Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The Ludicrous yet Lovely 'Machan' - Released on DVD this week

Two years after charming audiences around the world, ‘Machan’, the hilarious and heart warming film about Handball and illegal immigrants, is released on DVD in Britain this week.

Based on a bizarre true story, ‘Machan’ was directed by Uberto Pasolini, the producer of The Full Monty. The story is set in 2004, when the Sri Lankan Handball Team travelled to Germany to take part in an invitational tournament, losing their first three games in spectacular fashion before vanishing into thin air. Bavarian police found a note in the team dormitory saying the ‘players’ and ‘coaching staff’ had crossed the border into France. Sri Lankan Sports Ministry officials were left scratching their heads; Handball was unheard of in Sri Lanka. Investigations later revealed that 23 hard up slum-dwellers from Colombo had invented not only a ‘National’ Handball team but a Sri Lanka Handball Federation, all in a bid to travel to Europe, abscond, and join the thousands of illegal workers on the continent.

Filmed almost entirely on location in Sri Lanka, ‘Machan’ (the Sri Lankan equivalent of ‘mate’, ‘dude’) became a darling of the film festival circuit in 2008 before being swamped – like many other gems - by the PR juggernaut behind the relatively mediocre Slumdog Millionaire.

The ‘real’ team members have never been found and Pasolini and his crew spent months in Sri Lanka researching and interviewing dozens of slum-dwellers. The men’s outlandish scheme defies belief yet symbolizes the audacity, determination and quick wit of the most marginalized of our societies.

“Once there…everything will be new…even I will be new…”
At the centre of the story is Stanley, a fruit seller who thinks up various money-making schemes doomed to failure from the start but whose eternal optimism endears him to everyone. Stanley is behind on his bills and spends his days dodging his creditors. His streetwise, fast-talking kid brother sees petty crime as an alternative to school. Stanley spends his days dreaming of going abroad, where “Everything will be new; even I’ll be new”. After discovering an advertisement for a handball tournament, Stanley enlists the help of his best friend Manoj – a waiter who tries to stay straight but is perpetually drawn astray by Stanley – to put together a team.

The duo promptly find takers aplenty within their slum; economically and socially impoverished men excluded by the mainstream, looking for one final roll of the dice; the struggling family man trying to provide two square meals for his young family, another whose only goal in life is to live up to his wife’s iniquitous expectations, the young layabout who plays Gigolo to overweight European tourists while planning for the future with his naive girlfriend; the bent cop who wants in but doesn’t want to pay, the labourer with a tragic past, and the list goes on.

The men pay little attention to practising Handball and instead spend their time coming up with hilarious methods to raise the money required for the trip. Each member had to raise more than £4000 for everything from visas to uniforms and they proceed to beg, borrow and steal. Each also had to battle the debilitating fear of failure associated with applying for visas in the Third World, where every applicant – from a brain surgeon to a student – is viewed as a potential illegal; the excitement of a new experience, the grief of parting with family and friends and the stark uncertainty of what to expect once in Germany.

An authentic feel…
The script – by Pasolini and Sri Lankan playwright Ruwanthie de Chickera – is outstanding; the characters well constructed and credible. Pasolini’s direction is impressive, vividly illustrating the hopelessness felt by the men and portraying the setting of their lives in all its teeming vibrancy, hopelessness and humanity. With The Full Monty, Pasolini used humour to shed light on a serious issue and it’s a method that he uses to excellent effect with Machan, without ever straying from his unrelenting commitment to authenticity. The performers, made up of stage and working Sri Lankan actors, are uniformly good, in particular the relatively unknown Dharmapriya Dias, who gives a nuanced performance as Stanley.

Most importantly however, Machan breaks from the conventional wisdom of portraying illegal immigrants as feeble, vulnerable or criminal even, and instead depicts them as determined, highly motivated and extremely resourceful.

An absolute gem.

- Vijitha Alles

‘Machan’ (£15.99, Rated 15) now available at all leading retailers.

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