Sudani from Nigeria (2018) overflows with life

It’s rare when a director’s first feature film is so thoroughly engaging, especially with a story that, in an elevator pitch, must have seemed so small. But the many close-ups and the actors’ pure performances magnify this story about humanity and bring Sudani from Nigeria home to your heart.

In the story, Majeed (Saubin Shahir) is a hard scrabble manager of a small-sided soccer team. Majeed sees himself akin to his role model, Real Madrid manager Zidane. But his livelihood earns little money. When the team wins, he can pay players, doling out cash according to need. Bringing in 3 African players, especially Sudani, gives his team a winning edge. 

Majeed’s life has been one of crushing disappointment, leaving him emotionally bankrupt and concerned only for himself. So when his star player Sudani (Samuel Abiola Robinson) requires surgery, the manager brings the player into his own home to minimize costs during the recuperation. Majeed’s family, friends, and community embrace the ever-smiling Sudani. In the effort to help the player return home, Majeed realizes Sudani’s plight is even worse than his own, and the manager discovers his own humanity.

Sudani from Nigeria is the first Mollywood movie that I have reviewed. Mollywood refers to the film industry around Malappuram, a south Malabar district in the middle of the Indian state of Kerala. Malappuram is also the center of football around Kerala and is the home of a very popular 7v7 league and tournament format known as Sevens. The fast-paced game, largely played on a clay field and under lights, has a passionate fan base that fills its small stadiums.

Writer-Director Zakariya Mohammed created this low-budget film with the participation of the many friends he had made in the industry over the years. His background in Mollywood is an engaging story in itself.

While this is a feature film, I really enjoyed learning about life in Malappuram. Majeed, for example, uses a marriage broker to find a wife, but his goal of a college-educated spouse is perhaps not in line with his inability to finish high school. The film is also about communicating when no common language exists, such as the two older women (Ummas) who nurture Sudani (played by theatre artists Savithri Sreedharan and Sarala Balusserry).

Another theme is to show the burden of bureaucracy in India, whether it is an office of the football league, immigration, a hospital, or a badgering police department. The film also portrays life in the Nigerian refugee camp from which Sudani had fled.

The scenes of Sevens soccer are a revelation, not so much of the game itself, but of the fans and their enthusiasm. To read up on Sevens, check out this article and this. The film depicts how a manager houses and feeds his players. It suffices to say, it’s only one step above a refugee camp.

Note: I actually was in the capital of Kerala in 2009, and I was surprised how much it differed from what is shown in the film. I assume that is because the film is set more in the countryside. Kerala is actually the most religiously diverse state in India and has many Christians; we even visited a centuries-old Jewish synagogue there. At that time, we were told that Kerala was the only Communist state in India, and that it received the most remuneration income in the country. Perhaps this religious, political, and financial diversity is at the root of this film?

After it gained success, the film experienced some controversy. Samuel Abiola Robinson complained that he was not paid fairly and was discriminated against. This was soon rectified, but I thought the situation was a bit inequitable, especially when comparing his performance to those of the other actors. While Robinson has a brilliant smile and is apparently becoming a well-known actor in Nigeria, the fact of the matter is that in this film, the young man does little more than lie in bed and smile or look sick. The Sudani role sort of reminded me of the corpse in Weekend at Bernie’s.

In Malayalam, which is one of the South Indian languages and is spoken around Kerala. Also in Hindi with a bit of English. English sub-titles.

7 Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 7