Cast: Soubin Shahir, Naveen Nisim, Jaffer Idukki
Director: Johnpaul George
The hero of Ambili (Soubin Shahir), doesn’t want to be the hero of anything. His dreams and aspirations are not his own, but his childhood friend Bobby’s, a celebrated cyclist who wants to change the way Indians look at the sport. A poster of Bobby takes the pride of place on Ambili’s bedroom wall, a space that would usually be reserved for the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, a parent or even God. In a lesser film, Ambili would have been relegated to playing the hero’s friend, the comic relief, with his autism contributing to the laughs. But here, his friendship takes the form of devotion. Ambili succeeds only if Bobby succeeds, with his most valued achievement being known as “Bobby’s dearest friend.” So when it’s time for Bobby’s homecoming, it’s as good as the biggest occasion in Ambili’s life. Despite his own limitations, he spares no expenses to give his friend a hero’s welcome.
When we first visit Ambili’s home, an artist is working on painting a large portrait of Bobby for this grand welcome. Printing his photo on a flex board might seem a lot more practical, but that’s not how Ambili sees it. He perhaps wants to be a part of the process that makes his childhood friend larger than life.
Which is why it breaks our heart to see how Bobby looks at Ambili. As the town celebrates Bobby at this function, he can only see Ambili as an embarrassment, a humiliating reminder of where he comes from. To get rid of Ambili from the scene, Bobby signals to his feet and asks Ambili to bring him a pair of chappals. It’s an indication of where he has placed their friendship…he wants to keep Ambili at his feet.
So when Bobby’s sister Tina confesses her love for Ambili and a desire to get married to him, what Bobby feels isn’t a friend’s betrayal, because that would at least mean he considers Ambili an equal. It feels more like disgust, because he doesn’t even see Ambili as a real person, least of all a real man.
It’s this manliness that’s implied in Bobby’s own cycling trip where he plans to ride from his village in Kerala to Kashmir; an event that’s sure to make him a social media sensation and an even bigger star. Given that it’s this ability that sets him above lesser humans like Ambili, Bobby can’t believe his eyes when he discovers Ambili too joining him in this journey, albeit with half the resources.
Despite the fact that both of them are attempting the same journey, the film does a great job in juxtaposing their philosophies through the challenges that lay ahead. On the superficial level, Bobby rides a sophisticated bicycle that costs Rs.2 lakh, when Ambili could only manage borrowing the milkman’s modest Hero Jet. Bobby can be seen checking maps and talking on his iPhone when Ambili is just as comfortable or more on his basic keypad phone. Even the food they choose to eat on the trip speaks loads about them. Bobby prefers burgers from fast food joints while Ambili makes a feast out the rice gruel he prepares for himself and the friends he makes as they go along.
On a more deeper level, Ambili’s journey seems to have a real meaning to it. He touches lives, makes new friends and spreads joy wherever he goes. In contrast, Bobby sticks to himself never looking beyond the selfish goals and the social media cred he stands to achieve for having completed the long journey. In one of his few interactions on the trip, he tips a watchman for his services, again cementing his status instead of looking at him as a friend. In his inability to stop and smell the roses we see a man with a narrow and skewed worldview. Ambili, on the other hand, finds joy in the simpler things, effectively proving why he might be the better person, or given the context, a bigger man.
A lot of what works in the film is due to Soubin’s performance. He is immensely likeable even though we’ve seen subtler variations of this performance in many films before. His character’s joy and wildness is best reflected in his body language with a spurt of fresh charm in his every step. But the same cannot be said about Naveen Nazim, who plays Bobby. A more able actor would have added several layers to the role, making him more than the joyless, lifeless brute he is. And the film has one too many shots of him splashing his face with water from his water bottle, which leads me to suspect that the effect the director was going for was sexy.
The film also resorts to pump up the sentimental soundtrack to punctuate moments that are already brimming with life and emotion. It’s a film that could have worked just as well had it not taken itself so seriously. It has many wonderful moments culminating in a really moving climax, but the film doesn’t seem to be satisfied with that. It works best as prose even though it tries really hard to become poetry.