'Madappally United' Review: A timely film about the need to preserve safe spaces for children to play

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

Murtaza Ali Khan

Writer-Director Ajay Govind is set to release his Malayalam language film titled Madappally United across India in different phases, starting with Calicut and Vadakara followed by Mumbai, Delhi, Dehradun, Bengaluru, and Chennai. The film recently had a special premiere at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. Madappally United is essentially a children’s film set in Kerala with cricket as its central theme. It features 45 debutants along with senior actors like Srikanth Murali and Savithri Sreedharan. The film has created a lot of buzz at the film festival circuit all across globe. Other than being selected as best fiction at the 51st Roshd International Film Festival in Tehran, it also bagged the Golden Statuette at Iran’s prestigious film festival. The film has also won the Jury Award for Best Family Film at the Indian Film Festival of Cincinnati as well as the award for the Best Film with a Social Message at the Kenya International Sports Film Festival, among others.

Set in a small coastal town, Madappally United follows a group of children, 7 boys and 4 girls, who set out eagerly to play cricket on a lazy Saturday morning, completely unaware of the machinations that await them thanks to the larger forces at play. Aasif Karim, the Festival Director of Kenya International Sports Film Festival and the former cricket captain of Kenya, has described the film as ‘important’ in his citation. While, Madappally United isn’t a typical sports film about teams competing or winning, it’s about the right to play, camaraderie and mutual respect, having access to safe spaces to play, and sports education.

The idea for the film first came to Govind during his interaction with the children and others at the Madappally School (in North Kerala) and neighboring areas. In 2019, he was shooting a documentary for UL Foundation to capture the work they had done with the students there. The foundation’s involvement and seeing the way the kids were gave him that initial confidence to transpose a story he had already conceptualized. Next he brought co-producers on board which included Ashok Franklin and producer-director Jonathan Augustin. The film’s casting was always going to be a challenge but Govind hit the bullzeye by bringing in the talented actor and casting director Rajesh Madhavan on board who is responsible for finding the amazing new talents (as many as 45 debutantes) as well as other key cast members.

What makes Madappally United really unique is the fact that it talks about cricket even though it is set in a football-crazy state like Kerala. While cricket doesn’t extensively feature as a sport in the film, the film has a lot of cricket references. There are direct reference to Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni. The poster of Virat Kohli serves as an important character early on in the film. One of the boys mimicking Dhoni’s match-winning speech is again just a very real moment that most kids can relate to. But it doesn’t just stop there. Going beyond the commonplace practice of exalting male heroes, the film also makes a reference to the ignorance of cricket fans towards the champion female cricketers.

Govind makes an interesting choice to mostly shot outdoors and in real locations. What makes it challenging is that it’s largely a one-day story set across locations. Maintaining that light continuity throughout must have been the biggest challenge for the DoP Tanweer Ahmed and it would have ultimately determined the shot design, choice of lenses, among other things. Another major challenge evidentially would have been to prepare these young newcomers for their respective parts. Govind decided pretty early to not overwhelm the kids with too much of information and mostly he followed a need-to-know approach. So, for the kids it was a constant guessing game. For example: Why are they in a police station? Has someone died? What has happened?

With rapid urbanization, children are fast losing access to open spaces where they can play. While the rich kids can still access the different facilities needed, those who are not as privileged are totally deprived of it. And yet there isn’t any discourse happening around this critical issue. If nothing is done right now then one can only imagine how bad the situation would be in a decade or so. Madappally United not only directs our attention to this conundrum but also makes us aware about the role that communities can play in this. But we must start immediately.

A version of this review was first published in The Daily Guardian.

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