Amen, Lijo Jose Pellissery’s 2013 film, starts with a soft squishy gift, wrapped in gold foil landing in the front yard of a rural Christian homestead. Is it fish, pork? And who sent it? The parcel is eagerly opened and all hell breaks loose: it’s straight out of a toilet. Shit literally starts flying around villages as feuding families go to war and the real mischief-maker escapes.
The opening doesn’t have much to do with the rest of Amen, a goofy Amelie-style story of a young man who rediscovers the music inside him. But what it did was to reel you right into the oddball film with its quirky camerawork, caricatured folks and a fantastical storyline.
Currently, the boss of the Kerala box office and the darling of critics across the country with his quirky sleeper hit, Angamaly Diaries, Pellissery admits that the potty packet gave him sleepless moments before Amen’s release. “Right until the last moment, my crew and I were wondering if we should keep those opening scenes! It was make-or-break — if the audiences were repelled by it, they wouldn’t like the film; if they accepted it, the film was through. It was a bit over the top, but it worked,” he laughs.
After two box office duds, Amen landed Pellissery his first big hit. Audiences were beginning to look forward to the madness in his methods. You may like or dislike the Pellissery brand of filmmaking but you can always expect the unexpected in every new offering.
Angamaly Diaries, his latest that released in March, didn’t fail to surprise with its sheer audacity. It has 86 newcomers, a whacky storyline and an even more whacky narrative style. The film’s biggest star is a dot on Kerala’s map, the small town of Angamaly, off Ernakulam, and its people, their dialect, quirks, food, and humour. It has turned out to be a massive hit, raking in over Rs 20 crore, beating other big Malayalam releases in March and impressing both fans and critics with its innovativeness.
In his first film, Nayakan (2010), the hero is a kathakali artist seeking revenge. In City of God (2011), Pellissery experimented with multiple plots coming together. Amen (2013) was a magically realistic story of a village church and its struggle to win back the best band trophy. The highly-stylised Double Barrel (2015) was a Tarantino-style thriller. Malayalam movies have always revelled in straight storytelling and strong emphasis on acting, but Pellissery chose to improve on the ordinary. In the process, he managed to carve a place for himself in the Malayalam film industry, especially among younger cinema lovers.
Thirty eight-year-old Pellissery, who has been crowned the current enfant terrible of Malayalam movies, admits that he has a horror of repeating himself. And it is a trait he has picked up from his inspirations — veteran filmmaker KG George known for his stunningly original works from the 1980s like Swapnadanam, Yavanika and Lekhayude Maranam Oru Flashback, writer-director Padmarajan and Stanley Kubrick.
“Every single film they made was different; they never stuck to one genre. Why would I repeat myself if I have something new to say?” Pellissery asks. “We keep complaining that we don’t get to see the kind of cinema Hollywood offers. Let us give audiences the opportunity to sample something different. Over a period, they may get to connect with new kinds of films that might stand the test of time.”
Angamaly Diaries certainly has a lot that is new to say. The film tells the story of Vincent Pepe, an Angamaly youngster, who pulls together a gang of enterprising young men, the pork business they get into and the many battles along the way. There is dark humour and graphic violence in equal measure and wildly choreographed action sequences. It was marketed as a film that revelled in the ‘katta local’ (translatable as pukka desi); an element seen in other recent films like Maheshinte Prathikaram (2016), Idukki Gold (2013) and Kammatipaadam (2016). It is a trend that has been a while in the making — recall Mammooty and his Trivandrum brogue in Rajamanikyam (2005)? With Angamaly Diaries, the location-specific ethos has gone micro.
“A lot of what you see in recent films like Angamaly Diaries and Kammatipaadam is an answer to the criticism of the new-generation Malayalam films of the 2010s — that they were too urban and sophisticated. Tamil new generation cinema, on the other hand, has been always earthy, centred around village life. Current Malayalam cinema is influenced by that trend in Tamil,” says film and culture studies scholar Meena T Pillai.
New wave Tamil cinema did indeed roll out the trope originally — the street-smart aggressive and unkempt hero who gets the girl in the end. But Angamaly Diaries also happened to arrive at the right place and time, as Pillai points out. “The groundwork for it’s success had already been laid by the earlier wave of new generation films which readied the audience for such an experiment. There was a minimum guarantee for its success. There now genuinely exists an audience for a cinema without the old superstars. Also, the film is marketed as local but is global as well. The hero heads for Dubai as the film ends, no matter how deeply rooted he is in Angamaly. That is the quintessential Malayali for you,” she says.
After the new wave films of the 70s and 80s, this is the first time in a long while that Malayalam cinema is being noticed outside the state. Bollywood says it’s bowled over. Anurag Kashyap, king of the gritty and unusual, says it’s the best film of the year. Others have called it the best gangster film ever made in India. After the pale first week of mandatory release in multiplexes outside Kerala it is being re-screened by cinephiles who are hearing the buzz around the film.
“What an innovative way to tell a story. It is so intensely local; I feel I have been to Angamaly, eaten its food, felt its air. The film is so deeply textured. There is nothing new about the idea of gang wars; but this story is so local it could be from anywhere in the world,” critic Anupama Chopra exclaims enthusiastically over the phone.
So how is Angamaly Diaries managing to connect with people from outside Kerala? Pellissery reasons that it is a human story strong on place and culture. And uncannily enough, he repeats Chopra’s line about the specific being universal, “It could have happened anywhere in the world. We don’t have too many Malayalam films that focus on strong local cultures and that is what got the film extra attention. When I set out to make it, all I wanted was to do a film that was good and did good business.”
The film with its raw appeal did more than mere humble business. Pellissery’s own theory is that people liked the spirit that propelled the film and his nerve in casting faceless actors. “It was a great process working with them. They were all from Angamaly, except a few I picked from elsewhere. The great thing was that they all knew the town and its ethos inside out,” he says.
Why Angamaly? The town is a bare 14-15 km from the director’s home in Chalakudy. His writer Vinod Chemban Jose is from there and together their knowledge of the town and its innards worked well: “We used our relationship to the town in the film — we didn’t pay for the locations. This connection helped us create a candid small film.”
Pellissery says he was mad about cinema ever since he can remember. His father, Jose, was a theatre producer for a drama company, Chalakudy Sarathy Theatres where the legendary actor Thilakan was a director. “Most vacations were spent at rehearsal camps and I was lucky enough to watch a talent like Thilakan at work. I haven’t been to many shootings but I was crazy about films. My maternal grandfather loved cinema, so during vacations we would be taken to see films every single day in Kaladi, where he lived. I enjoyed all kinds of cinema from Sholay to New Delhi. On perunal days, we’d get cash from fond family members, around Rs 20. This meant I could go for 10 films because a ticket cost Rs 2 if you sat in front row seats,” he recalls.
Pellissery is a chatty, friendly soul, dismissive about adulation and comfortable with criticism. He waves away all talk of his path-breaking creative genius. “Every filmmaker brings something of his life into his films. And if my films are a little weird it is because that is what I am – a little weird,” he says cheerfully. The director insists that he didn’t set out to revolutionise the Malayalam film industry. “I have done five films where three have been flops. I am not in a position to offer any wisdom on what works or doesn’t in movies. I have no idea what the market wants but I would like to give them something they haven’t seen before,” he says.
But not everyone is an admirer of his craft. He is often criticised for allowing style to swamp substance or skimming over soufflé light storylines. In some of his films, there is clear overkill with style — even in loveable Amen, the magic realism begins to pall after a bit. Pellisery is familiar with the critique. “I think when people talk of the style quotient in my films, they are referring mostly to Double Barrel. But that film was made like a comic book; full of absurdities. People took it too seriously. It wasn’t a logical film to withstand analysis,” he says.
Having said that, Pellissery isn’t exactly thrilled with all his work; given the chance he might rework a couple of them. Rework them how much? Maybe 100 percent, he says. Disarmingly, he adds that not all the raw edges in his films were intended — the Malayalam movie industry still works on small budgets and limited time.
“We can’t afford to spend much time in post-production work. I wish I had the time to smooth out the rough edges in my earlier films. With Angamaly Diaries we got lucky; we had the time to work on the film so it looks decent. In the last four films, I spotted 100 mistakes after release. If I had the time I would change many things in my films — sound, scenes. If I make Angamaly Diaries six months down the line it may be a completely different film!”
Angamaly Diaries has been accused of gratuitous violence. But Pellissery makes the familiar argument that it is undermining the effect of violence to soft peddle it in pretty frames. “What we see in cinema is not even a fraction of the real violence around us. We are constantly aware that it is cinema and not real life, so to make an impact you have to go beyond the expected when you depict violence. Why show reality in bits and hide the rest? People know what is happening around them,” he says.
What next? Will he make another film packed with novices? Pellissery says he is not against casting the reigning legends of Malayalam cinema. “In Kerala, we are lucky that our stars are great actors as well. I look up to them so I would not go to them with just any project. I want it to be something special.”
(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)