A decade after the release of the National Award-winning film that was also India’s Oscar entry of 2011, director Salim Ahamed talks about his journey of helming the film and taking it to LA
With his debut directorial, Salim Ahamed pulled off what few have managed in the world. Though the Malayali filmmaker had grown up watching world cinema, he admits not even in his wildest dreams did he think that his movie Adaminte Makan Abu would win the National Award for the Best Film in 2011, much less be chosen as India’s Oscar entry for the Best Foreign Film award category. The past decade has been a rollercoaster ride for the director, who even dramatically encapsulated his struggles and joy of making the film, winning the National Award and taking it to Los Angeles for the Oscars in the Tovino Thomas-starrer And The Oscar Goes To (ATOGT).
As Adaminte Makan Abu completes 10 years since its release on June 24, the filmmaker recaps his journey and tells us why it will always be a milestone film in his career.
You have done three films after Adaminte Makan Abu, but was the first film the toughest to make?
Definitely. Adaminte Makan Abu gave me the credentials to make my subsequent films. Up till then, nobody knew me and I didn’t have any experience working in the film industry. So, all the cast and crew personnel had to trust me and on top of that I was facing financial difficulties to complete the movie. I haven’t faced as many challenges in making my other films as I did with Adaminte Makan Abu. When this film worked out, everything else became easier.
Did you always plan to make your debut with Adaminte Makan Abu or did the financial restraints force you to take up such a movie?
It was always this film. I wanted to make a movie that had the same pattern as some of the films in world cinema that had appealed to me. Including Adaminte Makan Abu, I have done only four movies in the last 11 years. The reason for the big gap between the movies is that when I get a subject, I ask myself if it is relevant. I go ahead with a film only when I get a convincing answer. Every filmmaker’s work is essentially his answer to why he is doing the film. There are so many factors we consider, including coming up with an untold story every time, before arriving at a script.
A lot of how Adaminte Makan Abu was conceived was told in ATOGT. But didn’t Adaminte Makan Abu have a lot of incidents that you had experienced while working as a travel agent decades ago?
I had only used the caricature of Abu from the real person; their stories are different. Yes, the seed of the story idea originated while I was working in a travel agency. I used to handle Haj passengers and back then, people used to travel from Kozhikode to Mumbai, stay for a day there and then catch the Jeddah flight. I used to work for a domestic airline. The people heading for Jeddah used to stand in the queue at the airport, holding their air tickets; their mindset was that if they died the next second, they would be happy. I got the thread of the story after seeing the face of somebody with that countenance.
What led to casting Salim Kumar for the lead role?
Whom to cast for the role was a huge question. I had a lot of artistes in mind but I hadn’t approached anyone apart from Salim Kumar for this film. If you notice, Abu is almost the fusion of his characters in Anwar Rasheed’s segment Bridge in Kerala Café anthology and Perumazhakalam. You would see the same helplessness in both Abu’s face and that of the character he played in Bridge. After the casting, it was entirely his effort to fit perfectly into the skin of the character.
But did you ever think that the movie would go on to be India’s Oscar entry that year?
Never. Apart from doing a good film, I had no other expectations. We sent the film’s print for the National Award because many had speculated that Salim Kumar had a good chance to win. There were also incidents where we couldn’t get the print from the lab. So, cinematographer Madhu Ambat arranged Rs 3 lakh on the final day they were accepting films to be screened for the awards. After that was sent, we forgot about it and it wasn’t until three days before the awards announcement that we started getting calls. There were a lot of speculations and the common consensus was Salim Kumar could win. Rest is history.
I think Adaminte Makan Abu is the most-discussed Malayalam film after Shaji N Karun’s Piravi in international circles. The film was screened in 120 international film festivals. One opportunity that we missed out on though due to our lack of awareness was to premiere at these festivals. That’s why it did not feature in the competition sections.
How was the feedback from the festivals that you had attended outside India?
Two years ago, I went to Japan to screen the film at a festival there and people could still relate to the emotions of the film, irrespective of the language. I remember when I had gone to a film festival in Russia and after watching the movie, an elder lady had sent me honey to the hotel I was staying at. It’s a sign of respect there. The movie was also dubbed in Turkish, Arabic, Malay and Persian. So, Adaminte Makan Abu reached regions where commonly Malayalam movies don’t and people still enquire about it.
The movie was also made at a time when Malayalam stories didn’t find space for elder characters.
It released in a year that ushered in a new wave of change in Malayalam cinema. Adaminte Makan Abu, Traffic and Salt N’ Pepper released in 2011. These movies changed the perception that only films with stars would work. It also proved that people can watch and enjoy award-winning films. It was a success in theatres as well. Apart from Chemmeen, other National Award-winning movies didn’t become box office successes.
The movie was then selected as India’s entry to the Oscars. While your journey with the film continued, did it become an uphill task?
It was our responsibility to get the film to the Academy Awards. Back then there was no support; I don’t know how it is right now. When I was making ATOGT, Vetrimaaran had gone with Visaaranai to the Oscars and told me that he was planning to make a similar movie based on his experiences. How it works there is that you make a movie with Rs 1 crore and then market it with Rs 5 crore. People still tell me that if I marketed Adaminte Makan Abu well, it would have at least made it to the final five nominees.
What were the struggles when you landed in the US with this film?
It wasn’t exactly like how I showed it in ATOGT, some of it was slightly exaggerated. After you go to Los Angeles with the film, you are assigned a PR agent and they arrange events, for which you have to invite people to make them watch your movie. We did a couple of such events. Apart from that, you had to advertise in magazines such as Variety. I had given three such ads that cost me Rs 15 lakh each.
We also had to make a list of voters of the Academy and courier them DVDs of our movie. The idea is to make them watch it. There is a distinct route through which an Oscar-nominated film must travel. A Separation, which won the award for the Best Foreign Film that year, did exactly that. They screened it in select festival circuits such as Cannes and Golden Globes, increasing the chances of Academy voters watching the film before the final voting process. We didn’t know all of this; we couldn’t screen it at Cannes because we had already released the film in Kerala theatres.
Did the rising expenditure on the movie add another cause of worry?
No. I might do another 100 films but I might not get another chance like that. More than the financial aspect, the reason I am still pursuing filmmaking is because of my passion for the art form. I don’t think about anything else.
Pathemari, which was about the plight of expatriates, is another film that was universally lauded. Did that again draw from your previous experiences?
My four uncles were based in the Gulf and the film is mostly based on their lives. After watching the film, many asked me if I was an expatriate? I have never worked in the Middle East. How I could encapsulate those experiences was by observing my uncles’ lives.
Could you tell us about your writing process? Does it involve constant discussions with your ADs?
I write alone and discuss with others only after completing the script. After scripting, I further work on it during the process of narration. With regards to Pathemari, I used to discuss with Mammukka (Mammootty) after I had written each scene. So, during the shooting, if I had changed a single dialogue, he would know and would say, ‘When you had narrated this to me, it had another line too’.
What are you busy with next?
I am now working on a script titled Praayam, which is about people and their age. It has people of different age groups as the main characters. The film talks about how the perspective of people change with age. Praayam is written for the big screen and that’s how it has to be shot as well. Filming it during the pandemic is not possible or else it would have gone on floors last year. The movie requires crowded sequences and we will also be shooting some scenes abroad. I am finalising the casting now.
Adaminte Makan Abu is currently streaming on Mubi and Amazon Prime Video.