When I first heard the title Sudani from Nigeria, I thought this must be a film about a cross-cultural love affair. As it turns out, Sudani isn't even a woman. Sudani is a strapping football player from Nigeria, who is recruited to play in a local football club in Kerala's Malappuram district. The folks around him don't know enough about the African continent so they call him Nigerian, Ugandan and even Sudanese, which leads to the nicknames Sudani and Sudu. Which is where the film's title comes from.
Sudu, whose name is Samuel, is a star player but unfortunately he gets injured. The team's cash-strapped manager Majeed decides to nurse Sudu back to health in his own home. Majeed, his mother Jameela and her close friend Beeyumma become Sudu's caretakers and cheerleaders. The two women can barely communicate with Sudu but through their warmth and generosity, they help him to heal. Majeed tells Sudu – Any need, call mother. That line could be the great Indian motto. Sudu in turn helps to heal Majeed. His hurt and resentment are slowly replaced by a capacity to love and forgive.
Sudani from Nigeria is about the ties that bind us. The odds are stacked against these men and women – especially Sudu, who is a refugee. At one point, he says that as children they used to keep playing football because it would help them to forget that they were hungry. These characters don't share language or customs or religion but there is a shared humanity. In one of the film's most moving scenes, Jameela insists on conducting some sort of memorial rituals when Sudu's grandmother passes away. Majeed argues that Sudu is Christian while they are Muslim. But Jameela doesn't relent because decency comes above all else.
The beauty is that the film doesn't deliver these messages with a heavy hand. Debutant director Zakariya Mohammed delicately weaves his magic. The film has been co-written by Muhsin Parari who also co-wrote Virus. It's been co-produced and shot by Shyju Khalid who also gave us the stunning images of Kumbalangi Nights. Which brings me to actor Soubin Shahir who is the backbone of that film and this one. Soubin has the uncanny ability to articulate emotion through expression alone. He captures Majeed's grand passion for football, his bitterness at his circumstances and his large heart. Soubin is Everyman but also so much more.
The other stand-outs are theatre artists Savithri Sreedharan and Sarala Balussery as Jameela and Beeyumma. They endure the ups and downs of life with grace and affection. Sudani is played by Samuel Abiola Robinson who fleshes out an underwritten character with his lovely, unforced presence.
You might argue that Sudani from Nigeria is too rose-tinted, that these people are simply too good to be true. I don't think so. I think the film nudges us to find the goodness in ourselves. It tells us that life is nasty, brutish and short so let's prioritise compassion. I don't know anything about football so I missed some of the layers and asides. But I came away smiling and teary and wishing that Sudu, Majeed and all the good folks of Malappuram live happily ever after. You can watch Sudani from Nigeria on Netflix.