Ambili is also riddled with flaws and loopholes. Through its post-interval travels, the film fails to acknowledge India's great diversity. This is particularly evident in its odd assumption that Hindi is the language of every non-Malayali Indian, the amateurishness of some of the Hindi lines and the absence of multiple tongues in the soundscape as state borders are crossed.
Besides, too many questions are left unanswered. (Spoiler alert: please read this paragraph after you watch the film) Why doesn't Bobby tell everyone that Ambili followed him? A character tells Bobby that the social media is abuzz with discussions about his road trip, but there is no evidence to suggest that he has done anything to generate such chatter - no photographs taken, no posts posted, no relevant activity at all on his part. And who was the woman other than Teena on the phone with Bobby? The voice sounds the same but her disdain for Ambili suggests that she is someone else. Who? (Spoiler alert ends)
The relationship that truly underscores this film's potential is the one between Ambili and Vettukili Prakash's character, which delivers the complexity sorely missing in the writing of the Teena-Ambili equation. Despite the briefness of his role, Prakash walks away with the film in a beautifully enacted and perfectly directed conversation. That scene, along with Shahir's moving performance in the first half, are the selling points of Johnpaul George's earnest but faltering Ambili.
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