Sudani from Nigeria movie review: An ode to human decency, a balm for the soul in a fractured world

Sudani from Nigeria is about how well-intentioned folk will always find a way around language barriers and a reminder that human goodness has survived centuries of batterings

Anna MM Vetticad April 08, 2018 14:05:28 IST

3/5

Samuel Abiola Robinson is a Nigerian footballer recruited by a club in Kerala’s Malappuram district. Although Africans are a familiar sight on sports fields here, Sudani from Nigeria makes it clear that locals have limited knowledge about the continent and are unaccustomed to social encounters with its people. How unaccustomed becomes evident when Samuel is variously described as Nigerian, Ugandan and Sudanese/Sudani, that last label inspiring the nickname Sudu. Hence the film’s title.

Sudani from Nigeria movie review An ode to human decency a balm for the soul in a fractured world

A still from Sudani from Nigeria

When Samuel/Sudu is injured in an accident, his already cash-strapped club manager Majid Rahman is forced to rope in his own mother to nurse the young man back to health at home. As he lies bedridden in Majid’s house, the affable Sudu becomes a curiosity among the local populace. Sudani from Nigeria stays with the two men through Sudu’s recovery and Majid’s professional and personal battles.

Kerala’s passion for football provides the backdrop to their relationship, but this is not so much a sports film as a slice of life in the state and an ode to basic human decency.

Financial compulsions are what initially prompt Majid to host Sudu, but as time goes by a genuine tenderness develops between the manager, his work associates, friends, family and the foreigner in their midst. Even the inquisitiveness of strangers turns to concern as everyone gradually becomes invested in Sudu’s welfare.

The friendly equation that evolves between Sudu and the Malayalis around him is the most winning aspect of this film, especially coming as it does at a time when inhumanity is rearing its head aggressively across the globe.

Director Zakariya has adopted a naturalistic style of storytelling for his debut feature. So convincing are the goings-on on screen that this feels less like drama designed for celluloid and more like life transposed on to it. So credible is the cast that if Soubin Shahir, who plays Majid, were not a star, it might have been assumed that all the artistes had been plucked out of reality and planted in this narrative.

Shahir is in spiffing form as Majid, representing Everyman in Kerala society with such aplomb that this could well be a live telecast from a randomly chosen period with a random sample of the population in God’s Own Country.

Nigerian actor Samuel Abiola Robinson (who shares his name with the character he plays) is unaffected before the camera. He has a tough task at hand since the language barrier means Sudu has far less dialogues than Majid, and since his characterisation is the weakest part of the screenplay. The actor’s boyish charm overrides these hurdles though.

The scene-stealers of the entire loveable cast are theatre artistes Savithri Shreedharan and Sarasa Balussery playing Majid’s darling mother Jamila and her best friend Beeyumma respectively. Their spot-on dialogue delivery, flawless timing and the way they mine their innate, earthy charm, are nothing short of acting genius.

The last time I remember experiencing such a high from the casting of a film was when Angamaly Diaries was released in 2017.

These life-like performances would not have been possible without the brilliance of Muhsin Parari and Zakariya’s screenplay aided by Noufal Abdullah’s sharp editing.

It would be remiss of me though not to point out that the writing airbrushes reality as it marches purposefully towards its goal of restoring faith in humanity. We are a racist, colour-prejudiced nation that is cruel even to dark-skinned fellow Indians. Kerala is no different in this respect. Yet in Sudani from Nigeria, reactions to Sudu are confined to the wide-eyed curiosity of innocent country folk.

That attitude was believable in last year’s Godha where the outsider being welcomed was a light-skinned, light-eyed north Indian arriving in Kerala, not a black African. Do Jamilas and Majids exist? Of course they do. Let us be frank though: if such characters in real life do not have their own biases to overcome on meeting a Sudu, they would certainly have to contend with the biases of others. Sudani would have been a more accurate film if it had taken this truth into account.

It would have also been more well-rounded if the incredible depth that the screenplay brings to the Indian characters was present in the writing of their Nigerian friend. We are given details of Sudu’s background through a flashback in his voice when the camera actually travels to Africa, but that is not what depth of characterisation is about.

At the end of Sudani from Nigeria, I felt I knew Majid, Jamila, Beeyumma and their whole gang as if they were my old pals. Sudu remained a uni-dimensional concept though, a result, no doubt, of the writers using him almost solely as a device via which to tell a tale of rustic Indian virtue. I kept waiting for him to cease to be an outsider in the filmmaker’s gaze, but that does not happen.

Parari and Zakariya obviously do have the nuance and skill to cover these angles without diluting their sunshiney worldview. Note the statement they make on communal harmony throughout Sudani from Nigeria without spelling it out in black and white. Or how they paint an endearing portrait of a Muslim community – sorely needed as Islamophobia engulfs India – without overtly stressing their religious identity. How they foreground a female friendship, that too between two elderly women, on a cinematic landscape known for male-bonding flicks, the marginalisation of women in general and ageist apathy towards older women. Or how they turn the evil stepmother stereotype on its head.

In fact, the unobtrusiveness of its multiple political assertions is one of the nicest things about Sudani from Nigeria.

Despite his vast, transcontinental canvas, Zakariya manages to give Sudani an air of delicate smallness that is essential to maintaining its sense of warmth and intimacy. This would not have been possible without director of photography Shyju Khalid who manages an admirable balancing act here, giving us ample evidence of the region’s natural beauty even while steering clear of showy camerawork, tempting though it must have been considering the spectacular setting.

All these elements combined make Sudani from Nigeria a heartwarming journey. This is a wryly funny, sad film about unlikely friendships and empathy for another.

Parari and Zakariya have mastered the art of laughing with a community instead of at them. The manner in which the people mingle and mangle Malayalam and English in their bid to converse with Sudu is utterly hysterical. Never though do the writers adopt a patronising tone towards these characters.

The comical fallout of communication and miscommunication might have gotten tiring after a while if that is all there was to Sudani from Nigeria. Thankfully not. The film is about how well-intentioned folk will always find a way around language barriers and a reminder that human goodness has survived centuries of batterings.

(Spoiler alert) Nothing underlines this point more beautifully than Jamila’s insistence on conducting some sort of memorial when Sudu’s relative passes away in Nigeria, and her refusal to relent when Majid argues that they are Muslim whereas Sudu is Christian and therefore their rituals would be different. The old lady’s intention – to help Sudu heal – and Sudu’s acceptance of her kindness instead of getting bogged down by their religious differences, translates into one of the most serene, life-affirming passages to be seen on film. (Spoiler alert ends)

In so many ways, Sudani from Nigeria is a soothing balm for the soul in our fractured world.

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