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.