‘Angamaly Diaries’: Film Review

Courtesy of The Friday Film House
The cast of 'Angamaly Diaries'
Electrifying slugfests spice up a south Indian coming-of-age actioner.

This rambunctious breakout indie from Kerala is about gang wars in a small Indian town.

It only takes a dirty look to set off the hair-trigger tempers of the men of Angamaly, a small but crowded south Indian town, in the dizzying action comedy Angamaly Diaries. The war between a former sports team of nice guys and a tougher crew led by two pork butchers causes several casualties, but gives director Lijo Jose Pellissery a good excuse to stage a series of exhilarating free-for-alls. Comic despite its violence, the story is so well told that two hours of mayhem fly by at the pace of machine gun fire.

Though a lot more down and dirty than Gangs of Wasseypur, it could tap some of the same audiences and would make a colorful crowd-pleaser at festivals. It has been a breakout hit in India, with many states signing up for remake rights in languages other than Malayalam.

And yet it’s the local atmosphere that makes the film so engaging and immediate. The talented Pellissery, who has been making his way up the ladder in a series of action-thrillers set in his native Kerala, and his imaginative screenwriter, Chemban Vinod Jose, wrap each scene in a tangled mass of details as thick as the pork, potato and chili curries that bubble over in the opening credits. In fact, the petty tit-for-tat vendettas and headless group slugfests seem to spring from the spicy food the residents eat and the homemade “toddy” (arrack) they pour down their throats, and most of the big fights take place between contenders who are roaring drunk.

Dozens of non-pros acting in the local dialect make up the loud and raucous cast, adding a further note of authenticity to the proceedings. Though always on the lookout for a scuffle, they’re quick to forgive (often after some cash has exchanged hands) and their ready sense of humor is endearing.

In a whimsical opener that turns out to be a flash-forward, a small man visits a local fixer to whine for revenge after getting beaten up by Vincent Pepe’s “team” in his jewelry story. But the gruff boss is busy serving toddy and a curry he made from a python, and kicks him out.

Pepe (the good-looking Antony Varghese) narrates his story in voiceover, starting from when he and his best men were choirboys in Catholic school. A characteristic of Angamaly is that it’s a Christian community and its gaudy festivals revolve around the picturesque church, the most attractive sight in the scruffy tropical paradise. The place is famous for its pork, and when Pepe and his gang grow up, they open a lucrative pig farm. The bloody slaughter scenes, in which the animals are hacked or bludgeoned to death offscreen, will put most viewers off ham for a while. They are making a good profit by undercutting their mentors Ravi (Sarath Kumar) and Rajan (Tito Wilson), tough brothers who have served time for murder and are now kings of the Angamaly pork trade.

If a disputed plate of rabbit meat, or somebody feeling up somebody else’s sister, can set off a furious gang fight, imagine what happens when the good butchers flex their muscle at the bad ones. In the punishing skirmishes that follow, two “local bombs” go off that change Pepe’s life forever, but not his fight-or-die attitude, which takes precedence over the girls shifting through his life.

Pellissery and his fearless DP Girish Gangadharan display their own bravura in a dazzling, can’t-look-away finale, shot in a single 12-minute take that throws in everything plus the kitchen sink and brings the story to a shrill conclusion. Composer Prashant Pillai’s mad score accompanies the action every step of the way, from the ironic fanfare that introduces new characters to a tribal drumbeat that heats up the fights.

Production companies: Friday Film House
Cast: Antony Varghese, Sarath Kumar, Tito Wilson, Reshma Rajan, Vineeth Vishwam, Kichu Tellus, Bitto Davis, Ullas Jose Chemban, Merin Jose Pottackal, Binny Rinky Benjamin
Director: Lijo Jose Pellissery
Screenwriter: Chemban Vinod Jose
Producer: Vijay Babu
Director of photography: Girish Gangadharan
Production designer: Gokul Das
Costume designers: Stephy Zaviour
Editor: Shameer Muhammed
Music: Prashant Pillai
Venue: Cannes Film Market
131 minutes