This year, there were films that delivered exactly what they promised and also the exceptions, which were absolute surprises. Sudani from Nigeria was a little gem from a first time director that garnered unanimous praise from all quarters. It again gave credence to fresh content, rooted-in-soil stories and real characters who speak without artifice. In a way, it was a follow-up to films such as Action Hero Biju, Maheshinte Prathikaram , Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum and Mayaanadhi.
Makers of unconventional cinema consistently delivered (Lijo Jose Pellisery, Fahad Fasil, Jayasurya) while Superstars stubbornly refused to move away from alpha-male roles (Mammootty and Mohanlal did that elusive Uncle and Drama). Old-timers (Ranjith, Jeethu Joseph, Kamal, Balachandra Menon, Vinayan, Roshan Andrews) haven’t been able to keep up with changing times when it comes to content or narrative. We also saw some interesting debuts—Pranav Mohanlal (Aadhi), Kalidas Jayaram (Poomaram) and Zakariya (Sudani from Nigeria).
Of the 151 films which released this year, more than half were made by debut directors. We bring you our top 10, which satisfied the film lover in more ways than one, exactly in this order:
Sudani from Nigeria
The only film this year to not receive a single negative review. Directed by Zakariya, co-written by Muhsin Parari and the director himself, Sudani is a beautifully poignant tale of friendship and compassion between an immigrant Nigerian sevens footballer and residents of a home who have the onus of nursing him back to health after an injury. Zakariya breaks most of the cinematic clichés attached to the representation of North Kerala Muslims who are pigeonholed as practising polygamy, extremist politics and a misogynist, archaic lifestyle. The narrative is stark, with extremely endearing characters in a setting which is lived-in. One of the highlights of the film is the two elderly mothers who break the barriers of communication with the Nigerian boy with their selfless love and affection. They are the real heroes of the film. The Nigerian isn’t a stereotype—he has a story, he talks about goals, family and in the end, he emerges as one of them. Soubin Shahir, who plays Majeed, comes up with his best performance till date. The dialogues seem unrehearsed and true to life, making the film a fine tribute to humanity.
Ee Ma Yau
A jury member of the Kerala State awards this year, after announcing the Best Director award for Lijo Jose Pellisery, said “it was a flawlessly made film.” And arguably the director’s best till date. Written by PF Mathews, the film underlines the director’s surreal fascination with death. The film unravels in Central Kerala after the death of Vavachan Mestri, who wanted his son to give him a royal funeral. The rest of the film unties slowly with quirky characters, romance, drama and spontaneous humour in the backdrop of a fisherman’s village. Typically, Lijo brings in a set of actors who “behave and react”–like Pauly Valsan as Pennamma, the mourning wife, who seems to be putting up the performance of her life for the mourners. Her high-pitched rhythmic wailing, topped with dramatic dialogues is one of the high points of the film. Or Vinayakan, who tries to help with the arrangements and realises the despair getting to him. And of course, Chemban’s career-best performance. Shyju Khalid’s frames lend poignancy to the rains; the night shots are brilliant as well. This terrific satire on death is cinema at its purest.
Amal Neerad’s new film is about Abin and Priya who decide to shift from Dubai to Munnar, when the former loses his job. At the sprawling estate they reside in, the couple realises that they are under the prying eyes of the villagers. When a former schoolmate harasses her, the otherwise mild-mannered Abin decides to take things in his own hands. It’s the first time that Neerad, who usually can’t do without stylish action scenes and beautifully-costumed characters, plays up romance into a narrative. That’s also one of the finer aspects of the film. It’s a post-modern urban marriage, where roles aren’t defined, and responsibilities are shared equally—the telling is very mature, and casual. The film addresses voyeurism and though we are still not entirely sure how an entire village is filled with perverts, it’s still a relevant topic with some very unsettling scenes. It’s also commendable that Neerad handles the scenes of sexual violence with sensitivity. The actors are all in fine form and he gives Sharfuddin a complete image makeover. And in the last 20 minutes, the director goes back to his narrative with guns blazing, but this time exercising brains over muscles.
Editor-director B Ajith Kumar gives a fresh spin to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and places it in the backdrop of strife-ridden Kannur. Anand (Shane Nigam) and Aishwarya (Nimisha Sajayan) belong to families that attest to diametrically different political ideologies. They fall in love and how they bolster the love story in the middle of a raging political storm forms the crux. The love story is paced leisurely and organically—the actors, especially Nimisha Sajayan, are exceptional. Be it her smile, voluminous eyes, anger, the way she breaks into tears, the conviction with which she holds on, she is pitch perfect. Shane Nigam, though falling into the same-old forlorn lover bracket, is still solid. It’s interesting how the film refuses to side with any political party (despite the director’s Left leanings). Ajith Kumar adeptly captures the vicious politics and the people who get inadvertently sucked into it. All are forced to alter their personal choices according to the political party they belong to. The build-up to the violence and the scenes after is superbly choreographed. Especially the scenes towards the latter half evoke the right amount of fear and hatred. What stands tall amidst the volatile politics is their romance, which remains steady and unwavering.
Directed by debutant Vishnu Narayanan and written by Krishna Moorthy, the narrative begins with Maradona (Tovino Thomas) and Sudhi (Tito Wilson) who are on the run after injuring an MP’s son. The film’s strength is the leading hero’s characterisation—he is the antithesis of a celluloid hero and we’re shown enough proof of his criminal mind. An unexpected house arrest eventually leads to an engaging love story and thaws the hardened criminal to take the route of redemption. There are some beautiful moments between Maradona and the girl next door, an interesting friendship with his elderly neighbour, his steady loyalty towards Sudhi and a dog with whom he develops a strange bond with. The film primarily belongs to Tovino Thomas, who puts on a stunning act—going through the entire spectrum of emotions in one of his best roles since last year’s Mayaanadhi.
The film trails the journey of a local ten-percenter Sibi Sebastian (Fahadh Faasil) and his ambitious, persistent half-baked plans to make a quick buck. Venu, whose last outing was the brilliant Munnariyippu (2014), narrates a multi-layered tale of survival. He gets enough assistance from KU Mohanan, who first cranks his camera at a town and later stealthily explores the nuances of the jungle. Though the film does slacken, making us wonder at the furtiveness of certain characters Carbon sharpens its hold towards the last quarter. That’s when Sibi’s personal expedition evolves into something layered and deep; when his survival instinct overpowers his greed. It’s at this juncture that some of the most magnificent frames take shape. Like the shot of Sibi reaching out for a bottle of water, eagerly gulping the last drop. Or when he rests on the emerald-green grass, bruised and battered and hungrily lapping up rain water. And Fahadh Faasil was exceptional.
Written and directed by debutant Prajesh Sen, this sports biopic about India’s longest serving football captain, VP Sathyan, in more of an internal journey. The film travels beyond the periphery of triumphs, records and defeats and tries to piece together the conflicting mind of the footballer who tried to stay afloat despite a physical and psychological downward spiral. Captain isn’t really that adrenalin-pumping sports biopic we are so used to seeing. Instead, it’s a tale of humanity, strung together by poignant moments that help us understand the man behind the sportsman. It can easily be termed one of the finest acts of Jayasurya who dives headlong into the character, internalising his pain, joy, defeat, gait and passion. Equally compelling is Anu Sithara, who comes as his wife Anita, the woman who stands by him through thick and thin. Captain gets an entry for these two riveting performances.
After an impressive Action Hero Biju (2016), Abrid Shine sets his new story in the milieu of the famous Mahatma Gandhi Kalolsavam. He weaves in an iconic college rivalry into the narrative—between Maharaja’s college and St Teresa’s college, both positioned next to each other in the heart of Ernakulam. The narrative is intriguing and problematic at once—the former as it looks like he secretly placed the camera inside the campuses and captured their emotions, triumphs and failures through a candid lens, thereby making it organic and relatable. Challenging as it often digresses into a documentary without any strong characters or a defining plot line. Having said that, Poomaram was widely appreciated as former students of both colleges found it immensely relatable along with a fragrant array of songs that bespoke nostalgia. Kalidas Jayaram made an impressive debut as the student leader.
Unlike earlier, Anjali Menon decides to opt for a remake this time, of a Marathi film called Happy Journey. It chronicles the life of Aloshy (Prithviraj), a young man battling a troubling past and how it turns him bitter. A hallucinatory meeting with his dead sister turns his life around, helping him exorcise the ghosts from his past and helps him find meaning in life. The strong point in Koode is a superbly nuanced act by Prithviraj. It’s heart-warming to watch the bond he shares with his sister Jenny (played by Nazriya who makes her comeback). But otherwise, Menon doesn’t quite repeat the magic she did in her previous films. Especially the portions featuring Parvathy and her family required better writing. But Koode is still fuzzy and feel-good and deserves a place here.
In this 72- minute feature, directed by Gautam Surya and Sudeep Elamon, two lovers opt for a strange social experiment…to deprive themselves off sleep for four days. Not only does it play havoc with their senses, it also propels a whole lot of complexities into their relationship. What really works in the film is the deeply intimate man-woman bond and the aftermath of the wild experiment that throws a volley of questions stained with insecurities. The love story is disturbing, volatile, fragile and yet insanely passionate and the actors (newbies Devaki Rajendran and Sudev Nair) play a major part in that.