Cast: Samuel Abiola Robinson, Soubin Shahir, Savithri Sreedharan, Sarasa Balussery, KTC Abdulla, Navas Vallikkunnu
Malayalis seem to have made a habit of welcoming sportspeople from outside Kerala. In Godha, we saw how the residents of a small town embraced a female wrestler from Chandigarh as one of their own. Now, in Sudani from Nigeria, set against the backdrop of the Sevens football tournaments in Malappuram (i.e. seven players per side, as opposed to the usual 11), a Sudani named Samuel (Samuel Abiola Robinson) is cheered as the star of a local team, managed by Majeed (Soubin Shahir). "I am not from Sudan," Samuel explains patiently. "I am from Nigeria." But no one cares. Hence the film's title. And Samuel's nickname, Sudu — short for "Sudani."
Stories about "outsiders" have a way of playing out, and I thought I knew where this film was headed when I watched the scene that lays out Majeed's distant relationship with his mother, Jameela (Savithri Sreedharan), and his stepfather (KTC Abdulla). It has to do with a grudge Majeed has nursed since childhood, and I thought the presence of Sudu — who is literally distant from his family, and would give anything to be back with them — would give the writer-director Zakariya Mohammed an excuse to unleash the "noble savage" trope, especially after Sudu ends up in Majeed's house to convalesce after an injury. When the stepfather leaves, without looking back, Sudu raises a hand in a farewell gesture but Majeed remains stubbornly silent. Your heart aches for the stepfather. It's only a matter of time before Majeed's does too.
Majeed's transformation is part of the agenda (and this is hardly a spoiler) — but only a part. Sudani from Nigeria isn't the first "sports film" to use the sport as a metaphor for something bigger, but there's a sweetness in the storytelling I haven't seen anywhere else. The craze for football is a constant undercurrent. It's why Majeed, while tending to Sudu at the hospital, forgets to inform the nurse that the drip bottle needs to be changed — he's too busy following a match on the phone. It's why we have a small scene with two Afghanis who've also come to play in Kerala. The sport is used for laughs (Majeed's hunt for a bride is called a "selection camp"), but also to sum up the town's never-say-die spirit in the direst of situations. "We are footballers," Majeed says. "Even if we are losing, we hope for a draw until the last minute."
The film is a heart-warming celebration of humanity, but not in the overblown, vulgar, "triumph of the spirit" mode that Hollywood specialises in
And the way everyone around Majeed unites for a common goal, involving Sudu — what is that if not a reflection of the game? The film is a heart-warming celebration of humanity, but not in the overblown, vulgar, "triumph of the spirit" mode that Hollywood specialises in. The music (Rex Vijayan, Shahabaz Aman) does swell up from time to time, but consider the scene where Jameela weeps in front of Sudu and wishes that it were Majeed on the bed instead, so she could care for him, so her son would need her again. The sentimental scene is brilliantly positioned in the screenplay, intercut between superb stretches of comedy around Majeed's visit to the police station — so we aren't allowed to linger on Jameela's tragedy. But more importantly, it's only Jameela who cries. The background score doesn't.
This constant shuffling of emotions — partly the writing, partly the subtle editing (Naufal Abdullah) that doesn't "cut" so much as cohere — is a stroke of genius. It allows a "heavy" film — one that touches on language, gender, religion, community living, even the refugee crisis — to play out in a quiet, unfussy manner. The "heavier" points about language (that human emotions don't need words) are balanced by the lighter ones, like Sudu being taught to swear in Malayalam. The "heavier" points about gender (that it's always the women who suffer) are balanced by the lighter ones, like how Jameela and her neighbour, Beeyumma (Sarasa Balussery), fuss over Sudu like the "typical" Indian mothers we complain about (but whose attention we secretly crave). Even the religious aspect — mosque visits and Muslim prayer rituals for a Christian from Africa — plays out not like a moral science lesson but like the efforts of simple people who don't know what else to do and hope that Sudu's God is listening to theirs.
Which is why the tonal shift in the second half is so jarring. (It's not a deal-breaker, but it sticks out.) You can see why the film needed some spice after all that sugar — too much niceness can become cloying. But that flavour is already being supplied by Majeed, who is constantly strapped for cash. In a hilarious early scene, after a win, when a player asks him money for fuel for his bike, Majeed snaps, "Sleep here and take a bus in the morning." Contrast this with Majeed's friend, Latheef (Navas Vallikkunnu), who pledges his fiancée's gold to pay for Sudu's treatment. And there's conflict, too, when Majeed suspects Sudu has taken money from a rival team's manager and is going to defect. The resolution of this conflict is among the most beautiful scenes I've seen this year — again, harking back to language, and how it allows us to say things we are sometimes too embarrassed to express. Soubin Shahir is extraordinary as Majeed, and his chemistry with Samuel Abiola Robinson — who has the most angelic smile — rings truer than that of most romantic pairs. The relationship registers strongly because it's prickly and funny and sad — in short, because it's real.
But the film wants to make a larger humanitarian statement, and this portion does begin to resemble an overblown Hollywood movie. Sudu's plight, his yearning, has already been expressed visually, in the exquisite scene where he stares at the tiled ceiling of Majeed's house, with one tile missing. It's like a small skylight, a hint of the larger world outside where Jameela and Beeyumma aren't going to be clucking around you, ensuring your every need is met. But in the latter portions, all of this is literalised. "My dreams are much bigger," Sudu says. "I want to escape from this world to a better world." Even worse is the sudden infusion of high drama — a crisis involving the police, flashbacks to refugee life in Nigeria. To the film's credit, the solution to Sudu's problem is remarkably understated, but the stretch still feels too obviously big for a film that works in the miniature mode.
But by then, Sudani from Nigeria has already won you over, so there's little point complaining. The natural, documentary-like cinematography (Shyju Khalid) complements the naturalness of these lives, these performances, these moments that linger long after you've exited the theatre. The small smile from Jameela as she sees Sudu's family on his phone's screensaver. Beeyumma's desperation to gift Sudu a watch. The hilarious look on Majeed's face when he witnesses the fate of a beer bottle. The surprising (and also smile-inducing) grace of an old Kalari master. The drooping posture of Majeed's stepfather, a security guard who barely seems capable of rising from his chair. (I wished we'd seen more of him.) And the closing scenes, which left me moist-eyed. All of which is just another way of saying Malayalam cinema has done it again.