Nobody should watch the latest from Indian filmmaker Lijo Jose Pellissery without at least glancing over a review.
The director of “Churuli” and “Angamaly Diaries” has a reputation for not playing by the rules, for not overexplaining or even explaining at all what he’s up to in his immersive, Malayalam-language “nonlinear” dramas and dramedies.
“Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam” takes its sweet time getting going, in letting us know that an enterprising fussbudget from Kerala has chartered a tour bus and lodgings for his fellow Christian pilgrims to visit a revered Catholic basilica to the south, in Velanukanni in the state of Tamil Nadu.
The film is even cagey about giving our tour leader’s name — James. We meet him (Mammootty) as he’s pounding on doors, trying to get everyone up and back on the tiny, packed bus for the long drive home. After all that effort, all his fussing on how “late” the tardy travelers are making everyone else, his wife (Ramya Pandian) and son are the last ones to board. Before him.
Settling the bill at the Matha Lodge, he asks the Tamil clerk the meaning of a homily on a poster at the desk, the gist of which is “When you doze off, you die. When you awaken, you are reborn.” Remember that. It’s what this movie is all about.
A lot of the banter on their slow drive home is about the “southern” Tamil folks they’ve been among, with James particularly irritated at the unsophistication, the language barrier and the cuisine. He fumes at the roadside patio diner they visit where the chai tea is sugary to the point of a diabetic coma and the food too spicy, even by the curried-up cuisine standards of the Subcontinent.
Then James dozes off for a stretch, like the rest of this mostly-older tour of neighbors and relatives. He wakes before the others, tells the driver to pull over, and disappears into a field of tall grain. Toilet break?
We follow him into a Tamil village, overhear the sounds of TVs playing movies or the news, see him stop to feed and pet a familiar cow, bend over and pet a dog he knows by name, change his lungi (skirt) from the laundry line, duck into a house where only a blind old woman is awake, listening to TV.
He chats, barges in on a younger woman (Ramya Suvi) and freaks Pookuzhali with his fussing about her letting them run out of tea and groceries, grabs their motorbike and sets off on errands? Rounds? Hunting up breakfast?
Wait. She’s his wife? His “other” wife?
James, who can’t speak and has a faint distaste for all things Tamil is now fluent, likes the food and the over-sugared tea. He’s backslapping and joshing around with the boys, even as the village wakes up and locals start chasing the guy who (in Tamil, with subtitles) “stole our bike!”
Nobody in this village recognizes him save for the blind mother. Nobody stranded on the bus knows what to do once they figure out where he’s gone. Grabbing him and dragging him back isn’t an option. He’s huge. Leaving him is a no go because of all the relatives he has on board for this trip which he planned and possibly even financed.
James, an ordinary, burly, middle-aged Malayam, has woken up as Sundaram, a long-missing husband and father now back at “home” in the Tamil Twilight Zone.
Pellissery is a patient filmmaker, letting long takes immerse us in the sights and sounds of the place before giving us his Big Twist. He’s made passengers-thrown-together-for-a-bus-ride tales before (“Churuli”). Here he uses that as a vehicle for giving us a hint of “The Return of Martin Guerre” (and its Hollywood remake, “Sommersby”) or any number of “body switch” comedies (“Big,” for instance), all packed onto a traveling “show” reminiscent of Fellini — Fellini without the “carnival” or the laughs.
Our co-writer and director gives us time to ponder what the hell is going on here and time to slowly work it out, never quite giving us enough information to piece it all together and start enjoying what we’re seeing.
The much-honored, larger-than-life Mollywood (Malayam-language Indian films) veteran Mammootty is so well-known at home that Anthony Bourdain visited him when he came to learn about the people, the life and cuisine of Kerala on his “No Reservations” series. Mammooty’s done plenty of comedies, and maintains a somewhat light-hearted air in many scenes here, even if the film never quite trips over into laugh-out-loud farce.
Grumpy James gives in to amusing and over-familiar insults with locals, all of whom he seems to know, none of whom remember him. A bit of drinking, a drunken sing-along, lip-synching a long scene of a famous Tamil-language film make him the life of the village bar, even as the family he has imposed on starts to flip out — as one might expect when a “fraudster” comes home and sleeps in the same house as a possibly-widowed (her husband disappeared) woman and her furious college-age daughter.
The Kerala prejudices about Tamils are played for laughs about the food, the crime, etc. A child wanders away from the bus.
“There are CHILD grabbers here,” she’s warned (in Malayam in these scenes). “If they CATCH you they will blind you and make you beg in the streets!”
That should keep the wandering tween close to home.
That Tamil hotel homily is but the first clue about what is happening here. There’s also a closing title that suggests a sort of play within a play that explains the title — “Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam,” which this Bollywood/Mollywood critic translates as “A Mid-Day Slumber,” and yes, even critics sometimes read other critics to get a handle on details no non-native speaker could understand.
Challenging and slice-of-life engrossing it may be, it’s all a tad too dry for my Western tastes. Pellissery gives us all these wonderful comic possibilities, but chooses something more serious and mysterious — that “Twilight Zone” analogy — when this would have worked better and perhaps traveled better as a farce.
Rating: TV-14, drinking, threats of violence
Cast: Mammootty, Ramya Suvi, Ramya Pandian, Ashokan
Credits: Directed by Lijo Jose Pellissery, scripted by S. Hareesh, Lijo Jose Pellissery. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:47