Muhsin Parari isn’t particularly enthusiastic about giving interviews. But then I discover that once he agrees (albeit reluctantly), there isn’t a better, more sorted conversationalist than this 30-year-old writer-director who after a highly underrated directorial debut called KL10 Pathu also co-wrote last year’s surprise hit Sudani from Nigeria, directed by Zakariya. There isn’t a wide margin between the man and the writer, it’s all there, the humour, politics, compassion, simplicity and the ability to brutally self-analyse and critique his work. Here are excerpts from a long conversation, as he gears up for his next project, Aashiq Abu’s multi-starrer, Virus.
I watched your short film Terrikiddo, and hip-hop videos, Native Baapa and Funeral of Native Son. Thematically it was about resistance, anti-terrorism, a statement against Muslim stereotyping. Was it that cinema came much later, as a tool to convey your politics?
I don’t know about that. I think all these three had form and aesthetics and can’t be kept apart. When I conceived Native Baapa, the content (within the realms of pop-culture) was as exciting as the writing and conceptualisation. That narrative was not experimented with before. I don’t think anyone thought of using Mamukkoya’s voice in a hip-hop number. Cinema is my passion and I am a politically conscious person and naturally, those elements will be a part when I make a film. I would say I am someone who makes films that are politically conscious. I think Jean-Luc Godard said it correctly—”The problem is not to make political films, but to make films politically.”
Zakariya (director and co-writer of Sudani From Nigeria) said his interest in cinema was triggered by home videos. Was it the same with you?
Not really. I used to watch films a lot. We were a group of friends (cinema, social work, and politics were the binder) who in our early adolescence were part of film societies and were inclined towards Iranian films. I watched all kinds of cinema—from Colours of Paradise to Swapnakoodu. After watching Zakariya’s short film, I wanted to meet him and show him a script to make my short film and that resulted in Terrikiddo. Made on a budget of Rs.20,000, it was shot at home, with most of my uncles and aunts playing characters, retaining their real names. Just that the events were a lie. It was fun. I think it had form, despite how technically amateurish it looked.
Was it a struggle, the journey that led to KL10 Pathu, your debut feature film?
Aashiq Abu had called me after watching Native Baapa and asked me to write for one of the segments of 5 Sundarikal. But I ended up assisting him in Gauri. My association with Abu helped me familiarise myself with the film industry. I wrote the script in 2014 and within two months, I was able to start the project. So, I can’t really call it a struggle.
Would it be correct to call the film a sum of everything that influenced your life?
Yes. It was placed in a milieu that wasn’t there in the location map of mainstream cinema. Unlike Sudani From Nigeria, KL10 Pathu didn’t have an intense, emotional story to communicate. Having said that, it did justice to the tagline we used— “Mazha Mayayudey Paryayamanu” which questioned the inclusiveness of the mainstream Malayalam cinema. Also, KL10 Pathu was the first movie in which a Muslim girl in Hijab was depicted unapologetically. In fact, both KL10 Pathu and Sudani from Nigeria are both milieus where I come from but then it’s also ironic that in Sudani from Nigeria, the goodness of Malappuram got legitimized only when we added a glorifying humanitarian narrative into it. It doesn’t simply come from showing motifs like mutton biryani, voting for Muslim league, offering Namaz or wearing lungis over your favourite football shorts. That validation will come only by helping a “grieving immigrant from Africa.”
Did you think it didn’t get the audience it deserved?
On the contrary, I think it connected to the audience it was intended for. You can’t blame those who didn’t like it. Those who loved the film, passionately loves it still. I see people fighting on social media film groups over the film and even tagging me, pulling me into this fight. I am even asked whether I pay them for this (laughs).
KL10 Pathu was the first movie in which a Muslim girl in Hijab was depicted unapologetically. In fact, both KL10 Pathu and Sudani from Nigeria are both milieus where I come from but then it’s also ironic that in Sudani from Nigeria, the goodness of Malappuram got legitimized only when we added a glorifying humanitarian narrative into it
Why didn’t you do a film after that?
I did try and approached stars but somehow nothing fell in place. I was also confused about the kind of films I wanted to do. Sameer Thahir was supposed to produce a film of mine and that’s when I heard Zakariya’s script. I took Zakariya to Samirkka and it all began.
How was the writing process with Zakariya?
The first draft of 30 pages, which Zakariya wrote, worked as a script. Based on that we did the screenwriting. We sat together, wrote, rewrote and improvised—and it came up to 19 drafts. It was a consistent and laborious process. Since we came from the same background, we agreed on most things. Sudani from Nigeria title was flicked from my KL10 Pathu. When you give it that name, you are also giving a form to the film—between a weepy mushy tale and something more cheerful as Sudani from Nigeria.
What was the most challenging part to write?
To make it light-hearted. Look at the story on paper—his parents get killed in a civil war. Dark. He is here to play for his family’s subsistence. Darker. And now he is stuck here with a broken leg. Even darker. Humour has no part in it. But we wanted the audience to see the little emotional bits with a smile. That was the biggest challenge in screenwriting—the whole trip, as they say.
Is there a favourite scene?
The scene where Samuel is narrating his story to Majeed, was the one we worked on the last. The conversation begins with the father connection, Samuel starts his story and Majeed is still recovering from a bad match. When we were writing in broken English, the fun is there but when Samuel talks about his parents dying in civil war, we were wondering about Majeed’s reaction. And then he says— “Ethu? Yudhathintey Waro? And the tension immediately diffuses. We felt that Majeed, given his character sketch, will ask that question. And that scene at ICU when we crafted it around a football commentary. Not only does it add value to Samuel, there is also a dichotomy in it.
Look at the story on paper—his parents get killed in a civil war. Dark. He is here to play for his family’s subsistence. Darker. And now he is stuck here with a broken leg. Even darker. Humour has no part in it.
The lines for Majeed resonated with Soubin’s style of intonation as well…
Soubin just needed one narration. Besides being an amazing actor, he is also a director and that helps. When we write the dialogue, we hear the dialogues too in the correct modulation and Soubin delivered it exactly that way in the first take. We were fastidious about the actors modulating only what we wrote. We had this obsession with our words. I remember when we worked in Virus, it was more flexible, and actors had more liberty and Soubin who was used to my style, used to say that “Muhsin won’t let me improvise with the dialogues.” But then in a scene, Soubin had to speak gibberish and I had already written the exact gibberish on paper. And funnily we insisted that he doesn’t improvise on that gibberish.
In Virus, you are collaborating with three writers…
I wasn’t confident about doing Virus alone. It’s that kind of a subject, it needed more writers.
And collaborating with Aashiq Abu?
He gives a lot of freedom to writers, to an extent that when the writer gets carried away, he lets them. But what we don’t realise is that he has everything under control. We are within his vision. His method is interesting, especially the way he briefs writers and actors. We know exactly what he wants. The script demanded a multi-star cast, but each actor’s star value didn’t play in our minds when we wrote the film.
Which is your favourite Aashiq Abu film?
Salt N Pepper and Idukki Gold, though the ending didn’t work for me. I enjoyed Da Thadiya as well.
Everything except Gangster, maybe?
Gangster is a film I watched in the theatre twice. First, I wanted to get the high of watching a Mammootty-Aashiq Abu combination but didn’t get anything. Then I watched it again to see what didn’t work and why it turned out the way it was.
What ails the Muslim representation in Malayalam cinema?
We keep joking between friends about starting a production house called Concrete Cutters—”Ella vaarppu mathrikakalum Ivide polichu kodukkapedum.” We all love spontaneity but when we see Muslim imagery in cinema, that spontaneity seems to have gotten a jolt. Even when we make a film, the immediate response is – “Your Muslim film is good, man.” There is a patronising note in that compliment. There are many reasons for that distortion 1) a deliberate attempt to distort it 2) the thought that there is no need to be literate about it. It’s sanctioned ignorance.
What are these stereotypical images that rankle you?
The lack of options for instance. A heroine who portrays a Muslim character wears a burkha, jumps over walls and sings rock music for liberation, or when she goes out for work, the family runs behind her and hands her a hijab. There is no attempt to go deep into their culture, thinking or aesthetics. They would rather fall back on these stereotypes any day. It’s lazy and irresponsible writing. And Muslims are a very monolithic community according to their perception. Let me make it simpler—it’s like telling the blacks, you finally got a Black Panther, so be grateful.
“Your Muslim film is good, man.” There is a patronising note in that compliment. There are many reasons for that distortion 1) a deliberate attempt to distort it 2) the thought that there is no need to be literate about it. It’s sanctioned ignorance.
Do you read a lot of books?
I pretend to read a lot, yes (laughs). Same with music. But political readings are something I do earnestly as I feel since I am doing cinema, there needs to be more clarity and responsibility with representations.
Were you completely happy with the politics shown in Sudani from Nigeria?
I realised that probably the way Africa was perceived in the film was wrong. Though we tried hard not to place a white saviour. And passing Ghana as Nigeria was more to show its happy living and we didn’t want to transform it into African poverty porn. But eventually, we also show Africa as publicly alleged as a land infested with civil war and water scarcity, though we have tried to dilute it. We shot at real Liberian camps and some of the refugees are playing in Kerala. So, we were not lying. The issue is when we repeatedly put that image. How Africans see this film is another question altogether.
Political correctness in a film is as important to you as the film itself it seems…
Yes, it’s something we discuss ruthlessly and often chuck the idea itself if it sounds politically incorrect. In Sudani from Nigeria, Beeyumma says on meeting Sudani—”Chiriyokkey kaanan nalla shellannu” after we okayed it, we realised it seems to say the smile is the only thing good about him. We later altered it to “Chiri kaanan nalla thanu.” One can argue that Beeyumma is a not a worldly-wise woman but then she is also portrayed as a picture of compassion and kindness and so whatever she says will be counted. I don’t think it’s enough to make a cinema realistic. There are far more responsibilities that come with it.
There was a review about Sudani from Nigeria which talked about projecting African poverty porn the way we dreaded. But then it came because somebody has felt it. You can’t deny it.
Are you fine with the multiple readings (both good and bad) of a film on social media?
My friends and I used to criticise films a lot earlier. Now we are in that space. I like to read only criticisms and not glorification of my film. There was a review about Sudani from Nigeria which talked about projecting African poverty porn the way we dreaded. But then it came because somebody has felt it. You can’t deny it. Though we tried to stop it (laugh). But then we might have had to change Samuel or even the story. Whether we should have changed the story is an ethical question.
Now a lot of old clichés and stereotypical representations are being subverted in cinema. Which is the most exciting change according to you?
I am not that optimistic a person and don’t think so many changes have happened. I think we have just scratched the surface. We are still in the nascent stage. That young filmmakers have started to listen to criticisms more seriously is a promising change. Political criticism is taken more seriously, discussions are on. We are people with a lot of ethnic pride, that prompts us to celebrate mediocrity at times and then claim all the issues rampant in cinema have been sorted out.
Look at the recent Indo-Pak conflict and how many people changed their Facebook DP’s and are baying for war. And these are the same people who watched Sudani from Nigeria and declared that love has no borders and boundaries!
In fact, this celebration of mediocrity has often been a point of discussion on social media platforms…
It’s very trendy in Kerala. The reality is that we are all Shammi (Fahadh’s character in Kumbalangi Nights) in one way or the other. At one point we were scared at the thought that probably people loved Sudani from Nigeria because of their superficial attitude towards compassion. Malayalees have this tendency to be patrons, apart from being casteist and chauvinistic. Today cinema is fashionable, politics is fashionable as with saying “I am a feminist.” Look at the recent Indo-Pak conflict and how many people changed their Facebook DP’s and are baying for war. And these are the same people who watched Sudani from Nigeria and declared that love has no borders and boundaries! So, why are you calling for war? Just because we made a film like SFN, no one is going to say good things about Malappuram or its Muslims. We are being delusional. Kaam abhi bhi baaki hain! (there’s so much left to do).