07 Mar 2018 - 20:13
Aashiq Abu on his films, social media, politics, upcoming projects and Mayaanadhi
By AP Muhammed Afsal / The Peninsula
Eight years and Eight-films old, Malayalam language filmmaker Aashiq Abu is at his peak. He has never failed to entertain. His latest, Mayaanadhi, makes a clear departure from the oeuvre of his feel-good movies. Still, the movie is running almost to packed houses, that too with critical acclaim.
He was recently in Qatar, to attend the inauguration of GCC-wide release of the film. The Peninsula spoke to Aashiq at Music Lounge, Al Wakrah, an institute run by Santhosh T. Kuruvilla, the co- producer of his many films.
Except for the debut Daddy Cool (2009), and Gangster (2014) his films have largely been devoid of super stars. Was it a conscious decision or is he just confident that he has an audience of his own?
“It was not a conscious decision and I'm not against superstars. For me, casting very much depends on the subjects. Sometimes stars may not be able to comprehend the subjects. They would loom larger than cinema and as a consequence the expectation will grow. Luckily, I have had an audience beyond stars, though not big, from the beginning.”
Among the directors in Mollywood, as the Malayalam film industry is called, he’s arguably the most active on social media. It’s almost impossible for major events in Kerala to happen without Aashiq saying something about it. His comments drew love and hate.
“I started using social media during the release of Salt N’ Pepper. I didn’t have money to print posters. Earlier, the public relation thing in the industry was very undemocratic. Internet threw out middle men between movies and audience. In fact, Facebook filled cinemas for Salt N’ Pepper. In spite of its no-show in three districts, it became a success.”
Did he get ideas from the social media? Did it change his convictions? “See, it ’s a platform only. We get live information from around the world which we earlier got from next days’ paper. It’s more democratic, transparent and liberal than any of the traditional media.” He confirms the talks that he’s the first person to thank social media in credits. “Yes, I thanked Facebook in Salt N’ Pepper credits.”
Is he a compulsive social media user? “Yes, I’m on Facebook and Instagram. I’m on twitter, but not very active. We immediately tend to trust social media. We never think of authenticity of the things being shared. Damages happen. But no lie won’t survive long in social media. The problem is we are just getting used to it. Over time, we’ll learn how to use it responsibly.
South Indian film director Ashiq Abu (second right), with his wife and actress Rima Kallingal (second left), film producer Santhosh T Kuruvilla (left), and playback singer and composer Shahbaz Aman, pose for a picture at the Music Lounge in Al Wakrah. Picture by: Salim Matramkot
A keen watcher of politics, once a student activist himself, he’s more vocal and forthcoming about his political orientation. Of course not very rare in Indian cinema, but in the industry of Malayalam movies, people hide their ideology. Tongue-slips, leaked audios and impulsive tweets indeed happen. But they are retracted and appeals for penance issued in no time.
In Mayaanadhi and in Gangster he takes up the issue of state violence, committed in the form of ‘encounters,’ as extra-judicial killings are code-named in India. “Yes, I discussed the issue in both the movies. In Mayaanadhi the state intervention over love is more deeper.”
Being political doesn’t make you always politically correct. Some of his portrayals have drawn wide criticism; one was the character of an ‘adivasi moopan’ in Salt N’ pepper, his second film. The idle, old, tribal man’s mere presence created laughter in cinemas. Critics saw racism not only in directors’ treatment of the character but its acceptance in the audience. At a time when the Government of Kerala moved a proposal to start a tribal museum in Kozhikode and the opposition against it from the indigenous communities against what they call ‘museumisation’, people did indeed remember the adivasi moopan. “I didn’t intend to do a caricature. It shouldn’t have happened. We'll try not to repeat the mistake,” he says.
Still worse is the criticism against his visualisation of some scenes in 22 Female Kottayam (2012), which is a story of a rose-tinted village girl accidentally becoming a femme fatale. In revenge, she penectomises her tormentor who was also an ex-lover. “See, cinema is an open-source text. You can read whichever way. As I said I wouldn't have done the 22 FK this way if I’m doing it now.
Ever a capturer of trends, he or his writers always stuns the audience. For example, in Mayaanadhi, the female protagonist picks alfahm and khubs after the party she attended ran out of food. Though restaurants that serve the Arabic-food are very common in Kerala’s urban centres, their presence in Malayalam movies is rare. But the movie relishes them:
The growing influence that money has on love and trust; senior student’s’ having to canvass fresh students to the ‘self-financing colleges’ run by education cabals in order to repay their own debt; emergence and proliferation of jobs such as event-anchoring and its invasion into extreme personal gatherings; predicament of young, dropout women with unsteady jobs forced to carry the burden of up-keeping the financially wreck families, and the rise of a new-women who know when to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to sexual advances; commodity fetishism in things such as bathtub and a wardrobe like a ‘duty-free’ shop, the textures galore. The final discussion between the unscrupulous policemen about love and trust tops the profundity of the movie.
A year or two ago, Ashiq announced a film titled Oppana, having inspired from a viral YouTube video, Maheethe penpillare kandikka, (did you see girls from Mahe?). But the project got shelved. “A lot of projects stop after first half. We registered the title with us. Things just don’t workout at times,” he says.
“We didn’t call them new generation. The term was invented by journalists working for film magazines. For us it signifies the digital conversion of the industry. It is a low-cost, digitised, democratic, liberal way of making films without big stars. In a way all films are new-generation, because it addresses a new audience.”
Aashiq Abu is a generous commentator on the question of film industry, especially the ‘new-generation’ movies. So entrenched is his name with the Malayalam film movement that kicked off in 2011 with Traffic (a 2011 film by Rajesh Pillai). A Wikipedia page on the subject lists Salt N’ Pepper next after City of God (2011, by Lijo Jose Pellissery) in the third place. His films carry most of the hallmarks associated with the movement. However, he’s dismissive about it. “We didn’t call them new generation. The term was invented by journalists working for film magazines. For us it signifies the digital conversion of the industry. It is a low-cost, digitised, democratic, liberal way of making films without big stars. In a way all films are new-generation, because it addresses a new audience.”
Like many masters before him, he frequently collaborates with same screenwriters, Syam Pushkaran and Dileesh Nair. “They are friends and it’s easy to work with them,” he says.
During his student days, he was active worker of Students Federation of India, a student wing of CPI-M, India’s leading Marxist party which rules the state of Kerala. “What else do we have, apart from that ideology?,” he says.
He’s not without his criticism over things which are being done in Kerala. “Of course, the way party functions doesn’t satisfy me. But I would never want to say that in public. I point out things which I feel to people I know in the party.”
“Elites come to a ruling party. You can’t keep people out. My father is a former member and he argues for a cadre party. But I don’t see a scope for cadre party. How long can you maintain a cadre party anymore?” he asks.
When pointed out that in the battle against right-wing politics, an increasingly assertive Dalits taking up the cudgels against mainstream Left parties, and people like Rohith Vemula (a University of Hyderabad PhD student who committed suicide on 17 January 2016) Jignesh Mevani found the Left parties inadequate to respond deep inequalities in the country, he said, “are they (Dalit assertions) against Left movement? It’s course- correction time for Left. For those of us on the Left, it’s the only hope. Only the Left can heal. Why did people like Vemula leave? Deep discussions are required. Let's just say that the left had created an ideal place.”
Recently a women magazine in Kerala ran a cover-story of purported voyeurism faced by nursing mothers. Aashiq Abu’s FB page was conspicuously silent about it. “You are dragging me to an issue to which I don’t want to respond. Each comment would add to the publicity the magazine sought. Plenty of topics are there for us to talk. Why don’t we talk about children being bombed in Syria?”
Months before #MeToo movement triggered by Harvey Weinstein’s predatory behaviour on women in Hollywood, the people in Kerala woke up to a shocking news that a leading actress was assaulted. It turned out that a male superstar’s henchmen allegedly did the crime. When, AMMA, the actors’ body got cold feet, Aashiq Abu blasted at the industry establishment. “No one deserves our support, but the victim.”
Things can’t be otherwise for a filmmaker who always cared to create strong female characters. Even in his superstar films, you’ll find them. Where do they come from? “It’s from real life. I didn't have to invent them. I came across many such women in Maharajas College, and in protests. So I didn't have confusion,” he says.
He’s attuned to the changing sensibilities and sensitivities. Subjects dealing with Dalits and Transgender people can be expected, he said in response to a specific question. “I may make films without politics, but I’ll never make a politically wrong film. Lot of thinking, corrections are involved in my films, because films are going to be ever-living documents.”
Like many in ‘new generation’ he avoids rural settings. Ever since Malayalam films got out of studios and embraced outdoor shootings, some places in central Kerala such as Ottappalam and Shoranur have been go-to places with their lush-green locale. In contrast, Kochi has been the backdrop of Aashiq’s films. Of late, he says he tries to avoid Kochi. “I grew up in the city and so it was easy for me to find locations. In Mayaanadhi I tried to avoid locations which are frequently shot.”
Asked a comment on Rajeev Ravi, who has also made poignant movies on tragic love and state violence, he said, “Rajeev is senior to me and more political.”
He agrees with the suggestion that Salt N’ Pepper was influenced by many films. “Many films inspired us. Caramel (a 2007 Lebanese film with Arabic title Sekkar banat) and Julie & Julia (a 2009 American comedy-drama film by Nora Ephron). See, it was the first movie in Malayalam in that genre,” he says.
In Da Thadiya (2012), he discusses body-shaming and the so-called slimming industry. The protagonist Luke John Prakash is, sartorially visualised in such a way that he appears to come from Congress or its offshoots. The antagonist Dasan, played by Jayaraj Warrier has the shades of a CPI-M activist. “What do you think about it”, he returns the question. “I’m leaving it to the imagination of viewers. Of course, he’s a Left politician. But the story is more about a political family with legacy, but it has to cope up with the reality of an obese successor.”
He says his next directorial projects are yet to be announced. “We are producing Soubin Shahir’s next film," As for his production venture, Aashiq says, from the beginning of Daddy Cool he has been overseeing the production. “So we built a production house of our own. Then came Santhosh T Kuruvilla. Among the films, only Gangster made a loss, a negligible loss.”