The English language title of the oneiric Indian drama “Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam” is “Like an Afternoon Dream,” a poetic substitution for the more literal translation of the original Malayalam, “A Mid-Day Slumber.” Writer/director Lijo Jose Pellissery injects a ghost story into a captivating series of slice-of-life vignettes, presented in static long takes with vivid mise en scène and detailed sound design.
Pellissery (“Jallikattu,” “Angamaly Diaries”) is not, however, overly preoccupied with the sort of dramatic stakes or narrative logic that might neatly explain the identity crisis that sends the Malayalam-speaking James (star/producer Mammootty) into a Tamil Nadu village, speaking Tamil and acting like he’s lived there for years. Instead, “Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam” entices viewers with sunny exurban tableaux vivant, brimming with pastoral splendor and lightly worn melancholy. With this surreal and enchanting love letter to Tamil Nadu’s residents and cinema, Pellissery celebrates the manifold pleasures of chasing after a half-remembered dream.
James’ story begins at a road-side motel. He and a busload of fellow tourists are waiting on their friends and extended family members to pile into the bus to Kerala. James bangs on doors and grumbles, mostly to himself, about how everybody else really needs to get going. An early morning haze presides over these establishing scenes. Ambient noise—twittering birds, sputtering motor engines, and the soft hiss of radio banter—compliments Theni Eswar’s finely drawn panoramic cinematography, which either sweeps viewers across the screen or deeper into the frame.
The bus heads out once everyone climbs aboard. James crosses his arm and scowls as the others settle into their seats. They watch the TV monitor that’s perched above the driver’s seat and fall asleep as the bus squeezes by oncoming traffic. A few members of James’ company are hungover and they’re all exhausted. These tourists fall asleep without much dramatic incident, though there are some teasing hints of what’s to come, like a hard, lingering cut to black as the bus doors close and James shouts: “Drive slowly, okay? Around here, people come at you and hit you head-on!”
At some point, James asks the driver to pull over. He disembarks and wanders into a nearby village, singing to himself and soon rummaging through a startled family’s kitchen. James, who now identifies himself as Sundaram, tells Poovally (Ramya Pandian), the lady of the house, that she should have let him know that they’re running low on groceries. He practically dances out of the open doorway as everybody in the house wonders what just happened. James then jolts everybody awake by stealing a motor-scooter and lazily circling around the village, drinking tea and singing with confused residents.
James seems to know everybody by name, though it’s unclear if he actually knows what he’s talking about. Many testy locals also wonder aloud: who is this whimsical outsider and why has he been allowed to interrupt everyone’s daily routine? Two groups try to rein James in, one from the tourist bus and another from Poovally’s home, but nobody knows what’s going on. A chorus of Tamil language movie music provides some commentary, including snippets of “Veedu Varai Uravu,” from the tragic 1962 Tamil language romance “Paadha Kaanikkai”—“Who would see you off unto eternity?”—and “Mayakkama Kalakkama,” from the Tamil drama “Sumaithaangi,” also from 1962: “Is it a dream or is my mind in a slush?” Pellissery also sometimes challenges James’s sanity, like when Mammootty’s character tries to sell milk to a concerned neighbor, and the real milkman quietly muscles past him, entering the frame from off-camera and then disappearing over Mammootty’s shoulder.
Meanwhile, a short story quietly unfolds in the background of James’ aimless quest, and it involves Poovally and Sundaram’s brother (Namo Narayana), whom Poovally is now promised to marry. James’ family members also ask each other if maybe he’s ill, and if so, has this sort of thing ever happened before? There are no clear answers to these dangling questions. Instead, we follow James as he waltzes through strangers’ lives, cheerfully cutting in between mid-day siestas and late morning labor disputes (“How is that my problem?!”). His presence reflects more than it explains about ghosts, gods, movies, songs, and other loved ones.
“Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam” feels like a deep and abidingly strange trip to Pellissery’s memory palace. It’s a pleasure to watch such a poised and formally ambitious filmmaker simultaneously recall other formative modernists—Federico Fellini and Tsai Ming-liang both came to mind—while also reveling in the sensuous details that ground his work in culturally specific touchstones. Here, Pellissery confirms his prominence among a new wave of Malayalam-speaking Indian filmmakers, some of whom are now riding a creative peak. Who knows how long this moment will last? If we’re lucky, it might be a little while longer.
On Neflix now.