Flops of Glory: ‘City of God’, The Other Lijo Jose Pellissery Film

As Jallikattu continues its run in the theatres, here’s another look at this pre-greatness Pellissery that people aren’t talking about enough
Flops of Glory: ‘City of God’, The Other Lijo Jose Pellissery Film

For all the talk about Malayalis being quick to embrace fresh narratives and experiments, multi-narratives or 'hyperlink' cinema, has never really been a major crowd-pleaser in Kerala. Of the few the industry has made, only one or two can claim to have succeeded commercially, even though both Tamil (Aaytha Ezhuthu) and Telugu cinema (Vedam) had registered legit hits in the genre even before Malayalam cinema got there. 2011 was the year the industry decided to try its hand at this narrative format, and both pioneering films borrowed their titles from multi-narratives from the West; Steven Soderbergh's Traffic and the Brazilian classic City of God (Cidade de Deus).

Rajesh Pillai's Traffic, written by Bobby-Sanjay, was the first to release. Its script placed a beating heart at its centre, with a young girl's life at stake. Time, or the lack of it, became a character in itself, giving the film the dimension of a thriller. Even when the film switched from one character to another in its effort to develop individual arcs, it was always easy for the viewer to stay invested because it would come back to the little girl getting her new heart and that was more important than anything else. Traffic, in one sense, was a great gateway to this new format. Despite the complexity of its structure, it was ingenious of the writers to place something that was both simple yet primal at its core, which meant that the film would make sense, even if it was the first such film the viewer was watching.

City of God, though, was another beast. It required complete attention and patience. The experience of having watched a few multi-narratives before, and a pause-and-rewind button would have helped too. Apart from the car crash that sets the film in motion, and the idea to use the city of Kochi as the unifying force, the film had little to keep coming back to. In one sense, City Of God was more ambitious. It tried to balance three serious strands (that of Prithviraj, Rima Kalingal and Swetha Menon) with a more heightened dark comedy in Parvathy and Indrajith's story.

Back in 2011, Ljio Jose Pellissery wasn't yet the genius he is considered to be today. His first, the derivative Nayakan, was pulpy fun, which included a campy Thilakan, an OTT Siddique and a shot that zoomed out of a man's bleeding brain as a bullet passed through it. It was the usual revenge drama with tourist-friendly Kathakali thrown in. It may not have been much in terms of substance, but style it certainly had. Which meant that there were a few who were genuinely excited about City of God, even though reports later said that Prithviraj was supposed to direct this multi-narrative.

Babu Janardhanan, the screenwriter of hits such as Varnapakittu and Chandranudikkunna Dikhil, wrote City of God, which was shot by Sujith Vasudev, a Prithviraj regular. Prithviraj, after Urumi, had been catapulted to the top league of stars and the cast also included exciting names such as Indrajith, Parvathi, Rima Kalingal and Rohini. Strangely, none of this translated into a big opening. There was also a lot of talk of how the film was loosely based on the sensational Paul Muthoot murder case, but that too failed to pique any kind of curiosity.

Not that the film isn't without its share of issues. In most anthologies or multi-narratives, the viewer tends to gravitate towards one or two strands or one set of characters in the film. That was the case with City Of God as well. Swetha Menon's portions make up some of the film's weakest bits. On paper, her character's situation is dramatic paradise; a woman madly in love with her husband avenges his murder by manipulating other men into doing it for her by promising sex/marriage. But the staging is flat and the casting too seems all too wrong in these portions. How can we feel for her when her husband plays out like a caricature to us?

Even Prithviraj's portions aren't as convincing. In multi-narratives, it is difficult to always understand a character's backstory, but nothing in the film explains his character Jothilal's undying devotion and loyalty towards a spoilt businessman Soni (Rajeev Pillai, in another case of miscasting). Apart from magically recovering from stab wounds, we're always confused about his character. Jothilal is said to be brutal and hard to deal to with, but almost every scene he gets later paints him to be morally upright, and taking a stand against drug use, how men treat women and even unethical ways of making money. It's like you can never understand how he, with such a strong moral compass, would have ended up with these people.

It was also common then, in the pre #MeToo days, to write characters like what Nandu (think Dileesh Pothan's character in Salt N Pepper) plays in this film. The scenes he gets are that of a desperate director coming onto his heroine with promise of future work. It is basically an example of casting couch, but the effect the film is trying to achieve is comedy.

If anything, it's Indrajith's and Parvathy's love story that keeps the film engaging. It never feels like we're watching two Malayalis playing Tamilians. The characters around them are interesting, and there's also a nice bit of world building that works for these portions. It's not uncommon for original Tamil songs to feature in Malayalam cinema, but the general idea is to use them as beat-heavy dance numbers. But with Prashanth Pillai's beautiful 'Kalangal', which plays on the radio, we get one of the most melodious Tamil songs to feature in a Malayalam film.


A voice of convenience

City Of God begins with Indrajith's character Swarnavel, an immigrant worker from Tamil Nadu, explaining his life in Kochi through a voiceover. For people like him, working in Kerala is like going to the Gulf, he says, claiming he makes 10 times the daily wage he would make back home. The voiceover also goes on to take us through his daily life while also setting the tone for his relationship with Parvathy's character (Marathakam) and the obstacles he's going to face. After the initial bit of exposition, the voiceover almost completely disappears, only to come back during the film's last few moments when both Rima Kalingal's and Swetha Menon's characters get their own voiceovers. While the former talks about how quickly life has a way of changing relationships, the latter talks about how she will return to the city that killed her husband, as she breaks the fourth wall, looking straight into the camera. Indrajith's character too returns and he gets a line where he compares life to a movie, and how it is impossible to predict. It's as though the film is making its characters speak what the audience ought to be thinking. These lines are used like reaction shots placed to tell the viewers what to feel instead of making them feel.

Even so, the work of a "director" was clear throughout the film. Like the monochromatic fight scene in the end that plays out to music or that amazingly choreographed fight scene that takes us through an entire lodge. Each set of characters and stories gets a colour tone that culminates into a more uniform look in scenes where they unite.

The film also gets a series of extremely showy shots, including one where the camera is placed "inside" the vent of a split AC to get the top angle. Another way the film achieves this angle is by using CCTV footage in Swetha Menon's portions.

Almost all prominent characters also get at least one shot where some form of liquor is placed in the foreground.

Like the bullet hole shot in Nayagan, we also get to see the camera peeping through the holes in the broken door of Swarnavel's bathroom in their night of passion.

Yet, my favourite is the shot when Jothilal goes to a film set to meet Rima's character Suryaprabha, who is shooting for her latest film. Can you guess the film she's shooting for? City of God! What a lovely way to get all meta.

In the film's closing scene, Suryaprabha is seen putting on makeup for her latest character. Who is she playing? Marathakam, the character Parvathy has played so far.

It's impossible to write more about this film without calling it "ahead of its time". It may be flawed, but that doesn't explain the tepid response it got at the box office. Had it released two or three years later, it would certainly have had a better run. It's what the industry now calls a 'torrent hit', with a small, but strong legion of fans. City Of God is another reminder that the box office is hardly an indication of a film's true value. Has it stood the test of time? It certainly has, with people discovering the film even today.

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