India’s Oscar submission is a classic drama based on the devastating Kerala floods of 2018
Dir/scr: Jude Anthany Joseph. India, 2023. 126mins
The devastating Kerala floods of 2018 provide the real-life inspiration for Jude Anthany Joseph’s rousing blend of spectacle and soap opera. Sticking closely to a familiar disaster movie formula, he has created a well-executed, heart tugging crowdpleaser that became the highest grossing Malayalam film of all time on its domestic release earlier this year, and now serves as India’s Oscar submission.
All the markings of a classic Hollywood disaster movie
Joseph himself was caught up in the floods, and his film is a heartfelt tribute to the ordinary heroes who emerged as shared adversity brought communities together. He begins by providing historical context on the unprecedented floods of 1924 (also known as The Great Flood of 99, as it happened in the year 1099 ME in the Malayalam Calendar), and the damage they caused, from the loss of lives to the destruction of the Kundala Valley Railway, which was never rebuilt. Black and white images help to further ground the film. There is a suggestion that lessons were learned from the tragedy, and that the current infrastructure in Kerala means such an event could never happen again.
We are then transported to July 21, 2018 and the village of Aruvikkulam where Anoop (Tovino Thomas) awaits a work visa that will allow him to leave for Dubai. Traumatised by his experiences as a soldier, he has left the army behind. Now, he works in a street shop run by the blind Bhasi (Indrans), providing his employer with commentary on the start of the day and the arrivals at the local school.
In the early stage of the film, Joseph invests a substantial amount of screen time picking out the individuals and human interest stories that will come into sharper focus when the rains come and lives are at risk. Along the way, we are introduced to the new schoolteacher Manju (Tanvi Ram) who catches Anoop’s eye. We meet Nixon (Asif Ali) who has his heart set on a career as a model – much to the disappointment of his father Mathachan (Lal) and brother Winston (Narain) who continue the family’s fishing tradition. Gradually the cast expands to also include irrepressible tour guide Koshy (Abu Varghese) and his gung-ho Polish tourists, alongside television reporter Noora (Aparna Balamurali).
2018 has all the markings of a classic Hollywood disaster movie like Earthquake (1974) or Dante’s Peak (1997). Warnings are ignored, complacency is deep-rooted and nobody fully comprehends the impact of what is about to hit. In time, there is a pregnant woman at risk, a deadly snake at liberty, a young boy with learning difficulties trapped in a flooded building. Only a guitar-strumming nun seems absent from the roll call.
When the torrential rain arrives the film moves up a gear, becoming a spectacular tale of rising water levels, narrow escapes and heroic sacrifice. The impressive special-effects add to the authenticity and the tension as walls tumble, seas rage, trees crash and houses are swept away. Wide shots of overwhelmed communities and the constant splatter of rainfall are matched by actors who really do appear to have suffered for their art. In a strong, hard-working ensemble cast, Tovino Thomas is a stand-out as Anoop, investing him with all the charm and grinning swagger that would have made Charlton Heston or Burt Lancaster proud.
There is a more serious, sincere side to the film with Joseph incorporating real footage from the 2018 floods which is as dramatic as anything he has staged. He still cannot stop himself tugging at the heartstrings with a daring helicopter rescue and a Spartacus-style sequence when individual fishermen volunteer to spearhead a flotilla of boats as part of the rescue efforts. He constantly punches up the emotional sweep with a stirring, bombastic score from William Francis and Nobin Paul, and a regular sprinkling of tender, uplifting ballads.
2018 wears its heart on its sleeve and succeeds as tense, well-paced popular entertainment. It also carries a more subtle political agenda, critical of some of the official response to the crisis and highlighting the way in which the floods spared nobody, levelling all the inequalities between rich and poor, privileged and ordinary.
Production company: Anto Joseph Film Company, Kavya Film Company, PK Prime Production
Contact: Anto Joseph Film Company email@example.com
Producers: Venu Kunnappilly, C.K. Padma Kumar, Anto Joseph.
Cinematography: Akhil George
Production design: Mohadas
Editing: Chaman Chakko
Music: William Francis, Nobin Paul
Main cast: Tovino Thomas, Kunchacko Boban, Asif Ali, Tanvi Ram, Indrans