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-[Film Reviews]-, South Asian Cinema, South Indian Cinema

More Malayalam Movies: ‘Kappela’ (2020) & ‘The Priest’ (2021)

Directed by: Muhammad Musthafa [1], Jofin T. Chacko [2] || Produced by: Vishnu Venu [1], Anto Joseph, B. Unnikrishnan, V. N. Babu [2]

Screenplay by : Muhammad Musthafa, Sudhas, Nikhil Vahid [ 1 ], Shyam Menon, Deepu Pradeep [ 2 ] || Starring : Anna Ben, Sreenath Bhasi, Roshan Mathew [ 1 ], Muhammad Mammootty, Nikhila Vimal, Baby Monica, Manju Warrier, Venkitesh PV [ 2 ]

Music by : Sushin Shyam [ 1 ], Rahul Raj [ 2 ] || Cinematography : Jimshi Khalid [ 1 ], Akhil George [ 2 ] || Edited by : Noufal Abdullah [ 1 ], Shameer Muhammed [ 2 ] || Country : India || Language : Malayalam

Running Time: 113 minutes [1], 147 minutes [2] || 1 = Kappela , 2 = The Priest

My first introduction to South Indian filmmaking beyond Baahuabli (2015, 2017) wasn’t much fun, particularly with regards to the Malayalam-language industry of the southernmost Indian state of Kerala. Having little idea where to start and being accustomed to the larger, more internationally recognized Hindi-language industry of Mumbai (i.e. Bollywood), I tried my hand at Mumbai Police (2013), which I almost hated, but liked Neram (2013) well enough to stop while I was ahead. Despite my plethora of South Asian connections via friends and colleagues, my initial foray into that regional film culture was far less structured and guided than my introduction to Bollywood, the King Khans, Karan Johar, Sanjay Bhansali, etc.

My familiarity with the cinema of South India (Tamil + Telugu + Malayalam + Kannada-language film industries, collectively) has grown in the years since that first sampling, with a particular emphasis on Telugu movies. These past few months have also allowed me time to sample additional Tamil (e.g. Kaithi [2019], Asuran [2019], Andhaghaaram [2020]), Kannada (K. G. F. [2018], Yuvarathnaa [2021]), and Malayalam films, the latter of which are the subject of today’s essay: Kappela, a 2019 coming-of-age drama about a young villager women and her hidden long-distance relationship, and The Priest, a 2020 supernatural horror movie, feature film debuts of Muhammad Musthafa and Jofin T. Chacko, respectively.

Anna Ben (center) and her costars admire a local business billboard that used Ben as its model in Kappela.

The former comes across as a laid back, subtle treatise on rural village life in India for its first act, its deliberate pace and gentle parallel edits meant to habituate the viewer to this peaceful yet conservative way of life. Kappela’s protagonist, Anna Ben, is the oldest daughter of working-class farmers who’s nearing marriage and whose family is considering various proposals from the community. What’s more, the story’s inciting incident revolves around an accidental phone call Ben makes to a stranger, Roshan Matthew, an impromptu meeting that develops into an intimate long-distance relationship. Those who are familiar with romantic dramas in general but also Indian wedding elopement clichés in particular may anticipate much, but I predict not all, of the remainder of this yarn thanks to Kappela’s brilliant yet nontraditional narrative structure.

I won’t say much else beyond how Kappela is built like few other dramas, romantic or otherwise. At some point around the middle of the second act, the story takes a hard turn and only gets stranger from there. What helps the film’s shift from one type of subgenre to another is both its reasonable length (113 minutes) and effective overall editing style, such as its aforementioned cross-cutting and precise ability to build tension in its third act. Helping those elements, in turn, are an understated yet memorable guest performance from Sreenath Bhasi, who enters the story in Act Two, as well as some minor cinematographic flourishes from Jimshi Khalid; some of my favorite visual moments include almost dreamlike close-ups of ocean waves washing over Ben’s feet and a powerful final tracking shot of Ben visiting the titular kappela (a sort of Malayalam shrine or chapel) to Saint Mary, the latter of which I suspect was executed from a drone.

The Priest, the other Malayalam picture I enjoyed of late, makes ample use of its home state’s notable Christian population and culture in a much different way: It follows the exploits of a rogue Catholic minister, Muhammad Mammootty, who solves paranormal mysteries involving murder, suicide, demonic possession, and other grisly crimes. Though I have long been familiar with a variety of Exorcist (1973)-knockoffs from Hollywood and the West at large, this was my first exposure to a South Asian paranormal ghost story that takes significant inspiration from the likes of The Omen (1976) to The Amityville Horror (1979) to the modern Conjuring (2013, 2016, 2021) franchise. Unlike Under the Shadow (2016), which recontexualized the concept of demonic haunting to a Middle Eastern, Muslim flavor, The Priest is a straightforward Indian riff on the traditional Western ghost story with paranormal investigation, ubiquitous Catholic symbolism, miscellaneous exorcist jargon, and schlock-demonic possession plot-devices that operate in identical fashion to, say, the Insidious (2010, 2013, 2015, 2018) movies. Even the movie’s generic name, The Priest, feels like it was transplanted overseas, with only the film’s Kerala setting, Malayalam language, and Indian cast — its background and surface details — distinguishing Chacko’s directorial debut from its Western counterparts. Its behemoth 147-minute runtime also sticks out, I suppose.

The overall quality of this non-musical, non-melodramatic Malayalam cover of a typical lowbrow Hollywood demonic mystery is not bad; Chacko’s distinct lighting, use of decrepit, creepy sets, and notable color-grading build an immersive Gothic tone that facilitates storytelling much better than most of the forgettable supporting cast or the mediocre dialogue. Chacko’s ability to maintain The Priest’s ominous mood helps the aforementioned lengthy running time, as does Shyam Menon and Deepu Pradeep’s nontraditional two-act screenplay. Despite the film’s engorged cast and shaky dialogue, The Priest is one of the few Indian movies I’ve seen to justify its two-act structure, with its second act expanding upon narrative elements introduced prior to the intermission; the overall story structure feels like two movies, but oddly enough, not in a bad way, almost like dual installments of a horror miniseries.

Lead Mammootty investigates paranormal activity with the help of his trusty dog in The Priest.

Until the last couple years or so, I hadn’t had much perspective on South Indian cinema in general and smaller industries like Malayalam cinema in particular. Now that that situation has changed, I can better gauge the stylistic discrepancies between the Indian subcontinent’s various film industries, not just between north and south, but within various regional language stables. I hope my positive experiences with Kappela and The Priest are indicators of this growing knowledge, as a crucial part of a developing cinephile is not only understanding both good and bad films, but discerning which films provide the most efficient quality summary of their respective cultures and industries. From what I’ve seen, Kappela’s treatise on village life and feminine maturation, as well as The Priest’s faithful recreation of Western horror tropes for its Catholic Indian subculture, are a fine sampling of contemporary Malayalam filmmaking.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Both Kappela and The Priest are well structured, well paced narratives that use mood and visual storytelling effectively, but in totally different ways; Kappela describes the trials and tribulations that undereducated, undervalued, rural young women face when confronting love and marriage via meticulous, surgical editing, while The Priest feels like a two-parter television special that embraces the best parts of moody, dark, supernatural American shlock-horror.

However… Kappela’s social commentary, though intelligent, may feel too understated for most viewers. The Priest’s supporting castmembers are, on the whole, quite bad.

—> Both films come RECOMMENDED.

? Any list that includes Mumbai Police as an example of a “great” Malayalam movie is not to be trusted.

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