Monday 3 February 2020

On demand: "Angamaly Diaries"

Lijo Jose Pellissary's Angamaly Diaries may follow a path that's been set out by countless breakthrough films in the West - it's the gangster movie, with regional variations - but it moves insistently to the beat of its own drum. Plotted on a graph (or a rap sheet), the progress of young Vincent Pepe (Antony Varghese) into low-level criminality would appear a touch haphazard, but otherwise nothing out of the ordinary. What transforms this cautionary tale into something close to capital-C Cinema is the extraordinary attention Pellissary pays to place - and more specifically the bustling Keralan municipality of the title, evoked in an exhilarating opening montage that chops together a rich sense of Angamaly's food, countryside, cultural activities, sports, hell, even its traffic. Here, Pellissary isn't just setting a scene, but a breathless rhythm. In the movie that follows, even the most gorgeously composed shots - and bear in mind we're deep inside the generally gorgeous Kerala - aren't allowed to settle on screen for longer than a few seconds at a time. This risks sounding like a highly Westernised reading, but Angamaly Diaries may be the closest thing the Malayalam cinema has yet produced to a Trainspotting; either way, it unfolds with the restless energy of young men (and young creatives, like Pellissary) who simply cannot wait to get out into the world, or indeed to get themselves into trouble.

Trouble will follow soon enough (and loud enough for the film to have made an impression), yet Pellissary takes the scenic route to get to it. We're only introduced to Vincent Pepe after first encountering the local gang boss, who plies an unexpected sideline in python meat, and then it's with our hero dressed as Christ for reasons that are initially unclear. (Seasoned Pellissary observers will spot that he's not gone untouched by religion: the title of his follow-up film, 2018's Ee. Ma. Yau, referred to Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and that turbo-charged opening montage plays out to a song about the region's churches.) His fight scenes, apparently shot on the hoof if the glimpses of gasping onlookers are anything to go by, are properly, credibly scrappy, devoid of the stylisation we may have come to expect from the gangster genre; we're just watching hotheads zigzagging around - as hotheads tend to do in real street fights - and lashing out with whatever's to hand, be that rocks, nunchucks or homemade bombs, as in a couple of pulsating midfilm chase scenes. Pellissary may, in fact, be less interested in the rough-and-tumble of the gangster's life than he is in the downtime between flare-ups: one of the few times his camera sits still for longer than a few minutes is to observe Vincent's entourage loitering in a barbershop, discussing how they prefer to have their pork cooked, an offhand chinwag that results in a not untypically hapless attempt to get into the Angamaly pig trade.

This is the joke that lends even the film's most frenetic action a nimbly ironic slant. Vincent and co may grow beards and leave school behind them, but they only get rasher and rasher; they never grow out of the same mindless charging round they did as punk kids. The framing positions this as specific to Angamaly itself, here a site of near-constant agitation, where even the best laid plans (like Vincent's idea of relocating to Germany with his sweetheart) are apt to be revised or ripped up, tossed in the air and then trampled underfoot. It can seem rough-edged itself, in such a rush to get a career going that plot beats are scattered to the wind; the characterisation, too, would be rather more finessed in Pellissary's later films, where living, breathing people take the place of these slightly formless bags and blobs of energy. You could argue that that's what certain young men are, though, and that energy enables Angamaly Diaries to cover a whole lot more ground than many debuts of this type: a chaotic funeral that prefigures Ee. Ma. Yau, advice on where to get the best omelette in town, and a genuinely remarkable single-shot finale that allows one character to go out in both a blaze of glory and a puff of smoke. Sometimes that's all that energy amounts to. What's obvious is that Pellissary himself could have turned out to be India's foremost Tarantino wannabe, just one among many flash-in-the-pan postmodern posturers currently circulating in the contemporary cinema. What's encouraging - two films down the line - is that he developed into so much more besides.

Angamaly Diaries is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

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