Monday Malayalam Film School: Angamaly Diaries, the Best Made Indian Film Since Guru Dutt

Sorry, forgot when I “assigned” this film to be watched this week that my review is SO FREAKING LONG.  Oh well, great art excites me.  If you want to know why this film is just breathtaking, then you should read my no spoilers review.  Because the amazing part of the film isn’t in the story it is telling and what happens, it is in how the story is told.  But if you want to read a little more in depth discussion about the film and every aspect of it, not just the breathtaking parts, you can read on.

Before going into detail, I want to give you the quick plot of the film in one paragraph.  And then you have it for reference while I go into all the details.

Our hero, Pepe, grew up in Angamalay which is a medium sized suburb of Kochi near the airport.  In middle school he and his friends put together an unofficial “team”, a kind of pretend gang.  They hero-worshipped the leading “team” of their area at that time, which was lead by Babuji and his lieutenant Thomas, and used to work out with them and listen to their advice on fighting and strategy.  As young men, they got into their first fight, with outsiders who were bothering the neighborhood girls.  At the same time, our hero started his first sweet romance with a local girl he had known since school days, Seema.  This innocent period ends when Babuji is killed by two local boys Ravi and Rajan who are then sent to jail. A few years later, Pepe still has the same friends and Thomas, Babuji’s friend, has became a member of their “team” in a kind of adviser capacity.  Pepe is seriously dating a nursing student from Germany and looking for a way to build a business that can support himself and his friends.  They start a pork business, at first just buying pigs from Ravi and Rajan who have become the leading merchants in the neighborhood after their return from jail.  Later they start their own pig farm and set up a rival wholesale business to Ravi and Rajan.  During a discussion between the two groups, Pepe and his friends and Ravi and Raman’s young followers lead by Ravi’s brother-in-law get into a fight.  And Pepe accidentally kills one of them.  INTERVAL

To resolve the court case, Pepe’s team has to turn to increasingly illegal activities to raise money to pay off Ravi and Raman and their friends.  They open an illegal poker hall and manage to raise the funds.  However, with the case hanging over him, Pepe feels obligated to end his relationship with the nursing student.  At this point, one of his old friend’s older sisters “Lichi” who has returned to the area starts spending more time with him.  And finally proposes, saying that she doesn’t care about the court cases hanging over him, and she will marry him and take him to Dubai with her.  They are married, but even with the court cases settled, Pepe is still in danger because the man he accidentally killed has cousins who have come to Angamaly for revenge.  Ravi and Rajan act as go-betweens and try to keep the situation calm, but it is still a problem and Pepe needs to get out of town.  In the end, while he is waiting for his Dubai Visa to come through and celebrating a festival (not sure which festival, possibly the Cochin Carnival, possibly Vishu), they give the final pay off to Ravi and Rajan who pass on a portion to the cousins of the victim.  However, the cousins are still angry and plan to attack Pepe now, after they have gotten all the money they can.  During the evening festival celebrations, the groups weave in and out of the procession, and finally the fight starts, but not with Pepe as the victim, but Ravi and Rajan, since the cousins have just learned they only got a small proportion of the money Pepe used to pay them off.  The fight ends after the leader of the cousins, who is also Ravi’s brother-in-law, is chased into the fireworks display and everyone watches in stunned silence as his body is blotted out by thousands of fireworks going off on the ground around it.  In an epilogue, we see Pepe alone in a huge construction crane in Dubai.  It is two years later, he still calls home regularly, and life in Angamaly continues without him.

 

 

Phew!  For a movie which is really just an episodic coming of age story, a lot of stuff happens when you write it out like that.  But really, nothing happens beyond a boy growing up into a man.  And a community changing and growing and experiencing the way communities always do.

This is not a unique story.  Just a year ago we had Kammatipaadam which was also about a boy growing up on the outskirts of Kochi as it was built up, with his group of friends who eventually turned into a full-fledged gang, mentored by an older gang member, and with a romance woven through it.

But what makes it unique is the way it is told!  Oh my goodness!  I already talked about some of the technical achievement in my other review.  And it’s of a level where words truly cannot capture the experience of watching the film.  I can tell you scene by scene why it was brilliant, but I can’t give you that feeling that the film conveyed.  And anyway, a scene by scene discussion would get into the million-words zone, and no one wants to read that.

So instead I am going to try to limit myself to talking about how the filmmaking elevates and interacts with the story.

Structure is a big part of that, so let’s start by just looking at structure.  The synopsis I gave at the beginning of this post is in strictly chronological order.  But that is not how the film plays out.  Let me see if I can do it in a kind of graphic-y format in the order in which these sections actually happen:

  1. October (?) 2014: A man goes to an area gang boss and pays him to hire goons to beat up a group of young men who roughed him up the day before.  The gang boss subcontracts to another group of young men and tells them the bar where they can probably find the first group.  The fight starts in the bar, and then spills out into the street.  And freezes as we get our first voice over and our hero introduces himself as one of the young men from the bar, then one dressed as Jesus.
    1. Why it is important that the film opens this way: We are being introduced to this world which has so much more happening in it than this little story we are about to see.  There is this other gang that we will never see again, the gang boss who hires them, and the man who hires the gang boss.  This is a world in which disputes are constantly being solved in this way, with tiny fights and moments of aggression.  We need to know that before we can move on, our story is nothing special, everyone here has their “team” and their area boss and everything else.
  2. 2001: The hero explains that this all started when he was a young boy.  We see him, a different actor, in the church choir.  But in school, he idolized a group of older boys who had a soccer team and always came home with the gold cup from tournaments, just because they beat up the other team so badly.  He decides to start his own “team”.  It’s a clever blurring of language, “team” is the local slang for gang, but it is first used to refer to an actual sports team.  Which was also a gang.   He and his best friend start their team, and then slowly add on more boys, a boy who is obsessed with food, another one who is really good at talking and insulting, and two boys named “Marty”, because every group in Angamaly has to have someone named Marty, since so many boys are named Martin after the local church (if I was understanding that part correctly).  All the boys have a crush on the same local girl, Seema.  And they are all a little afraid of “Lichi”, the older sister of one of them who is always yelling at them.  They call her “Lichi” as a combination of their friend’s name (Linus, I think), and “Chechi” for “big sister”.
    1. Why it is important that we go back to their childhood: We barely get to know these characters as children.  But we still have to see them that way, to understand how life perpetuates itself.  Pepe is a boy whose father is gone and who is looking for an identity and a purpose.  His hero-worship of Babuji gives him both those things.  But more important than that is the “team” he builds.  It’s not about fights and violence, it’s about calling themselves a team, about finding that strength and that bond with each other.  A bond which goes all the way back to when they were first of an age to start looking for a place in the world of their very own.
  3. 2008: The teams’ first real fight.  Pepe is in college now.  All the boys are fully grown and beefy and muscular looking.  One of their neighborhood girls was harassed, so they go to beat up the group of boys involved.  At first the fight goes their way, but then the boys run off and join up with a BJP procession, and all the party workers join together to beat up our team.  Afterwards, in the hospital, Seema comes to visit.  She closes the door and kisses Pepe and his first romance starts.  But he still needs to resolve the issue with the other group.  They bring in Thomas from the slightly older crowd to help out.  He negotiates with a similar slightly older man from the other group, and they reach a compromise that saves face for all.  While celebrating the compromise, the boys hear a call that Babuji has been stabbed.  They rush over and fight off his attackers as the police arrive to arrest them.  Babuji dies, and that is the real end of their youth, as they are now the oldest and toughest team in the neighborhood.
    1. Why it is important that we see all these things: This is where the film starts to skip.  It makes sense to go back to that moment in childhood when he started to have an individual identity and needs and connections outside of his family.  But why did the film decide to skip everything between 2001 and 2008?  And why did it decide NOT to skip some of the moments shown here?  We start with the first fight, which then goes into the first kiss, and then the first brush with death.  This is growing up.  That fight may never be mentioned again, the girl he kisses may not become his wife, and the death may never be mentioned again either.  But these were the first of those experiences, and therefore they are vivid in our hero’s mind and they shaped him for years to come.
  4. 2012 (I think): It’s years after Babuji’s death.  Pepe never got around to graduating from college, but he has started up a cable TV business with his friends.  And he has a new romance.  Seema is married to someone else, but there is a nursing student he knows from church whose family is in Germany.  He is romancing her partly for the German Visa, and she kind of knows it.  His closest friend, Varkey, also has a romance with the local female constable.  And his sister is now of an age that he has to start thinking about her marriage.  In the middle of this, “Lichi” returns to the neighborhood.  Pepe is respectful, and she is quick to talk plainly too him, left over from their childhood relationship.  Lichi is now a nurse supervisor, and works with Pepe’s girlfriend and warns him to be serious about her.  With all of these pressures, the team of young men decide to start a real business, and with the advice of the older Thomas, they pick pork.  Only Ravi and Raman are now back in town and running the entire pork market for the area.  They will have to make nice and buy pigs from them.  The first meeting goes well, although it is still a little tense.  It gets tenser when Pepe’s team has a run in with a group of younger men and then find out that the leader of that group is Ravi’s brother-in-law.  And then again when their pork business gets successful and Ravi and Raman confront them over charging 20 rupees less per pound.  Ravi throws a locally made bomb into their stall, not injuring anyone, but causing an explosion.  Pepe decides they need their own bombs and gets the local drunk and thief to show them how to build explosives.  Armed with these new bombs, when Ravi and Raman come to talk with them again, Pepe and his friends can’t resist responding to the taunts of Ravi and Raman’s group, and a fight starts, and turns into a chase.  Finally, Pepe throws a bomb, merely meaning to block an exit route.  But because one of the other group they are chasing slips and falls at just the right moment, the bomb hits his chest and explodes, killing him.  INTERVAL.
    1. Why we come back to our hero at this point in time:  This is the part of the film that is the “real” film.  The part that takes us straight through to the ending with only small gaps.  The part where stories recur and are related.  In theory, the whole film could have just started here.  But that would be to lose something. We needed to see how he got here, how he turned into a young man whose greatest treasure is his friends.  And his community.  Pepe is desperate to leave, even ready to marry a girl just to get out.  But at the same time, we see over and over again the advantages he has by being here.  He knows how to get a bomb, who he can count on in a fight, who is the honest police officer, who is the corrupt lawyer, everything.  The title of the film is “Angamalaly Diaries”, and this is the part where it really starts to feel this way, like Pepe is not just existing with his family and friends any more, but within the whole larger world of the town.  And we wouldn’t be able to appreciate that if we hadn’t seen his journey to get here.  In the same way we wouldn’t appreciate why he threw that bomb if we hadn’t seen him grow up dreaming of being in a “team”, struggling in his first fight, falling in love and wanting to get married, all the things which brought him to this point.
  5. 2013 (I think.  Anyway, several months later):  Pepe is out on remand.  But they know at trial he could end up going to jail for 12 years, because of the use of the bomb in the killing rather than it being a simple common stabbing death.  The only hope is if they can get the witnesses on their side.  Equally worrisome, the victim had cousins from out of town who might show up at any moment looking for revenge.  To solve all these problems, they need to make a deal with Ravi and Raman.  Give them enough money that they will get the witnesses not to testify and the cousins to let it go.  Ravi and Raman ask for an enormous sum, but the lawyer without really suggesting it, suggests that maybe they should start doing some of the illegal things Ravi and Raman used to do before they turned respectable in order to raise the money.  At the same time, Pepe goes to meet with his German girl and breaks it off with her.  Lichi yells at him about it, but he tells her that it wouldn’t be right, he has this case hanging over him, he can’t ask a girl to wait for that to be resolved.  Pepe’s team starts running a poker game which lets them raise the money.  But when the police raid the poker game, they are in more trouble than ever.  Plus, the cousins are still around and interested enough to start a fight.  Which Ravi and Raman calm down before it can go too far.  With the original charge released, but the new poker charge still pending, Pepe and Lichi go to Varkey’s wedding to his female constable.  They both get a little drunk and Pepe walks Lichi home.  And finally, after leading up to it slowly, Lichi admits that she is interested in Pepe and would like to marry him, despite all the court cases and everything she knows about him, and take her with her to Dubai where she has a good job lined up.  Pepe is delighted, and they have a small registry marriage before she leaves.  While they are waiting for Pepe’s Visa to be approved, they gather the last little bit of money by selling the family home and pass it off to Ravi and Raman.  Problem solved, they agree to meet that night at the procession and celebrate together with drinks.  Raman is even happy to suggest a contact to help Pepe in Dubai.  But the brother-in-law and the cousins have joined forces, they are not satisfied with the pay off as a solution, and they plan to kill Pepe now that he has paid the last bit of money they can squeeze out of him.
    1. Why this part had to come after intermission:  There is another gap of time here, a small one, only 45 days.  Not enough for the situation to be reset totally as it was with the other leaps forward.  But enough for our hero to change a little bit and for the world to reflect that change.  He has now faced up to the consequences of his actions.  Not 12 years in jail, but a mother and younger sister left without a protector, relatives who want to kill him, and a life which he himself has ruined and ruined all those connected to him.  We don’t see him struggle with the decision to break up with his girlfriend, to reject his mother’s offer of selling her house to raise money, or with the decision to try to buy his way out of this and to accept his friends help to do so.  We are just presented with him having already made those decisions and being committed to them.  And again, they come from all the way back in childhood when he was the one to first bring this “team” together.  Of course they would stand by him now.  And of course that same sense of responsibility and need for connections that lead him to found the team, would also lead him to feel his responsibility to try to resolve the situation as fairly as possible, giving money to the mourners and keeping his family and girlfriend out of it if he can.
  6. October (?) 2014 (again): And this is where the film opened.  Pepe and his friends are drinking in a bar and the brother-in-law and the cousins are planning to attack them.  Only before they can, a totally different group, the ones hired by the store-owner they beat up the day before because he was making obscene phone calls, arrive at the bar and start a fight, which spills into the street.  And the brother-in-law and cousins have to wait until that night.
    1. Why it is so important to return to this exact moment:  This entire film has been a flashback.  Even in the most tense moments, we always had that to hold on to, that Pepe clearly survived whatever happened, because we saw him in the beginning in 2014.  But now we are crossing that line, we are going past the scenes we have already seen.  Anything can happen.  And, just for a technical flourish to make it better, the director gives us the same moment but from a different angle, so we can see not just the group we already knew about entering the bar, but the cousins and the brother-in-law sitting at a table waiting for their chance.
  7. 2014, Later that same day: Pepe and his friends have returned to their neighborhood for the procession.  And this is the heartstopping long steadicam take that I discussed in my other review.  Pepe and his friends weave among the dancers, Varkey says good-bye to his wife and joins them, others break off, and then rejoin later, Ravi and Raman show up as well and join in their group, and then the camera moves back to show that the brother-in-law and his crowd are there as well, waiting.  Pepe and his group move into his house, the brother-in-law is outside, but Ravi sees him and invites him in, pulling him into the crowd.  The camera goes through increasingly limited space now, narrow hallways and small rooms, and then out again when the brother-in-law runs outside to tell his friends he just learned they were ripped off.  Pepe paid 35 lakh to Ravi and Raman to get out of his court case, and the cousins and brother-in-law were only given 4 lakh.  Suddenly their anger turns from Pepe to Ravi and Raman.  They barge back into the house as the tracking shot continues and find Raman alone, and stab him, then go back out through a hallway where Thomas tries to stop them and is stabbed as well.  Pepe and his friends attack at this point and it spills out into the street where the procession continues.  Pepe can see the brother-in-law and chases him backwards and forwards through the crowd.  Finally the camera stops, and turns to look just at Pepe, who has also stopped.  Varnay and the rest of the team coming running up and stop as well in a row next to him, along with the priest and the whole rest of the neighborhood pressing forward.  And then the camera slowly turns to reveal the fireworks going off, and one small dark spot wavering in the middle of them.  The brother-in-law had run into the firework field just as they were lit.
    1. Why this moment is separate from all others with it’s own amazing sequence:  Again, the title is Angamaly Diaries.  This is life in Angamaly as Pepe remembers it.  All the rest of it, his whole life, is just building to this moment.  His farewell.  Every connection he has made, good or bad, touches him one last time.  And then the worst of his memories, of his hometown, is exploded by the best of it.  The joyful coming together and celebration of the fireworks takes away the greed and selfishness of the brother-in-law.
  8. 2016:  And finally we go from our last shot of Angamaly to a close-up of Pepe’s face.  His beard is closely trimmed now and his hair is more styled.  He tells us it is 2 years later.  And the camera slowly starts to move backwards as he explains.  He lives in Dubai now with Lichi.  He still calls Angamaly once a week and gets all the news from his friends, they still meet up without him to drink and talk.  And then the camera keeps going back and we see that he is seated in a huge crane, high above Dubai.  And the camera keeps going, back and back, and slowly we see the whole massive gleaming empty city of Dubai behind him.  And that’s the end.
    1. Why do we end like this: That last sequence before this, that was about all of the connections of a community, being able to move between and around and touch and talk and know each other.  And this is about the lack of community.  Alone, all powerful, fearless, with no problems or worries.  But so lonely.  This is the ultimate point of the entire film, that feeling of having lost something when your life becomes simple, when you no longer need other people.  When the fight is over.

(Here, you can see how all the different eras kind of interact in the trailer)

So that’s structure.  That’s everything I can think of to say about that.  But that is far far from all there is to the film.  For instance, just as important as structure in making this film function, are the characters.  Starting with our hero.

Pepe: Our “hero” isn’t exactly a “hero” as we usually see them, but he is definitely not an anti-hero either.  He sometimes loses fights, and he often makes foolish decisions.  But he never does anything truly wrong.  He is never cruel, or selfish, or arrogant.  He is always sincerely trying to do the right thing.  We are first introduced to him dressed as Jesus.  Which is funny the first time we see it, Jesus smoking and drinking in a bar.  But when we come back to this image at the end of the film, it seems oddly appropriate.  He is the one suffering for the “sins” of everyone.

Image result for angamaly diaries pepe

Pepe was raised in a community where fighting is common and constant.  But low-level fighting.  Guns are almost unheard of, rare and exciting.  Even knives are surprising when they appear.  It’s punches and kicks that people fight with.  And then their “compromiser” steps in and they work out a deal after the fight.

Pepe didn’t turn his friends to violence by forming their “team”, he saved them.  Violence was inevitable, it’s how you work out business disputes, make connections in the community, everything.  Pepe was just the first one to see it and gather his followers around him.

And yes, he was impulsive and foolish sometimes, and his friends had no choice but to go along with it and back him up.  He made plenty of human errors.  But his biggest mistake, throwing that bomb which lead to an accidental death, that was something any one of them could have done.  They were all eager to escalate the situation, to try this new level of violence.  He just happened to be the first, and then he ended up paying the highest price for it.

In the end, it wasn’t all the agony of the court case and raising the money that was his real punishment.  It was leaving Angamaly.  He went into exile in Dubai which could be seen as a “reward”.  But on the other hand, he was removed from the warmth and friendship that had nurtured him his whole life.  His friends back in Angamaly could still enjoy their festivals, their drinking, their churches, with the safety and security Pepe had purchased for them through his sacrifices.

Pepe is the hero, but every character in this film, even ones who only get a few lines, are equally vivid.  For example:

S.I.: I kept thinking of Action Hero Biju with this character.  He was introduced as the “bad” new inspector, the one who was cracking down on everybody in the area.  But then we see him interacting, and he is a calm and reasonable guy.  He is more likely to sit on his desk and try to work out a deal than to slap people around and throw them in a cell.  In a different kind of a movie, he might be our “hero”, the handsome young cop with the smart mind and reasonable attitude.  But this movie wanted to show the heroism of a “Pepe”, a forgotten and flawed kind of guy, not suffering enough to be a tragic hero, but not brave enough to be a heroic one.  And so our police inspector was relegated to a supporting role.

Image result for action hero biju

(Picture this character, but not played by a movie star)

Thomas: The older adviser for our gang.  Most of the time he is a somewhat comic character.  He comes in after the fight is over, and talks to the police or the leader of the other gang or whoever else.  He explains why Pepe’s team was in the right, then listens while the other side is explained, and finally suggests a compromise.  And then asks that they join him in a drink to seal the deal.  He would be an amusing character with some great lines, but there is one moment of the film that made him into more than that.  Just before Ravi throws the first bomb, there is a moment when Thomas is holding back Pepe and his friends, a crowd is gathering around, and Ravi strides towards his truck to take off, but then turns around.  And for just a moment, you see that Thomas is the only one who is still watching him.  And who is the first to react and order Pepe and his friends to hit the ground.  Most of the time he is just there to offer wisdom and compromises.  But that one moment reminds us that he used to be in a gang himself, that he has survived this long in this environment, and he must have learned a trick or to himself.

Ravi and Rajan: Our “villains”.  Or, are they?  They first time we see them, they are standing over the dead body of Pepe’s mentor, Babuji.  And then they are taken away in a police van while Pepe and his friends watch.  In another movie, they would be the one-dimensional bad guys.  And at first it kind of looks like that is what they will be in this movie.  They come back from jail and take over the whole neighborhood, selling drugs, dating girls who used to be “good”, threatening people to take over the legitimate businesses.  And even once they go into business with Pepe, they are still constantly posturing and threatening and cheating him.

Image result for angamaly diaries ravi

(Ravi)

But slowly we start to see that they are more than that.  We start to get just little glimpses of how they are in private, not just when they are putting on a show for the public.  The first time is after Pepe’s team gets into a fight with some younger boys and they go running to Ravi and Rajan for help, because their leader is Ravi’s brother-in-law.  Instead of a response of outraged pride and anger, they are calm and point out that they have a business arrangement with Pepe, and therefore they are just going to let it go.  And this happens over and over again, with Pepe they may yell and hit and punch.  Even with the S.I., they may talk big about how he better not arrest their friends.  But once they are in private, they are quick to turn on the troublemaker and reprimand him for causing a fight, for being disrespectful, for not just letting things go.  And finally, way at the end, we start to see that Ravi and Rajan could be just as much the heroes of this piece as Pepe.  We never learn how their fight with Babuji turned fatal, but we see how easy it was for Pepe to accidentally fall into violence and can assume the same thing happened with them. Only while Pepe’s friends and family gathered round him and saved him from jail, Ravi and Rajan had no one but each other.  They went off in that jeep together and, years later, they stand together on the porch of their shared apartment.  They didn’t get all this power and money because they wanted it, but because it was all they had left after their jail term.  Just the two of them against the world.

Those are just examples, I could keep going and going, every character in this film is amazingly well drawn.  But I want to switch and focus on the female characters in particular.  There aren’t many female characters in this film, which is fine.  It’s a movie about gangs and business and things that women in this society generally wouldn’t be involved with.  But the part of lives where women would appear, sisters and mothers and girlfriends, they are strong and interesting people, just as much as the male characters.  Even the women who aren’t part of the main plot!

Alice: Pepe’s best friend’s girlfriend.  A police constable.  She could have been just a plot complication, interfering with their plans or something like that.  But instead her job is just part of her personality.  She is strong and confident and in control.  While Pepe’s girlfriends go in and out of his life, Alice is a constant for Varkay.  He may complain about her, and she may complain about him, their romance may not have a lot of big love songs and swoony moments, but that doesn’t mean it is any less sincere.  Even marriage doesn’t seem to change it much.  We see them at their wedding, happy and drunk and dancing.  And then a few months later we see them again, and she is right back to nagging him over his drinking and he is right back to complaining about being nagged.

Pepe’s sister: First and most importantly, I know this character has a name, I just don’t remember it.  That’s important, there are plenty of films where the hero’s younger sister is just called “younger sister”, never has an identity of her own even to the point of not getting a name.  But in this film we get to see her stand up for herself several times.  She talks with Pepe as equals figuring out household matters when they have unexpected guests.  And once Pepe is in trouble at the end, she stands up and declares she wants them to use the money set aside for her wedding.  She will marry later and find a man who will take her without dowry, and have her brother be saved now.

Seema: Pepe’s first girlfriend.  She gets almost no lines or scenes.  We have one tiny scene and a love song, and that’s all the time she gets.  And yet I still have a feel for her character!  She takes the lead in the romance, ordering out his friends and closing the door and then kissing him.  And she is happy to sneak out and meet him every night, to have secret trysts, to grab joy while she can.  After the love song, there is just a casual remark that she married an NRI and moved to Singapore.  But even that makes her feel stronger.  She joyfully lept into this youthful fling.  And then she just as easily set it aside and moved on to a real relationship with a marriage material kind of guy.  Just like “a man”, she is able to separate her sexual experiments and enjoyment of her youth from any kind of permanent emotional commitment.

Lichi: And then there is the strongest female character, Pepe’s eventual wife, Lichi.  I know this isn’t a romance movie, but it also isn’t entirely NOT a romance movie.  That small sequence in 2008 which gave Pepe his 3 coming of age moments, also serves as the entire conflicts of the film in microcosm.  He has to bond with his friends through shared goals and problems.  He has to experience love with a woman.  And he has to understand death.  In the rest of the film, the bond with his friends grows through starting businesses, getting into innumerable fights, and every other part of their lives.  And he confronts death in a new way when he kills someone.  And finally, there is also love.

Image result for angamaly diaries lichi

(This actress was also amazing.  I think out of all the actors in the movie, she might be the one I most want to see again)

Lichi is a part of his life the whole film.  Even back in the childhood flashback, she is there.  And when she returns, we (the audience) discover that she never really left.  Pepe has stayed in touch with her brother even after he moved away.  And Pepe has been expecting and preparing for Lichi’s return.  Not in a romantic way, but in a responsible way.  He helped lay the foundation for their new house, he knows about her job, and when she and her mother show up at Pepe’s house as soon as they arrive back in town, he is quick to make sure they have enough food for them, even if it means he and his sister have to go hungry that day.

While his girlfriends may be someone to flirt with, to hold hands, to enjoy at the movies, Lichi is someone with whom he can share the problems of his life.  Everything, from his court cases to finding a caterer for Varkay’s wedding.  And because he sees her that way, it never occurs to him to start a romance with her as he would with a different woman.  It doesn’t occur to Lichi either.  She doesn’t want that kind of romance, the childish romance of holding hands and kissing behind closed doors.  She wants a marriage, a formalizing of the kind of bond they already have.  And so she goes straight to a proposal.  And Pepe’s response is delighted surprise.  This is something he never would have thought of, because he respects her so much, but he has no hesitation when it happens.  And it is different than his earlier romances, truly an adult romance, with no fears or hiding or waiting.  They come together, they have a quiet register wedding, and they start planning a life together.

This is an Indian film after all, so I do want to mention songs.  But just briefly.  One thing that fascinated me about this film is that the songs don’t work at all out of context, and they work so brilliantly within it.  I was listening to the soundtrack at work before I saw it and I had no interest in any of the songs.  But then seeing them with the visuals of the film, it was a whole different experience, suddenly they made sense.  But, on the other hand, I don’t think the visuals would have worked without the music.  The two parts of the whole came together perfectly to create something so much larger than either would have been on their own.

I could keep going infinitely talking about this film, it’s that kind of a movie, there is just so much to talk about.  But I want to end by spending a brief moment explaining why the technical flourishes added to the plot and everything else, instead of distracting from it.

The steadicam sequences are the most obviously impressive parts.  The long chase scene just before the interval with the steadicam operator running along next to them.  And of course the incredibly long take right at the end.

But it’s not just in those parts that the technical achievements were amazing.  Every shot and every scene is perfect.  And perfect for that moment of the film, not just technical fireworks for their own sake (which sounds like it might have been part of the problem with his last film?  Too much technical gloss, not enough heart?).

One moment that stood out for me early in the film is when our hero is getting his first kiss.  We see Seema’s face smiling, and then she slowly leans in towards the camera.  And then we switch to a shot over her back, with the back of her head filling the lower right half of the screen.  And in the upper left corner, we see Pepe’s eyes looking straight at the camera.  As along the bottom of the screen, against the black of Seema’s hair, we have the subtitle saying “and that happened for the first time that day too”.  And the whole theater laughed.

It’s a perfect kind of funny moment, her smiling face, and then his excited eyes, and his matter-of-fact voice over about it.  But to pull that together, it would mean that the camera was on the pillow where his face would be for the shot with Seema leaning.  Then they reset the whole scene with him on the pillow and moved the camera so that it is held exactly on angle with Seema’s back, not behind her or above her (as it would be in any other director’s film), but leaning with her.  With her, but slightly to the side and peaking out over her shoulder so that it caught half of Pepe’s face.  And then Pepe had to manage to make perfect eye contact with the camera over Seema’s shoulder, while his face reacted in a natural way to Seema’s approach.  And, of course, with Seema and Pepe being placed so that the two shots came together seamlessly.  And finally, all of this was done with an awareness that the bottom 5th of screen space had to stay empty so that the subtitle would appear perfectly and legibly.

And the whole movie is filled with moments like that!  Technical achievements that you don’t even notice because they are there just to heighten the emotions of the characters during the scene, to serve the narrative instead of the other way around.

Really, it’s just an amazing movie!  And I hope by spoiling it, I have just made you want to watch it more, not caused you to lose interest.

(You can see a bit of what I am talking about at the beginning here)

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19 thoughts on “Monday Malayalam Film School: Angamaly Diaries, the Best Made Indian Film Since Guru Dutt

  1. Best film since Gurudutt? That’s a tall claim. When did technical wizardry replace good story telling ?strip away the technical aspects & you are left with a bunch of hot blooded young men fighting & swearing at each other. The characters are very much real but there’s no credible story to tell about them. The use of newcomers & the atmosphere of lower middle income households/youths gives the raw, gritty feel of the film. But again without a strong core, it all feels like embellishments to hide the hollowness & you don’t really care who kills whom-no matter what the structure is, where the camera is placed or which way the actor’s head is positioned. And it’s so uncharacteristic of your reviews to focus on the technicalities of how a shot is framed. I’m more used to you talking about the themes & messages that are conveyed.

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    • In this case, the technical wizardry is so spectacular that it forces me to discuss it. Which is also true of Guru Dutt, he had brilliant beautiful stories, but his technical brilliance was far beyond what any other director has managed before or since. Except for this movie, which blew me away. I think in another review I mentioned Orson Welles and Scorcese for similar technical reasons, but this time around I wanted the headline to have a desi touch.

      There are some movies that just don’t have a great simple story to them, it’s a lot of happenings connected by a mood and a group of characters and it is less about what “happened” than about the feel that is evoked. In this case, the cast was so large, I don’t think we were necessarily supposed to connect to one character over another, except for Pepe who served as much as the narrator and guide to the world as the protagonist. I think Pellisary was trying to create the feel of a neighborhood where you sort of know everyone and their stories, but they move in and out of your awareness depending on where you are in life and what is happening.

      On Mon, Sep 10, 2018 at 2:50 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. I watched it! Thank you, because I’m sure, without your deadline I would never have finished it.
    This movie is very good visually, the first word that comes to my mind is rich. Just right from the first scene, with this band, and shops, the people, cars, everything (I still hear the initial song in my head). There are no accidental or unwanted scenes and I loved it. Shouldn’t all movies be like this? Well-thought and done with some idea?

    I think that what I liked the most, and what made me think more, are Ravi and Rajan.They are the bad guys, the killers etc, but in the end, I liked them, and I saw a lot of good things in them (like the fact Ravi hasn’t thrown his brother-in-law out) and I started justify both.

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    • Yes! The Ravi and Rajan arch was really unique to me in this kind of story. I just saw Hamilton (finally) and there was kind of the opposite arch in the way it handled Burr and Hamilton. They were friends/acquaintances who kept bumping into each other and slowly, over years, became deadly enemies. Which was all real and true and based on American history. And I think probably far more true to life than how most movies show it, if you are forced to live with people you find a way to get along until you suddenly can’t any more, no matter how unlikely it seems.

      I also like that the movie never showed us the backstory for Ravi and Rajan. We don’t know how it happened that they killed for the first time, what went on in their lives. We are just asked to accept it and move on. And later when Pepe causes a death, we see how very senseless it is, a couple of wrong remarks and posturing, and suddenly someone is dead for no real reason. Which, come to think of it, also feels very true to life. When you get into the details of some of the murders that are reported in newspapers, especially those between young men, it is just silly random stuff.

      On Mon, Sep 10, 2018 at 3:11 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I agree with you about women characters. I appreciate that every girl was different. But my favourite was Pepe’s sister Mercy, and I liked their bond very much. In the most difficult moments his first thoughts were about his sister who isn’t married, and she is ready to give the money destinated for her wedding to save her brother.

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        • Yes! Especially interesting in a movie like this which is so focused on male bonds. His bond with his friends was important and special, but that didn’t take away from his bond with his sister. I also assume that his friends will pay him back by taking care of his mother and sister, just like he took care of Lichi even before there was a romance between them.

          On Mon, Sep 10, 2018 at 4:04 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. Stupid autocorrect. Can anyone remember the plot? What it is remembered for is its recreation of a specific feeling at a particular moment in the lives of rather ordinary characters.

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    • Yes! Brilliant analogy! And it was by Lucas, who went on to create one of the simplest and stablest stories in American film history, so clearly he was capable of writing that kind of script, he just chose not to in this case.

      On Mon, Sep 10, 2018 at 3:40 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  4. Another thing I really loved is that the fights were not the carefully choreographed fight-dances I am used to. They were just flailing arms and legs, like a real brawl. And the chase scene at the end, ending in the fireworks, is absolutely BRILLIANT!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I loved loved loved this movie! Just watched it maybe 2 months ago. It was really exciting and vivid. And did it not make you hungry at some points?
    Arjun’s hometown is Kochi and he described how incredibly true to life the characters and their interactions are.
    I was a bit smug when he ended up with Lichi, as I had a feeling he would when she ruffled his hair.

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    • It made me so hungry! Food is such a major component of creating a place, and few movies bother with it. But with this one, I felt like I knew where they lived, what they ate, where they saw movies, where they drank, everything about every detail of their lives.

      I was hoping he would end up with Lichi since they were little boys and starring at all the other little girls but respecting her. And then I just wanted it more after she returned and so clearly had his number. I think Pepe needs a strong hand on the wheel to keep his life in order, and neither of the other girlfriends were up to it. Maybe no other girl would be, but the older sister he’s known since she was a “big girl” back in school is perfect.

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  6. I loved the movie and I loved everything in your analysis…really like a class in film school. Thanks a lot, Margret!
    It felt so real because it w a s kind of real…first time actors, the real places (I found some of them on Google Earth), what one gets to know about the living in that part of Angamaly, the way to show the interactions (nice ones and violent ones), the talking, the people itself, the mistakes and errors, the bondings, the cooking/talks about food…
    The most fascinating for me was the way to deal with conflicts (not only between the gangs/teams), that idea of a conciliator which even was a part of judiciary things (police, tribunal) and obviously is an important part of life there…one tries to avoid maximum escalation by trying to find a way to get out of the conflict in a way that satisfies both parties (although it clearly shows that it is money in the end which seals the deal (not the 10ml of Thomas).
    There weren’t clichés, stereotypes but distinctive characters whose background I didn’t miss because it wasn’t necessary (except for Pepe as the one who takes us with him to immerse ourselves in a part of his growing up in that community). I liked the way all girls were portrayed and when Lichi came back into Pepe’s life, I also thought that she would be just the right match for him (it was one of those ‘reel’ parts for me that somehow he hadn’t to marry Seema or the girl from German).
    I was kind of delighted about showing the part concerning the shop owner two times from different angles to close the circle of Pepe’s narration and to give a special thrill to the last part of the movie (wasn’t it Diwali, the festivity?). Btw., I think the brother-in-laws first goal was – in any way – to kill Ravi. This last part also was a really ‘reel’ one as the man’s motivation clearly was to murder Ravi and Pepe.
    I’m with all of you concerning the chase of the brother-in-law and the way it was filmed. I’ve no visual knowledge concerning Guru Dutt, but I will – most certainly – get some now.
    Wikipedia writes that Anthony Varguese (Pepe) made another movie (co-produced by Pelissery) released this year (which I can’t find with subtitles) and has signed another with Pelissery directing.

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    • Yes, the conciliatory moments were wonderful! And it felt like this is just how things work there, any problem that arises, you go to your local “team”, there is a show of strength, and then a resolution. But you can’t skip the show of strength moment, no one would come to the bargaining table without that first step.

      And agree that it was nice he didn’t marry the other two girls, it would have been very filmi for him to end up with the prettiest girl in town that he had a crush on since school, and who he got into his first fight to defend. So Seema was out. And even the German girl, they had that romance of flirtation and handholding and so on, very romantic. But Lichi, it was just practical and easy. Not magical and romantic. That was the one that was “real”, while the other two were what would happen in a movie.

      Guru Dutt was famous for his use of light. He was directing back when Indian cameras were still big and immovable, so he couldn’t do that kind of flashy stuff, but it was the way he moved with the light that is mindblowing and has never been replicated. If you watch one of his movies, that’s the thing to look for.

      On Tue, Sep 11, 2018 at 6:05 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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