What a beautiful movie. A beautiful movie about people caring for people just because they are fellow people. Across the boundaries of language, appearance, background, everything else.
I just put up a post on Saturday about how I navigate being in a culture that is visibly not my own, that is, how the color of my skin effects how I interact with people as an Indian film scholar/fan. And here is this movie as a perfect counterpart to that discussion! It’s not about white privilege or Indian film or anything else specific to what I was talking about, but it is about cross-cultural and cross-racial interactions and how complicated they can be. And how shared interests, in this case soccer and in my case film, can bridge those gaps.
Although, now that I look up the cast, in a way it is film which is bridging the gap here too. Samuel Abiola Robinson is amazing as the hero of the film. He has a face that makes you want to smile back at him, or cry when he cries, or worry when he is worried. It’s a rare thing in an actor, and very valuable, that sort of easy empathy with him. And I am not surprised to find that he is a star in his own country, Nigeria.
I’ve only seen a couple of Nigerian films, but I know it is a country that was highly influenced by Hindi cinema, and their popular film industry uses many elements inspired by Indian film. At the same time, I know that they are the biggest popular industry in Africa. The French influenced films of Senegal, especially Sembene’s films, may get more mention in film history books, but it is the Nigerian films that play in theaters, on home video screens, and now on satellite channels through out the world. Similar to Satyajit Ray versus Raj Kapoor.
And, like popular Hindi film versus the parallel cinema options, the “Nollywood” films are much better than they are often given credit for. Which is what I was reminded of watching Samuel Abiola Robinson in this. As an actor, he easily dominated the film. Without language, without being from the same cultural traditions, he was still better than everyone else. He is part of the new post-2000s era of Nigerian film, an artistic blossoming which attracts a box office more than 10 times as big as Malayalam films.
So, here’s the thing. Samuel Abiola Robinson is a major star in the second biggest film industry in the world (second to Indian film based on number of movies made). He, out of a sense of artistic curiosity, generosity, I don’t know what, has agreed to be in a Kerala film. But this major major star, is playing an immigrant desperate for money, shelter, and basic human kindness, helped by the generosity of the common people of Kerala who he reveres.
Is this insulting? Saying that because he is black, and African, he is clearly at a lower financial and social position than the Malayalis? At first glance, yes. But I think that isn’t what is happening at all. The majority of Nigerians, and other Africans, in India are struggling. Looked down on, powerless, desperate for work and for respect. And they go home at night and watch Nigerian movies, just as NRIs go home and watch Indian films. And here is one of their stars, taking a leap and making an effort to represent them onscreen. Humbling himself to better reflect their situation. Similar to Rajinikanth starring in a film set in Malaysia.
And from the other side of things, the Malayalis who made this movie could have so easily decided that one African is as good as another (what the title makes fun of, the “Sundani” who is actually from Nigeria), cast anyone in the lead. But instead they reached out and found an experienced actor from the country they wanted to represent. Before the film even begins, there is already a moment of hands joining and reaching out across vast distances.
(Moimeme alerted me yesterday to a payment issue with Samuel. I looked into it, and was unsurprised to learn that the issue came not from the director/writer of the film but from his backers. Samuel specified that the director treated him well, and mentioned that he only learned of the payment issue thanks to talking with other actors, which indicates they treated him fairly as well. So, another example of racism being prevalent in Indian society, but not prevalent within the people directly working on this film.)
That’s what this movie is. The ease of making that connection, human to human. It’s not about learning languages or explaining each other’s culture, or even the soccer which initially united them, it is about the universals. Love, caring, food, family, an old woman stroking a young man’s forehead while he calls her “Mama”, without either of them even knowing the other’s name.
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I was confused when this movie started because the only actor I recognized in the opening scenes was Soubin Shahir, an always excellent character actor who I saw most recently in Carbon where I was more interested in his character than Fahad Fazil’s. I was excited to think he might be the lead character, but also confused since he doesn’t have the charisma to really carry a film, not all the way.
And then we kept following him, the character actor, through his very undramatic life. He is trying to manage a small soccer team in Kerala, he has all the players put up in a room, he himself lives in his family home with his mother. There is never enough money to go around, he barters for more from the competition organizers and then promptly gives it all away to his players. He fights with the referees and gives advice to his players, and so on and so on. It’s a long tiring tedious life, filled with passion for the sport and a hope that someday they will win a match, get a sponsor, be able to breath a bit instead of living moment to moment.
But that’s not what the film is about, not really. We see this so that we can understand how life is, you are so focused on your own short term goals that it is hard to see the other goals if life, the other people around you. Soubin is thinking about his team, about winning, about having enough money day to day. He doesn’t have time to sit back and think about why his players might have been willing to come all the way from Nigeria, what they may need the money for.
The audiences enters into Samuel’s life through Soubin. And so we don’t think much about Samuel at first either. He is part of the team, we want the team to win, we enjoy watching Soubin try to learn Yoruba while they learn Malayalam. We are caught up in the day to day challenges of money and sports training and so on. When Samuel is injured in a fall in the bathroom, like Soubin our first thought is how they will pay the hospital bill, if he will recover in time for the tournament.
Samuel is brought back to Soubin’s home mostly because it is cheaper to bring him home for home nursing than to stay at the hospital. But there is some small element of humanity to it. Soubin and the rest of the team agree that they need to take care of Samuel, they can’t just leave him in the hospital, they brought him here. Soubin’s friend/co-manager pledges his wife’s gold in order help pay the expenses. There is a basic level of kindness. But unaware kindness. Samuel is a person to them, but not really a friend.
Even when Samuel is in Soubin’s house, Soubin still doesn’t really see him. He jokes with him about all his girlfriends, about how popular he is getting as a player. But he doesn’t ask who it is that Samuel needed to call, borrowing Soubin’s phone. He doesn’t notice that Samuel cries when he is alone in the room. And when he learns Samuel borrowed money from a rival team owner, he is furious and doesn’t bother asking for more explanation, or considering what Samuel might have needed the money for.
Even so, at first, it appears that Soubin is the closer friend to Samuel. His mother, his mother’s friend, the other neighbors, they treat him as a curiosity, call him “Sudani” instead of his name, are fascinated at the idea of this black man on bed rest at Soubin’s house. A neighbor couple even comes to have their photo taken with him. But, slowly, that changes. First with his mother, the process of washing his body, feeding him food, all the little moments of caring for him, it naturally breaks down barriers between them. When Samuel has a severe fever, it is Soubin’s mother who notices first and insists on taking him to the hospital. More importantly, when Soubin is furious having learned that Samuel took money from his rival and wants to leave Samuel in the hospital with his fever, it is Soubin’s mother who demands that he be brought back to her home, that she continue to care for him. Somehow, across the boundaries of language (Samuel speaking almost no Malayalam and Soubin’s mother speaking no English), she has come to love him and care for him and wants him back in her house.
That is how easy it is to make these connections. You just need to sit there together and feel each other’s humanity with yours. The same thing happens, eventually, with Soubin. He hears a rumor that Samuel might be filing a case against him for fraud and abuse and his friend recommends that he go home and make nice with Samuel. And so they sit together, and he asks Samuel about his family, who he is sending money to and why. For the first time seeing him as another person, in an attempt to make Samuel see him as a person and not punish him.
Of course the rumor is false, Samuel had no such thought in his head. And instead of Samuel becoming sympathetic to Soubin through the conversation, the reverse happens, Soubin is sympathetic to Samuel. He learns that Samuel’s parents are dead, he is the sole support for his sisters and his grandmother. He needed money to send home, that’s all, he didn’t think of anything else.
Soubin now sees Samuel as a friend, not just a responsibility. And, slowly, the people around them see him in the same way. He plays referee for the neighborhood kids’ soccer game, he listens to Soubin’s mother (without understanding her) as she shares her worries, and he enjoys watching the local Kalaripayattu expert display his skill. Everyone cheers his slow recovery, not because they look forward to him playing on the team again, but because they are happy to see him up and about. But there is still the strain of the money and the team losing without their star player, and so on. Samuel is not at the forefront of Soubin’s mind or the plot. Not until disaster strikes, as the team is celebrating another win Soubin gets a call, Samuel is crying and won’t stop. Soubin’s mother is worried, they don’t know what to do. And Soubin can’t help either, Samuel won’t talk to him. It is only the next morning, when the crying is over, that Samuel tells them his grandmother has died and he must get back to Nigeria as soon as possible,
And now, everything else drops away. The game doesn’t matter, the money doesn’t matter, only Samuel’s grief and whatever they can do to help it is what matters. There is a lovely sequence when Soubin’s mother insists on holding a prayer meeting on the 3rd day after death, and the local boys who played soccer come together to form a prayer circle for Samuel’s grandmother. It’s not clear how much Samuel understands of what is happening, but he understands that they care, that they want to do what they can. And that’s what matters most, in the end, that they have that connection and want to do something. Not out of pity or guilt or responsibility, but just because they care.
The final “twist” of the film is the last thing that is keeping Samuel there. And what connects Samuel to a greater community of strugglers within India. Samuel’s passport goes missing just as he is preparing to leave the country. They discover this when government officials come wanting to speak to him, having read an article in a newspaper that calls him a “refugee”. Soubin goes to the author of the article for help who sends them to a refugee help organization. Who explains the reality of life as a refugee. They are allowed in India, but not allowed to work. They have to either live on the charity of NGOs or travel the streets, looking for hand outs (a possible explanation for a young woman and child that we see stopping at Soubin’s house looking for money earlier). Soubin returns home determined to get Samuel a replacement passport, no matter what it takes, in order to save him from refugee status. But when he asks Samuel’s help in filling out the paperwork, Samuel refuses. Until, finally, he admits that his passport is fake.
And we get the final piece of his story. He and his sisters and his grandmother lived in a refugee camp in Nigeria. They had to pay for water even, there was no work and money. He played soccer because there was nothing else to do. And then when he was scouted and offered a place on the Kerala team, it was the answer to a prayer. Only first he needed a passport. So he went to a forger, worked day after day to raise the money, and even then only got half. He paid the second half from Kerala, still hadn’t fully paid it off, and now he needed that passport back in order to go home again and be reunited with his sisters.
The filmmakers don’t just leave this up to Samuel’s voice over for the audience to understand it. We get flashbacks, images of the refugee camp, of their life there. They want us to feel the reality of the situation, to understand what might drive someone to travel across the seas no matter what it took in order to get out and get something for his family.
There probably aren’t many professional athletes from Nigeria living in India. But there are many Nigerians living in India who left their home in desperation. Estimates have 50,000 Nigerians currently living in India, many of them undocumented. And a survey of most other films will show how they are considered by the locals, “stealing” jobs, involved in illegal business, less intelligent, and so on and so on. This is the first film I can think of that treated their situation seriously, that looked at the causes rather than the imagined effects.
And all it takes is to see one person as a human being. That’s what the characters in this film learn, finally hearing and listening to Samuel’s story and caring for him for himself, and that is what this film is trying to do for the audience, giving us one phenomenal actor playing one fully rounded human.