Weekend Reccos | Pop Culture Picks on Small Towns

Sibling scuffle in Kerala's island village, romance in the backdrop of Varanasi and Texas's sleepy town wide awake with mysteries—team NGTI handpick extraordinary tales based in ordinary towns.

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A still from Kumbalangi Nights.


Angamaly Diaries (2017)

Lijo Jose Pellissery’s slice-of-life drama, set in Angamaly—symbolising the raw, thumping energy of untouristed Kerala—takes you everywhere from the grubby underbelly of the small town to noisy church festivals that (almost) colour over the squalor of its characters’ daily existence. Young and not one to grow up anytime soon, Vincent Pepe’s life is mired in wayward ambitions and chance occurrences, gang violence and rookie romances. Amid youthful recklessness, friendships, and many a sizzling pot of pork and kappa (tapioca), Pepe’s character, and a host of other ordinary ones, make their way to an extraordinary end.

– Sohini Das Gupta


Kumbalangi Nights (2019)

A little beyond Kochi lies the quiet, unassuming village of Kumbalangi, which draws tourists in for a taste of raw, Keralan life. The 2019 Malayalam drama is set in the eponymous island, peppered with Chinese fishing nets and mangrove forests. The plot revolves around the love-hate sibling relationship shared between four brothers who constantly look for an excuse to get into a brawl, and live in a house by the shore, which is perhaps the “worst in the panchayat.” The two-hour watch offers loads of comedic elements, budding romance, and sinister twists, so hold onto your mundu and enjoy the freewheeling flair the performers lend to this depiction of small town life.

– Pooja Naik


I Vitelloni (1953)

This early Fellini classic focuses on perpetual adolescence in a tiny town hunched on the Adriatic, based on the director’s hometown Rimini. This might be the most personal movie Fellini ever made, the camera following a troupe of 5 longtime friends stuck in the awkward limbo between youth and middle age: terrified of responsibility and desperate for cheap thrills. Whatever sardonic juice that is not extracted from the camera is captured by the wry narration: “In the next few months, the most important things that happened were that Riccardo grew a mustache and Alberto grew sideburns, while Fausto shaved his mustache off.”

– Julian Manning


Lone Star (1996)

Eight miles outside of El Paso lies Frontera, Texas, a sleepy town wide awake with mystery. The decades-old skeleton of a past sheriff has just been dug up, and the current sheriff tasked with investigating the case is faced with a long suspect list, including his own father. Director John Sayles breaks the mould with this film, offering an apt depiction of the ethnic diversity common in Texas border towns, political agendas, and some of the best damn dialogue you’ll ever hear. While the town is small, the drama is as big as the state of Texas.

– Julian Manning


Masaan (2015)

Neeraj Ghaywan’s debut film is a hauntingly beautiful tale of star-crossed lovers. Tackling the stigma of pre-marital sex and inter-caste relationships, the narrative weaves in and out of Varanasi, making the town an essential plot point to the film. It offers a portrait of the city from those lighting funeral pyres on the famed ghats, folks betting on kids diving into the Ganga to collect coins, and middle-class families battling societal pressures. Written by Varun Grover, a writer and lyricist who studied in Varanasi, the movie’s poignant details, whether it’s lunch at a riverside café or red balloons at a local fair, add authentic colour to the narrative. And, the soundtrack is by the Indian fusion-rock band Indian Ocean. Win-win, all around.

– Lubna Amir


Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015)

In this romantic comedy set in Haridwar, director’s darling Ayushman Khurrana epitomises the role of a small-town boy, running his family business (a CD shop), and searching for a good-looking girl to marry. Against the backdrop of the Ganges, the film delves into a relationship fuelled by family pressure, between a well-educated girl—with the societal strike of not having the perfect body—and a good-looking groom who hasn’t completed his schooling. The plots brings out the nuances of Indian society’s traditional views on marriage and looks, while exploring the marrow of small-town life through searching scenes: a wedding present of an air conditioner in the newlywed couple’s bedroom, narrow, chaotic streets lined with open-courtyard houses, rooftop conversations, and rides on a scooter.

– Lubna Amir



Day’s End Stories: Life After Sundown in Small-Town India (2014)

The idea of small towns and nightlife feels incongruous—and it is a blinkered idea—which is why this anthology is such a striking reminder of the colourful subcultures of these spaces. The 10 essays in this book chronicle nocturnal wanderings in India’s small towns. Amitava Kumar writes about the cultural cocoons of Bettiah and Patna; Vinod K. Jose remembers feeling how “surely, life had to change” when a four-day Kurosawa festival came to Mananthavady. The writers question how social norms inform our night-time jaunts, how politics colours them, and why the idea of ‘nightlife’ is confined to the metropolis. The result is an illuminating volume of stories, diverse like the towns they map in the dark.

Kareena Gianani

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