Sudani From Nigeria impressed the critics and the audience alike, and it looks like director Zachariya Mohammed's next, Halal Love Story, is set in a heartwarming space too. In a conversation with Vishal Menon, he speaks about the making of the film, what the lockdown meant, and more. Excerpts.
Sharafudeen's character, a school teacher, is showing his students Cinema Paradiso. I have heard about Malappuram Film Society and the culture of foreign films in your previous interviews. Could you describe it for me? Is it something that starts from school?
The film society culture is high in the places I lived in. Be it villages or colleges, film societies were very much alive. They screened films and organised festivals. These film societies from small villages form groups that go to festivals such as IFFK. They come back and show films that are from various places in the world, providing us opportunities to watch them. These groups are always around us, and film societies in college have influenced me.
Could you describe your participation in a film society? At what age did you join? What kinds of films were you watching?
I have been part of several festivals and societies, directly and indirectly, like Mondash in Manjeri, one in Olanchery and Kaani in Changaramkulam. Even though I was not a core member in any of these societies, I would catch a film whenever I saw a mention in the newspapers. I would follow the discussions there. Our college had a film festival and film society, and wherever I went, if there was anything related to films, I made acquaintances and joined groups.
So, did you watch films that film societies showed, and also commercial Malayalam and Tamil films?
I watched all kinds of films.
Was there a particular festival or film that made you want to write and direct films?
I had an interest even before getting into any film society – during the theater phase in school. There were attempts to make short films, and that is how I got connected to film societies and film festivals. I developed serious interest and confidence in filmmaking after attending IFFK, watching films, and directors.
Although we can't call Halal Love Story a period film, we can make out it is set in a particular period. The soft porn wave occurred in the late 90s and early 2000s. Could you describe the changes in theatres and the way these films were watched, especially in places like Malappuram?
There was confusion among film watchers regarding the kind of films to watch, and this has happened in Kerala too. Our film is set in such a background.
So conversations like, "Our film has become haram," was a real one?
The usage of haram and halal are universal, and did not have to be related to the film alone.
I meant if there was a conflict among filmgoers. That "these films aren't good and shouldn't be watched" and "This film is a pure work of art" sort of thing?
Personally, it was not there, but, at that time, people did think of where one could get to watch a particular kind of film.
There is a scene where this person says he will chart the screenplay in eight days. Is this something you saw in your life?
This is one of the things I've observed as a filmmaker. The scene you mentioned is said by someone who's confident about guessing the budget and time (for making the film) because of his experience, just by listening to the story or premise. I see these kinds of people during filmmaking and that has helped me include it in the screenplay.
How do you feel when making a film about people and places you don't know about? Does research give you the confidence to go ahead?
As a filmmaker, there are attempts to make films about various places and people. We make films about things we like, and we also learn about the films we make.
We are in the year 2020, and many in the audience may not be aware of the phrase 'tele-film'. Has there ever been a conversation about this?
As we are making them experience cinema as a whole, I'm hoping they understand it within the film.
What was the writing process behind these characters and scenes in the film? How did the idea for this film come up?
The idea came up when I was working with Muhsin Parari in KL 10 Pathu. The thread for this film evolved during the film's discussions and developed into a screenplay.
In Sudani From Nigeria, there were several new actors who went on to become everyone's favourites…
We have introduced new actors in this film too.
In an interview with Muhsin, he spoke about Muslim representation — that in the last five to six years, there have been consistent Muslim actors and characters from North Kerala. When you were watching films, did you discuss the representation?
I'm trying to see this from the perspective of a filmmaker. We present films through the influence of films and stories from our childhood. So, from what I've understood, it's the choice of the filmmaker.
As an audience, have you ever thought that Muslim representation is less and misconstrued?
Although it exists as part of film criticism, as a filmmaker, it has not influenced or affected me.
Could you speak about some films that have portrayed North Kerala in an authentic manner?
Nothing comes to mind now…but I see it as each filmmaker's conviction, making a film according to his/her satisfaction. We see it beyond what's right and wrong, and rather as how the filmmaker approaches it.
The trailer shows the difficulties involved in making a film. Do you feel bad that this film is not going to be shown in theatres?
I see it as another possibility. It's releasing in 200 countries, covering more people, so there's an excitement about that. Watching it in theatres is definitely a different experience.
Was there any confusion about changing some edits and footage during this time?
We were able to invest a lot of time in post- production during this period. Although the lockdown has made it difficult for all of us, we approached it as an opportunity.
What additional things were you able to do?
We were able to make the editing sharper by changing the order and cutting some shots.
So, was there no confusion during this phase?
No. Since everyone's situation was the same and we were also wondering when this would end and what would happen, we concentrated on our film.