Director: Lijo Jose Pellissery
Cast: Antony Varghese, Sarath Kumar, Kichu Tellus
The Wikipedia entry under “Synopsis” for Angamaly Diaries is remarkably concise: “The story of local people and their life at Angamaly.” In a sense, that is really all there is to Lijo Jose Pellissery’s drama. It’s the story of the man who embraces a tree while preparing a bomb, so that even if it explodes in his hands, his face and body won’t be harmed. It’s about the woman who, when invited to a wedding, wonders if liquor is on the menu. It’s about the girl who is dumped rather curtly, in a first-floor restaurant – the man walks away, and she stares out of a large window, at the town of Angamaly below, which goes about its business with little regard for her tears. It is about the business that drives this town, the business of pork that’s conducted over the squeals of pigs facing the knife. And it is about the gay man in a butterfly-print shirt, who gets the film going as he scooters over to meet a gangster named Benny. Soon, there’s violence.
There’s a lot of violence in Angamaly Diaries, which means there are a lot of action set pieces. Each one is choreographed differently. An early fight breaks out in a bar. It involves men dressed as Jesus, a Roman solider, a nun. The best part? The background music, where a brass band erupts into Ilayaraja’s 1982 chartbuster, Ilamai idho idho. The presence of this song, in this setting, is itself a surprise. That it isn’t played as is and rendered instead by a brass band, a bigger surprise. That it’s playing over an action scene is the biggest surprise of all. That’s the minute I fell in love with the film, which takes Scorsesean staples (a young boy who idolises a gangster, the caffeinated kineticism of the storytelling) and does to them what the brass band does with Ilayaraja’s music. The notes being hit are at once familiar and fresh.
Like last year’s Kannada blockbuster Kirik Party, Angamaly Diaries is proof that these relatively under-the-radar upstart films are making far better use of mainstream tropes – fights, songs, comedy – than your average mega-budget big-star vehicle
The people in each of these fights are familiar, but each fight is freshly imagined. There’s one that begins when a would-be killer standing behind a moving tempo slices the air with a knife as he nears his would-be victim – the ensuing action occurs in the vehicle, then spills over into the streets. There’s one that’s interrupted by instructions on how to land punches. There’s one where many, many people converge in a narrow balcony that overlooks train tracks – the long shots make it impossible to figure out who’s who. (Not that you’d know anyway. This film has 86 brilliant newcomers in the cast.) We even get an action sequence with an anticlimax. It ends almost as soon as it begins, with the victim suffering an epileptic fit. Then there’s the climactic set piece, evoking Coppola in the way it fuses a religious procession with an attempted assassination – done in a single take that goes on for some ten jaw-dropping minutes.
And here’s the thing. Pellissery stages even the “static” moments with the same kind of dynamism. You could talk about the scene where the gangster named Appani Ravi (Sarath Kumar) screams at his wife. He paces across the small living room. He crosses the threshold. He returns. It’s like watching a top spinning. In one of my favourite scenes, the hero and his friends do nothing more than talk about getting into business. It’s a barber shop. Rajinikanth’s Lingaa is playing on a television set. It’s just dialogue, and yet, there’s the sense of forward momentum. Every second of the film feels like it’s been pumped with steroids.
Like last year’s Kannada blockbuster Kirik Party, Angamaly Diaries is proof that these relatively under-the-radar upstart films are making far better use of mainstream tropes – fights, songs, comedy – than your average mega-budget big-star vehicle. Consider how a song sequence begins after three raps on a door, and then see how this motif (of three raps) is extended throughout the number, with different instruments. The fantastic music is by Prashant Pillai. The songs aren’t “tuneful” in the conventional sense. They have a tossed-off quality that perfectly complements the casualness of the narration. The background score, too, doesn’t feel “composed.” It’s a soundscape of discordant sounds. It mirrors the film’s apparent lack of polish.
To explain this, I’m going to have to go back to Premam. (The young hero here, Antony Varghese, even resembles Nivin Pauly, who played the latter film’s protagonist.) Like Premam, Angamaly Diaries places a certain kind of small-town, short-fused masculinity under a microscope. Men are defined by their actions – and I’m not just talking about the action sequences. To know the hero, Vincent Pepe, we have to see the scene at the snack counter of a movie hall, where he gets annoyed by his girlfriend’s sleeveless dress. We think back to this hero’s gleeful revelation, earlier, that he and his friends used to scale bathroom walls in order to catch a glimpse of bathing women. But this girl is his. How can she be parading about like this? The girl, however, won’t have any of it. She walks away in a huff. He follows her into the lift. They reconcile. They smile. They lock hands. Then the doors open and he springs back as if caught masturbating. A man who’s entered the lift begins barking into the phone. The mood is broken. Only the guitar on the soundtrack reminds us of the little romantic moment that was. And yet, what lingers is his reaction when the doors opened.
Like Premam, Angamaly Diaries places a certain kind of small-town, short-fused masculinity under a microscope. Men are defined by their actions – and I’m not just talking about the action sequences
The people in Angamaly Diaries, in other words, aren’t as cool as the ones in Premam. The Nivin Pauly character ended up baking red velvet cakes for an upscale clientele. Vincent Pepe’s business involves pig slaughter. Hence the coarseness of Prashant Pillai’s score. Hence the grungy vibe in Girish Ganghadaran’s phenomenal camerawork. Hence the scruffiness of Vincent Pepe. It helps that the character is played by a newcomer. He blends into the ensemble. We aren’t drawn to him the way we are to a star. Vincent’s three romances – Premam had the same number – feel intimate, not epic. They aren’t Romeo and Juliet. They’re the tapioca and egg curry in Kunjootti’s hole-in-the-wall hotel. (There’s a lot of food, and food metaphors, in this story.) Like the rest of the events around him (and like the title suggests), there’s the sense of flipping through a diary rather than a screenplay. This smallness, this scrappiness, is a huge part of the film’s charm.
As is the jet-black humour. The happenings surrounding the death of a man (whose mistress seems much more distraught than his wife) are a hoot. The body won’t fit in the coffin. Karate chops have to be resorted to. That, finally, shuts the mistress up. She’s as astounded as we are. Then we have the bride whose veil gets caught in her jewellery. And the man who boasts of trapping the python whose meat he’s eating – the punch line to this uproarious scene is a literal slap in the face. But the moment that made me smile the most was the one where, at the end, sworn enemies make up. Their differences sorted, the crisis averted, these men slip back into being boys again. Sometimes you fight. Then you make up. Another page of the diary is turned.