In his first film Adaminte Makan Abu (Abu, Son of Adam), 39 year-old Malayalam film-maker Salim Ahamed tells the story of attar seller Abu (Salim Kumar) and Aishumma (Zarina Wahab) and their struggle to save money to make the last journey of their life—to Mecca. The film, which won four National Awards for best actor, best cinematography, best feature film and best background score for 2010, is India’s official entry for nomination in the Best Foreign Film category for the 84th Academy Awards. We spoke to Ahamed about his journey from television scriptwriter to film director. Edited excerpts from an interview:
You worked on the script for ‘Adaminte Makan Abu’ for a decade. What were the challenges?
The story of Abu was on my mind for more than 10 years. But it took only a month to prepare the final script. I had written three basic plots in college around 15 years ago. One was based in a local school in Kerala, one was a thriller, and the third was the story of Abu. I chose Abu’s story because I wanted my first film to have a message.
Path to glory: Salim Ahamed’s debut film has won four National Awards already (RS Kumar/Mint)
The biggest challenge was to find a producer. Nobody was prepared to finance a non-commercial film like this one, so I started saving up from my television pay cheques. But that wasn’t enough. Somewhere in the middle of filming, I had to approach a friend (Ashraf Bedi), who agreed to co-produce the film.
Is the concept of Haj or the pilgrimage to Mecca something close to your heart?
I know many people who will identify with the story of Abu. When I was younger, there was a man named Abu in my village who looked and behaved a lot like my central character. But this is not his story. In my five years of working in a travel agency right after college, I met many such people who dreamt about going to Haj—it is their life’s biggest desire. The storyline reflects the thought process of a majority of people in the village I grew up in. That is my inspiration.
You chose some of the best technical talent in the Malayalam film industry for the film...
I had decided from the beginning that these would be the people I would work with in my first film. Getting the industry’s best talents to work with me was hardly a challenge because they all liked the subject.
You have struck gold with your first film. Just getting the best talent couldn’t have been enough.
I did a lot of research before I finalized the cast and crew. The film’s music is by Isaac Thomas, who has used a lot of Arabic sounds interspersed with silence, which I have used in a very powerful manner in the film. The success of the film lies in a way in the hands of the very able technical crew and the excellent actors. But in addition to that, the film leaves a warm feeling in your heart and that, I believe, is its real selling point. I have travelled a lot with the screening of the film in the past few months and I can say that audiences in India and abroad have loved it.
A still from the film
Of the many things being said about the film, one criticism is that the characters are too idealistic. Do you agree?
The characters in my film are idealistic but I wouldn’t say that people like that don’t exist; they do. The central character, Abu, is a man who is good and honest and his treatment of people begets goodness in return.
Your lead, Salim Kumar, is best known for his comedy roles. Why did you cast him?
Salim Kumar’s performance in films like Bridge—which is one of the 10 films in the Kerala Café anthology—is outstanding. He was a bit surprised being cast in the lead role himself! As for Zarina Wahab, I cast her because she has the face of a Malabar Muslim.
The Oscars involve a lot of lobbying. Are you prepared?
I have been advised by my friends from Mumbai to hire an agent to look after promotions, which I have done.
What are you working
I want to make my next film just like I made this one—with the simple aim of making a good film. I am working on two scripts: One is historical and the other is based in a village in Kerala. But I want to erase the thought of awards from my head while I’m working on them.