For some while now, friends and colleagues have been pointing me in the direction of the Malayalam director Lijo Jose Pellissery, citing him as arguably the freshest new talent in all Indian cinema. To date, his work has gone underscreened in the West: even last year's action-packed Jallikattu, a genre pic involving a runaway buffalo that drew breathless admiration from those who caught it on the festival circuit, played on one UK screen for one week only. Part of Pellissery's freshness derives from his singular locations, and the way he frames these locations: as Ee.Ma.Yau's opening panorama of a funeral procession passing along a beach suggests, he has a knack of finding widescreen images amid the smallest, most out-of-the-way towns and villages. For a while in the film that follows, Pellissery seems just to be soaking up the atmosphere. Vavachan (Kainakary Thankaraj), an ageing, rotund mason regarded as something of a legend in his native Chellanam, returns to the closeknit household he shares with his wife, daughter, son and daughter-in-law. A curry is to be prepared with the unfortunate duck the mason has brought home from market; the ladies retreat to their rooms to talk amorous adventures over the phone with friends; dad, clocked off for the day, gets firmly in his cups. Pellissery mikes and mixes the wind blowing through the trees surrounding this property in such a way that you feel you're right there, waiting for your own tea - and you can't fail to spot the great immediacy of this cinema, the sense that everything on screen is happening spontaneously, even when it has to have been rehearsed. All the more wrenching, then, when papa suddenly drops dead, and an ordinary evening in Chellanam gives way to a long 24 hours of ritual.
That opening procession turns out to have been Vavachan's idealised vision of his own last rites: watching its abstract geometric shapes passing against the horizon, some may wonder whether Anton Corbijn's video for Joy Division's "Atmosphere" passed Pellissery's way at some formative moment. Either way, it is only a vision, romanticised, self-aggrandising, misleading; Ee.Ma.Yau's real interest lies in the thousand tiny, often fraught steps required to bring a man to his final place of rest. The bulk of the film follows Vavachan's heavyset son Eesi (Chemban Vinod Jose) - a real chip off the old block - as he enters into an exhausting night of negotiation with tipsy doctors and nurses, printers rushing to run the funeral details, coffin salesmen, interlopers to whom the deceased owed money, a priest who suspects foul play, and a houseful of wailing women. There is, one should note, an element of after-hours stress and horror about all this: that Pellissery was headed for Fantastic Fest with Jallikattu is evident from a single mid-mourning close-up of the deceased's jaw falling open, and the final act can lay legitimate claim to being the most jawdroppingly chaotic funeral ever put before a camera. (Quite something, given the competition.)
More generally, Ee.Ma.Yau plays out as procedural, instructive, funny (especially upon the arrival of an amateur clarinettist keen to play his part in what are already pretty cacophonous proceedings) and perhaps reassuring, too: a more realistic vision of people gathering in the wake of tragedy to do what needs to be done, even if that simply involves the binding of a dead man's jaw. That sense of collective endeavour - that just as it takes a village to raise a child, it will take similar numbers to bury an old man - factors into the supporting parts, which are uniformly strongly written, cast and performed. There's something Altman-ish (to A Wedding, Pellissery effectively appends "A Funeral") about the way you feel the movie could go off in any direction - towards the kids making out on the beach, the workmen who spend the whole movie playing cards, or the gravedigger whose own fate will be rerouted by Vavachan's demise - and come back with an interesting or enlightening story. Around the halfway mark, I even found myself wondering: what would now happen if the mason came back to life - or if he returned to the action as a ghost of some kind? The model of a cinema thrown wide open to the elements, there is ample evidence here of Pellissery's very great promise - and for a film marked from its title on down for death, there isn't a frame that doesn't spill over with messy, joyous, wholly compelling life.
Ee.Ma.Yau is now streaming on Amazon Prime.