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29 May 2019

Sudani From Nigeria (2018)

Directed by: Zakaria Mohammed
Music: Rex Vijayan, Shahabaz Aman
Starring: Soubin Shahir, Samuel Abiola Robinson, 
Aneesh G Menon, KTC Abdullah, 
Savitri Sreedharan, Sarasa Balussery,  
Navas Vallikkunnu, Ashraf Thangal, 
Abhiram Pothuval
Kerala, Bengal and Goa are probably the three Indian states that can be called football mad. The Beautiful Game is a very serious matter in these states. In fact, when my cousin visited when the World Cup began last year, our home town, she said, looked like it was hosting the World Cup it was bedecked in the yellow and green of Brazil and the blue and white of Argentina.  Soon after, when both nations unceremoniously bowed out Argentina in the Round of 16, and Brazil in the Quarter Finals, it seemed as if Kerala was in mourning. That's how important Football is, to the Malayali heart.

It is also serious business. In Malabar, for instance, a series of ‘Sevens’ matches (seven players as opposed to the 11 per side) are held every year. Teams from all over the state play in these tournaments. The Kerala Sevens Football Association has nearly 30 registered teams, and hosts around 50 tournaments every year. Teams include both local and foreign players. One measure of their popularity (and that of the sport) is the packed stadiums for every match.
Set against this backdrop is this simple, heart-warming film that is both hilarious and touching. Majeed (Soubin Shahir) is obsessed with football and even manages a small club, MYC Accode in a hamlet named Vazhayoor in Malabar. As the season begins, Majeed is only able to recruit three Nigerian players; the others are local lads. However, one of them, Samuel (Samuel Abiola Robinson), is a talented player who lifts the club's fortunes a notch. For Majeed, it is a bit like signing Lionel Messi.  
And so, Samuel and his compatriots join the team, which quickly embraces them into their fold. They are put up in a rented accommodation, and while language is a barrier to open communication, the young men manage, even teaching 'Sudu' to swear in Malayalam. The tournament opens (and we get some energetic scenes of football and the pulsing enthusiasm of the fans) and everything is going well, until Sudu has an unfortunate accident not on the football field, but a fall in the ramshackle bathroom. Majeed quickly takes Sudu to the hospital but the astronomical hospital bills leave him scrambling for money. 
Rehabilitation would have to take place in his own house, Majeed decides, and so Sudu is safely ensconced in Majeed's home, where Majeed's mother, Jameela (Savitri Sreedharan) and their neighbour, Beeyumma (Sarasa Balussery) cluck around the unhappy youngster like two hens with one chick. Jameela is particularly charmed by Sudu's smile and his willing acceptance of her affection. 

Sudu is now the cynosure of all eyes - every day, without fail, the villagers from the local lads with too much time on their hands, to the village elders, even an old postman troop in to look at Sudu, and chat about various things.
Majeed, despite his worries, is also concerned about Sudu and slowly, the bond between manager and player deepen as they slowly open up to each other. 
But trouble is lurking Nivaz (Aneesh Menon), the manager of a rival club is bent on poaching Sudu; a photograph and news article about Sudu in the local newspaper brings the police to Majeed's door Sudu is a foreign national and has to register at the local police station. 
Only, Sudu has lost his passport. And while a worried Majeed is running helter-skelter to arrange finances to apply for a new one, comes the next blow Sudu tearfully confesses that  his passport was fake.

What next?

Sudani from Nigeria is a debut venture, with no known stars the 'lead' (for want of a better word) role is played by Soubin Shahir, and while he's been acting since the early 2000s, he is not ’hero' material. The others are mostly debutants, at least in films; the two women are noted theatre artistes. What is striking is the way Zakariya has etched out the locals, never mind their on-screen time. They are living, breathing, people, and one just knows that they have their own stories, their own travails. Like the nurse who berates Majeed and his friends (Navas Vallikkunnu, Ashraf Thangal and Abhiram Pothuval, who are very funny as  Latheef, Bavakka and Kunjippa) for not noticing that Sudu's drip has run dry because they were busy watching a football game on their phones. Or the newly-married couple who come to visit Sudu and then, randomly, decide to take a selfie with him. They feel real, because they are real.
This is the first time Soubin has been in a decent lead role, and like Salim in 'Adaminte Makan Abu', you realise how easily these actors are overlooked except as the comic sidekicks they usually get to play. Majeed is perpetually cash-strapped, sometimes borrowing from his own players to buy their meals for them, or getting his friend to pawn his wife's gold ('It's only sitting in the bank safe, and I'll get it back as soon as we win the tournament!'), in order to pay for Sudu's treatment. His relationship with Sudu is that of an elder brother he gets cross, he snaps, yet he tries to figure out a way to send Sudu back to his country. Slowly, through the conversations, he learns the truth about Sudu that teaches him a valuable lesson and allows him to reconcile with his past. 
Soubin brings a wealth of emotions to his character, fleshing it out and giving it form and soul. His continuous failure at selections leads him to forming his own club, instead of being out on the field. The game he loves is responsible for his lack of a family life no girl is willing to marry him. The lack of money hovers over everything he does and thinks that little black bag under his arm is both a sense of security and its lack thereof.  

Majeed lives with his mother who cannot allow her husband to stay with them because Majeed is still angry that she remarried. Jameela is sad; as she confesses to Beeyumma, she's being unfair to a good man. In one scene, when Sudu has been brought home to recover, and she's looking after him, she says, albeit guiltily, that she wished it was Majeed who was ill and needed looking after perhaps then, he would need her again. It's such a wistful expression of a woman who married for her son's sake, but is now rejected by him. Savitri Sreedharan was brilliant in the role of a mother who prays for the loss faced by this strange youngster whom she cannot talk to, but feels drawn to  after all, he's someone's son, too. And it doesn't matter if he prays to a different God, Allah will surely listen to her, and perhaps HE can mediate with the strange God to help Sudu's soul heal.   
Beeyumma is equally finally drawn as Jameela's neighbour, friend and confidante, Beeyumma is the more outspoken of the two. She's the one who occasionally calls Majeed out on his behaviour, but she's also the one who eagerly waits for her daughter to send her a watch from the 'Gulf' so she can present it to Sudu before he leaves. She even sacrifices a rooster for his meal a fact she's inordinately proud of. Both Sarasa Balussery and Savitri Sreedharan mine their gentle charm and their real-life friendship to essay their roles on screen.
Samuel Robinson, whom Zakariya found on the Internet if news reports are to be believed, and is on record as stating that he's perhaps among the 1% of Nigerians who do not play football, trained to play after arriving in Kerala. 
'Sudu' is a refugee who has forged a passport to escape from Nigeria. He needs to send money back to his old grandmother and his two little sisters who are all he has left in the world. When he is injured, and faces deportation, Samuel's face crumbles. All his bravado is shed and we are left facing a terrified teenager whose only desire was to make something of his life away from his war-torn country.

KTC Abdullah has only a small role he's the gentle stepfather, a security guard who lives alone near the company in which he works. He has no complaints to make not of his wife, nor his stepson, despite the latter's rudeness. (Even Sudu waves goodbye to the man, but not Majeed.) It's like the weight of the whole world is on his frail, stooped shoulders, and every line on Abdullah's face expresses that weariness.

Like other Malayalam films that had the Muslim community as a backdrop Ustad Hotel, Adaminte Makan Abu, Perumazhakkalam, etc., come to mind here too, the Muslim identity is central to the film but is neither glorified nor overtly stressed. Director Zakariya (who also co-wrote the dialogues with Muhsin Parari) paints a humanitarian tale that is sorely needed today. 

The dialogues are by turns witty, wry, and touching; above all, they are real. The scenes in which the villagers speak a pidgin English or mangle Malayalam and English in their bid to make Sudu understand them is comical. Yet, one never gets the feeling that these people are the butt of jokes. We are laughing with them. Yes, the film is that self-aware.

And so, we get little lessons on people's common humanity that overcomes barriers like race and language; we get a little communal harmony to counter balance the creeping Islamophobia; we get two very nuanced female charactersnot 'strong' or subversive, but just *are*. And we get all this not as Moral Science - Chapters I, II and III, but as the warp and weft of the narrative. If the ending doesn't make you blink your eyes hard I'll eat my only summer hat. (Well, I don't have one, but I would, if I did.)
And the reason for the title? Samuel is Nigerian. For some reason known only to them, the locals have decided that he is 'Sudani' (Malayalam for 'Sudanese'). When Samuel patiently points out that he’s from a completely different African country, they nod understandingly – 'Of course! From Nigeria! Yes, yes, he is 'Sudani from Nigeria'. (Hence his nickname, 'Sudu'.)

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