"Unless you people see signs and wonders," Jesus told him, "you will never believe." (John 4:48). The Biblical verses that set Lijo Jose Pellissery's 'Amen' rolling, serve as a precursor for the spectacle that is to follow. Pellissery's third consecutive cinematic triumph leaves us gasping on account of the visual imagery on display, the aggressive entertainment that it offers and the sparkly, yet sentimental journey that it takes us on, into the magical world called Kumaramkari.
Believe it or not, 'Amen' starts off on a shitty note, and a real smelly one at that. A stinking gift that looks alluring in a golden wrapper is busy doing the rounds at Kumaramkari, a tiny village in Central Kerala. It gets passed around until its flung right onto a dinner table, terrifying those who have gathered around it, all eager to dig into some sumptuous food. And we are told that it's just one of the many interesting tales that Kumaramkari has to tell.
The church at Kumaramkari is no ordinary one, and legend has it that Saint Geevarghese, with his spear, horse and serpent in tow, had himself made an appearance before Tipu Sultan, who had arrived hoping to raze the church down. Today, reigned over by Fr. Ottaplackan (Joy Mathew), the church has no dearth of believers, but the church's Geevarghese band has been tasting defeat year after year in the hands of the Martha Mariyam band headed by arch rivals of Kumarankari, Davis (Anil MUrali) and his wife Mariyamma (Sandra Thomas). The sense of power and clout has transformed Ottaplackan, the priest with the curly mane and crystal eyes, into a conceited religious leader who would stop at nothing to see to it that his orders are implemented without fail.
'Amen' almost seems over flooded with characters, and yet each one of them have been carved out with such precise curves and lines by P S Rafeeque, that there is not one of them who looks out of place, or too large to be part of the picture. Each of these individual voices has a distinct tone, and together they make a charming mural on life and the multiple layers that have always made it fascinating.
Solomon (Fahad Fazil) of 'Amen' is on a voyage, akin to Dante's expedition in the Divina Commedia. While the Italian poet recounts his pathways along Hell, the Purgatory and the Paradise in the 'Divine Comedy', for Solomon, heaven seems a distant dream. Kumaramkari is no better than the realm of Hades for the young man, an abyss where his identity has been quenched beyond recognition, where he has had to endure one torment after the other, where fires and brimstones have burned and bruised him all over.
Sosanna (Swati Reddy), is Juliet clad in a traditional Malayali Christian attire, as she throws open the windows of her attic room at night to listen to Solomon who arrives to play the clarinet for her. Looks might be deceptive, since Sosanna is no fragile beauty, and she doesn't think twice before screeching her way on to assault her brother (Sudheer Karamana) who speaks ill of Solomon, or dumping some hot chicken curry all over a goon who had arrived to teach Solomon a lesson or two. The bang that she soon delivers on his head with the saucepan sends tiny birds flying away from his ears, and his astonished partner wonders aloud if the girl is insane.
It had been a few decades since their love tale had sprouted, and it already has been through much storm and strife. It's on her insistence that Solomon had given up his aspirations to become a priest. Their clandestine meetings at the cemetery, the yellow and orange sweet candies that he slyly offers her and the soft kisses that are hurriedly exchanged as the rain batters on the banana leaf umbrellas that they hold above their heads bear the stamp of a romance marred by the several disparities that are hell bent on driving them apart.
Fr. Vincent Vattoli (Indrajith) creates a flutter, the moment he lands at Kumaramkari, as he leaves a few wondering if it's Saint Geevarghese himself who has landed ashore! The parish priest however, is least impressed by his flamboyant shirt and trousers and the flashy shades that he sports. He establishes in no time without doubt, that he intends to dismantle the traditions that Fr. Ottaplackan has been vehemently holding on to. Dressed in a fiercely red cassock, he goes boogieing with two young men dressed in jaunty red and yellow, along the by lanes of Kumaramkari, proclaiming that a revolution is well on its way!
Michelle (Natasha Sahgal), the French lady who is floored by Vattoli's charms is more of a mute spectator of the happenings at Kumaramkari. She takes little offence at being drawn into the muddle along with Vattoli, and as she gets ready to leave for France, mutters that she is bound to remember him for a very long time to come. Interestingly, she is the one, who in the course of discovering her love for the young priest, breaks into a song that talks of the rainbows that have all appeared all across her heart and affirms her affinity time and again through the utterance 'Amen' that is marvelously wedged in between halting Malayalam words.
Ousep (Sunil Sukhada), the sexton, considers himself a mediator between Jesus himself and Gandhi, as he tries to snitch a few currency notes off the donation box. This is no ordinary man, as is evident from the admonition that he so casually utters to the parish priest, even as the latter looks on in amazement at the tables having been turned around and the sexton having gained monstrous proportions. Later, Ousep attempts to coerce Vattoli to leave the place in peace, but on seeing his endeavor bearing no fruit, coldly moves ahead with the next ploy in his scheme.
Louis Paapen (Kalabhavan Mani) hopes of reviving the Geeevarghese band some day, and ruefully remembers the strain on his friend Estheppan's (Rajesh Hebbar) clarinet that was cut off halfway through. When in the dead of a night, a man on a canoe a few yards across, accompanies him on the broken strain for the first time ever, he orders the ferry man to draw the boat closer to take a look at him. The lantern glow reveals a timid Solomon, in whose eyes Louis witnesses the sparkles of a prospective triumph.
The women in Kumaramkari appear to be tough nuts to crack, be it Clara (Rachna Narayanankutty) who refuses to give in to a persistent suitor's efforts or the ones at Sosanna's household who have had it up to their noses with the antics of their dominant male counterparts. When they find Sosanna imprisoned, they break down the doors of her room, and set her free.
There is the toddy vendor who spends his life atop the coconut tree, who enjoys an aerial view of affairs, and whose observations are crisp to the core. Hilarious indeed are his comments on the fuel that the sexton probably uses on his motor bike, or on the malicious and spiteful Paapi who spreads venom all around. How could one possibly forget Thresia (Kulappulli Leela) who runs the tea shop, and her forever farting son, who weeps at the drop of a hat over a plate of hot beef! Pothachan (Makrand Deshpande) who vows to crush the Geevarghese band, has the traits of an oddball written all over him, as he crunches on a few glass pieces as if they were wafers ad leaves the crows that has gathered around him all aghast. As a man who gracefully accepts defeat, he endears himself to us later, despite playing the queer duck all along.
The moonlit backwaters of Kumaramkari have a story to tell of their own. It's enchantingly beautiful, the night when Estheppan and his friends return to their homeland after a victorious feat at the Edathua church. The full moon seems to have risen just over at the horizon and the waters are alarmingly still, as their clarinets churn out one sweet warble after the other across the soft winds of the night. Death appears all on a sudden, and four of them drown, dragging the musical legacy of Kumaramkari down with them. Contrastingly, years later, a thunder storm seems to be brewing in the skies, when the lighting flashes reveal Fr. Vattoli arriving with Chachappan (Sasi Kalinga), who is all set to take over as the manager of the Geevarghese band, that has been disowned by the church.
Divine intervention does occur in the film at least a couple of times, and the very first time it's when the Vattayappam that Sosanna affectionately brings for Solomon lands on Chachappan's open palms. The Lord strikes again when not one, but two coconuts land on a foul mouth's head, suggesting that you are constantly under surveillance. Situations as these that sparkle with heartfelt humor make 'Amen' an enjoyable romp that is not to be missed.
Solomon and Sosanna, in another spectacular scene, find their elopement plans thwarted, and as Solomon is beaten black and blue, you realize with a shudder that it's the Lord himself who is being stoned and spat at. Dressed in a purple robe and wearing a crown of thorns over his mane, Solomon looks every bit the Lord as he made his way to Calvary, bleeding and limping along a path strewn with prickly rocks.
Estheppan and his guardian angels thrice make an appearance before us. Solomon is woken up from his reverie by the trio, who send him hurrying to appear before the church band. Later we see them waiting for him at the church as Solomon gets all set for the final show, and then cheering for him from among the clouds as he finally gets his tunes right, once and for all.
Some stories, we realize are entirely identifiable, and even as they remain overused as ever, along comes a filmmaker, who grabs you by your shoulders and peacefully settles you down on your seat, assuring you that his film has a fizzing energy and some real whirlwind plotting that you would find tremendously hard to turn down. 'Amen' is one such cinematic jewel, where there is nothing hugely original about the love tale that it tells, but which is undeniably a whole lot of fluffy and truly infectious fun!
There is an imp at work in 'Amen', without whom the film would have had half the snap and sass that it could rightfully boast of, at the moment. The camera, thanks to Abhinandan Ramanujam, is no less playful than Puck of Midsummer Night's Dream, and is everywhere you would least expect it to be! Climbing up and down, swinging back and forth, it squeezes itself into every nook and corner, each crevice and cleft, onto tables, roofs and tree tops, up the sky and down into the earth, along the ripples, on to the rows and over the canoes, all the while engaged in a flurry of activity, poking its jagged nose into anywhere that smells of a story.
'Amen' is a true musical, in every sense of the word, in that the songs that have been creatively set to tune by Prashant Pillai drive the story further forward, maintaining its sense of vibrancy throughout. The music is soulful and the songs make their way straight into your heart, as one original score after the other flares up and lights up the night sky. A very special mention of the brilliant art direction by Bava, which transforms Kumaramkari into the ethereal land that you get to see on screen.
A royal ensemble of actors, who are all exceptionally good at what they do, come up with stupendously winning performances in the film. It would be extremely difficult to pin point an actor who towers over the rest of the artistes in a film like 'Amen', and it would suffice to say that together they are a terrific blast. The subservient Solomon, the glitzy Vattoli, the defiant Sosanna, the intimidating Ottaplackan, the daring Clara, the conniving Ousep and the several other characters that make up the hamlet called Kumaramkari, are all brought to life by stellar feats by the incredible actors who play them on screen.
The flavor, spirit and fun of 'Amen' make it buoyantly unpretentious, and the sheer exuberance that it lets out renders it a movie of the magical kind. A feel-good, jovial and unfussy musical experience, it's a sunny gem of a film that drops down from the heavens above, as the Lord parts the clouds to take a look at the world down below. Bright and flashy in all the right ways, Lijo Jose Pellissery's new film is a delight from start to finish.
Amen to that!