Sudani From Nigeria (available on Netflix)

Written and directed by Zakariya Mohammed 
Year: 2018
Language: Malayalam (with English subtitles)
Country: India
Genre: Sports Drama film
Running Time: 115 minutes

The mainstream media is nowadays full of stories of immigrants crossing from Africa into Europe seeking better economic fortunes as they escape from countries they describe as failed states and dictatorial regimes that make life unlivable. There are no statistics on the illegal migration of African people into India in particular and Asia in general but presumably, it does take place.

Based on a fictional account of an African football player who travels to the town of Malappuram in the state of Kerala in India to participate in a ‘Sevens’ football tournament, the film follows the story of ‘Sudani’ played by Samuel Abiola Robinson and his manager ‘Majid’ played by Soubin Shahir.  While the story line is quite simple of Sudani getting injured and staying with Majid while he recuperates, it is the interaction of Majid’s household and village with Sudani that makes for fascinating viewing.

Sudani is from Nigeria where he took on all kinds of odd jobs to support his grandmother and sisters after the death of both his parents at an early age. In search of better fortunes, Sudani meets a local group recruiting young footballers. They recognize Sudani’s skill and he quickly finds himself on the list of players destined to India for a tournament. He hassles the streets and raises a deposit for an affordable false passport, on which he travels to India where he meets Majid who is the manager of a local football team participating in the ‘Sevens’ tournament.

Majid lives an estranged and dysfunctional family life in which he has rejected his stepfather whom his mother married after the early demise of Majid’s real father. His football career is full of the usual intrigues of rivalry between opposing teams who even try to bribe Sudani while he is injured in the hope that Sudani will switch sides after his recovery. However, an innocent article in a local newspaper praising the exploits of Sudani on the field alerts the local police and special branch of the presence of an ‘illegal immigrant’ in the village. Majid and Sudani suddenly become persons of interest by the local security and when Sudani’s passport mysteriously disappears, panic ensues within Majid and his coterie of friends.

Amid all the drama of being arrested as an illegal immigrant, Sudani’s grandmother dies in Nigeria and Sudani desperately wants to go back home. How is Sudani going to escape a police investigation and can he trace the passport he needs to return to Nigeria? The confrontations with the local corrupt police force are humorous and will be familiar to audiences.

The family, friends and neighbours of Majid provide the emotional bond of the film. They do not speak a word of English but continue to communicate and look after Sudani as if he was one of their own. They feed, bathe and humour him, as he lies helpless in bed. Moreover, although Sudani does not speak a word of Mayalayam he ‘understands’ and absorbs their love and devotion and a familial bond soon develops. Sudani adopts Majid’s mum (played by Savithri Sreedharan) as his own and calls her ‘Mama’.

Neighbours fascinated by the presence of an African ‘Football Star’ keep thinking that he is ‘Sudanese’ because of his name. They come to his bedside and take selfies as if he is a celebrity; only Majid and one or two of his colleagues converse with him in a smattering of English! The language barrier is however, of no consequence and the love, solidarity and tenderness of the situation standout.

A salient aspect that comes across is the class solidarity, humanity and mutual trust that permeates the interaction between people from vastly different continents who have never met before. Majid is greatly affected by the parentless situation of Sudani and is impacted by it.

The film was a commercial success at the box office and won five awards at the 2018 Kerala State Film Awards, including Best Screenplay, Best Film with Popular Appeal and Aesthetic Value, Best Debut Director, Best Actor (Shahir), and Best Character Actress (Savithri and Sarasa). At the 2018 National Film Awards, it won the award for Best Feature Film in Malayalam and Savithri Sreedharan received a Special Mention for her performance in the film.