Inside Kerala’s goal mine: A new documentary tracks the state’s football frenzy
An academy funded by the church, an octogenarian who still coaches, a man who rides 200km to watch local games — Misha Kumar’s Malayalam film focuses on the people in the stands, on the pitches, behind the commentators’ mics.
There are priests, long scooter rides, and golden beaches in Kerala’s newest football documentary, Maitanam (Malayalam for playground). It’s maker, Misha Kumar, 43, admits he isn’t one of the state’s many football maniacs. Perhaps because of that, the 40-minute film offers engaging stories for the fan and non-fan alike.
A few minutes in, for instance, celebrated commentator Shaiju Damodaran talks about a friend who routinely travels 200km from Palakkad to Kochi on a scooter to watch local teams play. He tells the tale with a sense of wonder; even he can’t seem to wrap his head around that kind of passion.
Maitanam is Kumar’s first film; he’d previously worked as a producer with TV sports channels. When he was approached by sports, lifestyle and entertainment company, Rise Worldwide, he decided to explore the craze and the people that drive it, rather than revisit legends of the top teams, scores and players. After all, this is a craze so intense that the Kerala state government’s sports department observed two days of mourning when the Argentinian legend Diego Maradona died in 2020. “I wanted to tell human stories of how this sport has influenced lives,” Kumar said.
The film, shot in December 2021, does this through six stories. It takes viewers to Pozhiyoor, a fishing village near Thiruvananthapuram that has produced more than 25 Santosh Trophy players since 2009 and is now known as Santosh Trophy Village. (The Santosh Trophy is one of India’s top domestic football tournaments).
We meet the fast-rising women’s football team Gokulam Kerala, launched in 2018 and two-time national champions already. This success has encouraged a lot more girls to take up the sport, Ashok Kumar, CEO of Gokulam Kerala, says in the film. “Football wasn’t really considered a women’s game earlier... Now, during selections, the whole family comes along with their daughter.”
We are introduced to priests who support and encourage football and use it to try and curb dropout rates in coastal areas around Thiruvananthapuram. The Little Flower Football Academy (LiFFA), started by the Latin Archdiocese of Thiruvananthapuram in 2015, is India’s first church-funded football training institute.
The film offers glimpses from Sevens games, a no-holds-barred format with seven players on each side that draws huge crowds and some of the best players in the state. And we meet Rufus D’Souza, 89, who has been training footballers for 50 years.
The energy of the game becomes a tool in Kumar’s narrative. There’s the unadulterated joy of young boys practising on the beach; the near-gladiatorial atmosphere of Sevens; roaring audiences enraged by a loss.
“Football is an extremely cinema-friendly sport. Matches are exciting almost throughout their duration. It can get quite rough and the fans are famous for their passion. That makes it something that very easily lends itself to the audio-visual experience, which is different from some other sports like cricket,” Kumar said.
But perhaps the most evocative parts of the documentary are those featuring Rufus D’Souza. He’s trained players for free; seen many of his students play at the state and national levels. The octogenarian still coaches; and he still won’t sit during practice, to set an example for the young players. We see him on the playing grounds, children keenly following every word. “The energy of the man was an experience to encounter,” said Kumar.
In the film, D’Souza says he wants to die on the parade ground, still training. “This,” Kumar said, “is the kind of passion that has spread across the state.”
Maitanam is now streaming on Fifa+.