A group of Christian pilgrims from Kerala are returning on a bus from their visit to the Vailankanni shrine in Tamil Nadu. Their leader is James ( performed by Mammooty) is a grumpy man and not particularly religious man who is on this journey with his wife, Sali, and their son. As the pilgrims make their return journey to Kerala, they chatter in Malayalam, stop off at a roadside restaurant for lunch, and James gripes about the Tamil food and sugary tea. The travelers fall asleep on the bus as the effect of the midday meal, the rattling of the bus, and the droning of a film on their video player lulls them. As they pass by some fields of grain, James asks the driver to stop, gets off the bus and walks off through the fields to the village nearby. He seems to know where he’s going and he approaches a house where he takes a plaid lungi off the washing line and changes into it and leaves his white dhoti in its place, feeds the cow tethered to the front yard, plays with the family dog, walks into the home and starts talking in Tamil to the inhabitants. In that moment, James has been transformed into Sundaram, a Tamil man, who disappeared from his home two years earlier. His talk, his actions, his demeanor all resonate with Sundaram’s family including his wife, Punkuzhali, and his parents. Sundaram’s blind mother who endlessly listens to film and TV shows accepts James as Sundaram and James easily slips into this new role with no memory of his life as the Malayali Christian pilgrim with a wife and child. Everything about James is persuasive enough of Sundaram that Sundaram’s family and villagers watch in awe as this stranger channels the life and mannerisms of another man. The pilgrims on the bus come into the village to find James and discover that he has no idea who they are. Some comic moments follow as groups of pilgrims chase after James riding a moped while completing household errands. As Sundaram, he hangs out with villagers at a tea shop drinking sugary tea, and sharing jokes and chit chat with folks while doing so. The pilgrims in the meantime make elaborate plans to corral James and take him back to the bus.
The film has so many layers. It never explains how or why James becomes Sundaram. Is this a ghost story? Or has James simply crossed a portal into this other world of the village? Instead we are left asking questions about identity. How do we know who we are? In a poignant moment, James/Sundaram has a meltdown in his courtyard and asks many rhetorical questions of the villagers and pilgrims. What makes a person a part of a community or a family? Is it land? Is it marriage and parenthood? The pilgrims, James’s family, and Sundaram’s family watch in silence as James/Sundaram screams his questions highlighting the impossibility of a simple answer.
The film also plays with soundscape. There is constant media chatter as the film progresses—loud snippets from radio shows and television in a mix of languages as James/Sundaram walks through the village, the constantly playing television being “watched” by a blind woman, ads such as the famous Nirma soap jingle. This media chatter interrupts or overshadows conversation sometimes, and at other times it emphasizes the absence of quiet. The snippets from popular films and television shows are so juxtaposed with the moods and events of the film that sometimes they underscore an event and at other times they are dissonant. Mammooty, a veteran of Malayalam cinema delivers a brilliant performance. The two women who play the wives of James and Sundaram are understated in their performance and complement Mammooty. The bilinguality of the film and its examination of linguistic, religious, and cultural differences is distinctive, and subtitles only offer a bland understanding of this rich exploration of language.
This is a remarkably provocative film that is worth watching. It is likely to resonate more deeply with audiences familiar with Malayalam and Tamil cinema who can unpack the many intertextual references to film history. For those who are not fluent in Southern India’s vibrant film culture, the philosophical questions raised by the film and the excellent performances will be rewarding.
Nanpakal Nerathil Mayakkam. ( Trans. A Mid-Day Slumber). Dir. Lijo Jose Pellissery. Performances: Mammooty, Ramya Pandyan, Ashokan, Ramya Suvi. Production: Mammooty Production Kampany, Amen Movie Monastery. Released 2023. Streaming on Netflix.