It is 2004. A couple of Ceyloni men are discussing the merits of certain good luck charms, and the prospects of forming a better life elsewhere. The conversation is robust, a little vulgar, and very easy going. Needless to say, we like these two men immediately. Soon thereafter, we get glimpses into their very very poor home lives – the money problems, the obligations. We are introduced to the sister of one of the men, who is contemplating a three year tour as a middle easterner’s maid to make some money for her husband and daughter. Everybody is suffering. The urgency to try to find the better life elsewhere has never been higher, but Stanley and Manoj (the latter who looks a bit like a Ceyloni Andy Kaufman), our heroes are thwarted by an immigration policy which desires Sri Lanka’s doctors and nurses, but not it’s weaker huddled masses. But then, while lamenting another failed attempt to get a visa to go to Europe, suddenly the heroes come upon a flyer for a handball tournament in Germany.
Thus is the setup for Italian director’s Uberto Pasolini’s Machan, shown as part of the Washington DC International Film Festival. Based on a true story, Machan is clearly intended as a foreign audience pleaser – trying to catch some of the same good fortune and word of mouth that vaulted movies such as The Full Monty, Tampopo, or Amelie international sensations. In fact, looking at the previous paragraph, if you strip away the cultural details and observations on poverty, what we have is, more or less, the setup for Dodgeball or Lagaan or any number of stories about charming plucky underdogs. If we did head down this direction, we might have had that audience pleasing classic that the filmmakers were targeting. What we are left with instead is a movie of tremendous charm with tremendously likable actors, but a film that strives for too many emotional notes, and is thus more uneven than it needed to be.
What do we mean by “too many emotional notes”? Well, for instance, neither Manoj nor Stanley know the first thing about team handball. So their quest to recruit teammates, find uniforms, come up with a team name, all play as human comedy. The team varies very very widely in age, height … and contain all the usual “types” you see in virtually any sports movie. In these scenes, we see the cheeky Full Monty sort of charm – it is funny stuff. However, juxtaposed with these scenes, we also see their home lives, and the very real stakes that they are playing for. We meet Suresh, Stanley’s brother in law (whose wife is the one looking into becoming a maid) who works in a hotel, and when we see how he reacts to his co-worker being replaced as a bathroom attendant by a hot air dryer, it is hard to watch. The flow between the two tones in uneasy – they almost seem like two different movies. Another example is the sequence where Manoj makes a key decision about the Germany trip.
Overall, this is a good, but uneven film. If it chose to stick with a cheekier tone (reminiscent of the comic scenes), Machan might have been a great audience entertainment. As is, it is entertaining with good performances and a deep knowledge of Sri Lanka. It was just too weighted down to fly.