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Ambili (dir. Johnpaul George, 2019)

This post first appeared on Totally Filmi on August 18, 2019.

I was living in France when Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain was released – I’d lived there just long enough that I could cope with the film without subtitles, but also just long enough that I was still feeling kind of lost between worlds.  I adored France but was constantly aware of my status as a kind of outsider peeping in through windows, and wishing I could feel a little less lonely some days.  Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film was just what I needed in that moment:  fun, quirky, gloriously colourful, it made my heart feel so happy and full.  I went to see it again and again in the local cinema, and each time I left the theatre feeling a little less alone.

This, of course, is why I love movies.  Their ability to draw me into interesting worlds and help me through tough times, their ability to make me feel and connect to people and places so very different from myself, to make me feel a part of something special – movies make the world bigger, grander, and yet, at the same time, they have the power to reduce distances and make us realize that we have more in common than we might otherwise realize.

I walked into Johnpaul George’s Ambili with no idea how much this film was going to hit me right in the heart.  Yes, I’d seen George’s first film, Guppy, and had rather liked it.  And yes, I’d seen the first teaser for Ambili, the snippet of the infectious song “Njan Jackson Allada” (“I Am Not Jackson”) with star Soubin Shahir and his frenetic, jerky dance moves.  None of this prepared me for Ambili, this gentle, loving film that spilled its contents out into the world.  No wonder Ambili’s every movement is filled with a slightly manic energy – there is just so much joy inside him that it just explodes like little fireworks, all the time.

Shahir plays Ambili to perfection. This is a character that could easily have become tiresome very quickly, but Shahir never lets Ambili become annoying or one-note.  Ambili is a man so very full of heart and joy that no matter what happens to him, no matter how much anyone hurts him, he just takes it all in and transforms it.  Ambili is the embodiment of unconditional love.

There are two objects of Ambili’s unconditional affection:  Teena (Tanvi Ram) and her brother Bobby (Naveen Nazim), who Ambili met when they were children and their fathers, in the army, were posted in Kashmir.  Teena is in Delhi, and she keeps in contact with Ambili via video calls, gently reminding him of the things that he needs to do (get the rent from the local tailor, printer, and mechanic; pick cardamom pods to sell).  Bobby is a cyclist, whose current challenge involves a solo trip from the village in Kerala where both his parents and Ambili live, to Kashmir, where they all met

Ambili adores Bobby, and as the film shows us, has so since they were children – so much so that he arranges a celebration for Bobby’s return to their village for the start of his cycling tour.  But Bobby, we discover, merely tolerates Ambili at best.  At worst – which is much of the time – he finds ways to sideline Ambili.  When Teena returns home for a visit, and declares that she’s going to marry Ambili, Bobby’s reaction is to go beat Ambili up.  After this, Bobby sets out on his cycling tour, and Ambili disappears from the village.

Ambili’s disappearance worries the village – on the one hand, many of the villagers (especially the tailor, the printer, and the mechanic) don’t hesitate to take advantage of Ambili’s simple nature.  But he’s also such a vital presence in the village that when he goes missing – along with the milkman’s bicycle – they file a police case and worry about what might have happened to him.

The needn’t have worried though – the irrepressible Ambili has taken the cycle and has taken it upon himself to follow Bobby all the way to Kashmir so they can see the place they lived together.  It should be no surprise that there’s a little butterfly on the front of the milkman’s cycle (and a song, “Va Va Manoranjini from the 1993 film Butterflies in the film) – butterflies are symbols of transformation (oh, how the film Premam taught us that!), and if anyone is in need of an attitude adjustment, it’s Bobby.

At first, Bobby treats Ambili as he usually does, with disdain, refusing to acknowledge him or help him in any way.  But we soon see that all his fancy cycling gear does nothing in the face of the tummy troubles that force him off the road and into the care of a doctor.  The doctor prescribes medicines, but it’s Ambili that watches over and cares for Bobby, as he always does, making a rice gruel suitable to help him recover, and working his way into the hearts of the doctor and the children who come to learn from him.  Ambili shares his rice gruel, and his heart, with all of them.

Set in Kattappana (Idukki district), the film is gorgeously shot by debut cinematographer Sharan Velayudhan.  Ambili’s village is shot in cool tones, blues mostly, with lush greens and occasional pops of colours, either in Ambili’s clothing (OMG, the outfit he wears in his dream of marrying Teena, tomato red – as he himself describes it – with his signature knit hat featuring white hearts), or in the flowers that catch Ambili’s eye.  This is contrasted with the warm, dusty, dry tones as the two cycle ever farther north – allowing us to feel the heat and effort of the trip.

Johnpaul George gives us a real sense of place, filling the village with interesting characters .  The milkman who knocks over the cricket wicket.  The local children who play cricket with Ambili and tease him.  The policeman who falls asleep at the drop of a hat – there’s a scene where he comes with the other villagers to Ambili’s house to investigate after Ambili disappears – he walks around the house looking completely lost, trying to turn Ambili’s computer on (to no avail), and finally walking out, sitting on the front step, and, true to form, dropping into a doze.  There’s the old woman who chides Ambili about trying to take her flowers, but who comforts him when Teena’s family excludes him when they go to pick her up, allowing him to take as many flowers as he wants to make a bouquet to give to Teena. 

If there’s any small issue with Ambili, it’s that it doesn’t give us a reason why Bobby has grown so hostile towards Ambili – every flashback we see of them as children shows them happy to be together, with a young Ambili doting on Bobby, and Bobby happy to be with Ambili and his father.  Is it just that Ambili is unchanged, and Bobby feels he’s much too smart and too hip to bother with him?  Naveen Nazim isn’t given much to work with in his debut role, and I wish Johnpaul George had fleshed him out as well as he has other characters.  There is this little undercurrent in the film (oh, Malayalam cinema, how happy I am that your filmmakers are beginning to choose to explore this issue) of what it means “to be a man”, and the contrast between Ambili and Bobby is at the heart of this.  Bobby, we’re told, is a “man” because he’s taking on this tough solo cycling challenge.  Ambili, we can assume, is less of a man because he’s so childlike in his interactions with others and his approach to life – though Teena, talking with one of her roommates about marrying Ambili, assures them that Ambili has no issues in “that” department.

I was also grateful to see subtitlist Vijay George given a credit in the film’s opening sequence – we know that subtitles play an essential role in extending a film’s reach beyond its target language audience.  I do have some questions about some of the choices made in the subtitles, though.  For example:  Ambili is shown to write poetry of questionable caliber (which the local printer pretends to put into print for him) – when one of the children discovers a poem and reads it, it caused the audience I saw the film with to laugh, but I had no idea what the poem was, because the subtitle simply read something like “Child reads poem”.  And the closing narration of the film was left completely unsubtitled, leaving me a little frustrated about what I’d missed.

All of that said, none of this managed to interfere with the absolute bliss I felt at the end of this film.  I left the theatre wishing I could walk right back in to watch it again, wishing I could watch it over and over, much as I had many years ago with Amélie.  I hope that Soubin Shahir got as much joy out of playing Ambili as I did watching his every little happy, jerky, hop skip and jump.  A day later, I’m still smiling.

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