There are some movies that leave you elevated; some that leave you gaping at the sheer brilliance of the human psyche; some which make you cry; some where tears of laughter roll down your cheeks; some that tug at the heartstrings and leave lumps in your throat long after you have walked out of the cinema hall. There are movies which have out-of-the-world storylines, movies without a fault in their screenplay, movies with gorgeous cinematography, movies which set new standards at the box-office, movies which are masala pot-boilers. There are movies which ride on the shoulders of superstars, movies which sweep popular awards across segments, there are movies that become cults, epics, history. And once in a while, and very rarely, there comes a movie like Adaminte Makan Abu. And all of the above labels cease to matter.
To get to Abu, one has to travel only a short distance - only turn back and look at life, again. And yet in turning back, lies miles, that go deep, into the earth, into hearts, into a village set in the interiors of Kerala’s Malabar region. If the description were to match today’s travelogue style, one would call it a pristine, quiet, sleepy village. But the village is anything but sleepy – it is where plants have life, people converse with animals, where grass rustles and listens, where life throbs, not necessarily thrives, in forgotten ways, where Abu and his wife Aiysu cannot sleep for their dreams of making the holy Haj pilgrimage need to be kept alive without rest. Where Abu, after travelling long hours and without a wink of sleep, comes home to his wife, and yet cannot take a nap because the dream beckons.
Poverty without misery
The film opens with things of the everyday – a jackfruit tree, a reclining chair, prayer beads, a trunk with crushed notes, some bottles of perfume, a home in the long embrace of poverty, poverty without its accompanying misery. And after a rickety bus ride, the ageing Abu, seller of perfumes, follower of Islam, father of an unthankful son, dreamer of holy bliss, steps down and wobbles unsteadily, slowly, dripping with pathos. And never in the recent past has a movie “hero” made an entrance as powerful or grand, straight into the heart of the viewer.
In the wee hours of the morning, chants of “Allahu Akbar”, ‘God is Great’, bring alive a predominantly Muslim village. Against a telling pitch black darkness, a white mosque beams light, its minarets and windows glow in red, yellow and blue hues. In the dark, the frail, scholarly, ‘Ustaad’, the village oracle with powers of divine communion, washes himself. And through one lighted window with the typical dome, we see prayers being offered. Through that window we enter Salim Ahmed’s world – where Muslims are essentially human beings, a chatty rational tea-stall owner, a cobbler trying to sew and patch life’s little injustices or a travel agency manager who does not indulge in visa frauds or scams to live up to his typecast role. Where the world’s views on Islamophobia and Jihad are touched upon by the mere utterance of “bin Laden” and that too in a lighter vein. Though ‘Ustaad’ ascends the stairs to his room, we do not enter it. Only the chatty Hyder enters the room with a glass of tea and admiration, and later, in the film, to barge in to seek solace in the pitch of darkness.
Through such a window, we also enter the graceful Aiysumma’s home, as she gets ready to offer her morning prayers, to voice her only plea to the Almighty. Neglected by their only son, Aiysumma though is a woman with ready smiles, warm eyes and is a reservoir of strength to her husband. And like her husband, she deposits her meagre earnings in their treasure box beneath their sleepless cot.
There is this scene when Abu closes the windows against the world, to enter their private world, to open the chest of their dreams, and count their earnings of twelve years. As Abu and Aiysu straighten out folded currency notes and begin the countdown to their dream, money gets its most powerful portrayal. We have seen wads of currency notes being flashed across the eye, notes being thrown in the air, huge amounts being stacked into sacks. But this is essentially the value of currency notes, measured in the denomination of dreams it can buy.
There is another scene in which Abu and Aiysu spend the entire evening examining with utmost care their passports. They lose themselves in admiring two passport-size photographs, an anachronism in an age where endless photographs of mundane chores, besides that of exotic holidays and birthday bashes, are uploaded by the hour, and deserve the time-span of a ‘click’, extendable upto a ‘like’ or at most a ‘comment’. And also in an age when newborn babies learn quick to pose for photographs, Abu shudders at the ‘click’ of the camera.
Abu and Aiysu sell their last belongings to scrape together money to visit the Holy Land. The scene in which Aiysu bids adieu to her cattle is poignant. “I have never treated them as mere beasts,” she tells her husband, with tears welling up in her eyes. The couple go around the village bidding goodbye, asking for forgiveness of their past sins, and ready themselves for a deep-rooted dream. Will Abu and Aiysu finally manage to realise their dream? Sitting under what seems like the “tree of life” against a setting sun, even the ‘Ustaad’, who predicts to precision and who can foretell even the grievances of visitors from faraway lands, does not know.
Simple, yet profound
To help the old couple realise their dream, two villagers come forward – a Hindu and a Christian. Though this aspect is never once emphasised in the film, it is the subtlety on which the writer-director scores. And similarly, there are no monologues, no high philosophy on human values or secularism. No big deal is made of an old couple holding hands, of friendly gestures, of warm embraces. There are poignant smiles without close-ups, some warm words without background score, silent eyes that speak volumes. Just the way we know and understand, without an effort, just like what we call life.
The cintematography is lyrical, the music score rings with the sweetness of rustic jackfruits. For a story that speaks of ground realities with roots that run deep into the earth, there are no over-the-top shots, no bird’s or worm’s eye-views, there is just one humane view, which the lens faithfully portrays.
The range of characters the film presents are all with essential goodness, all who understand the language of human hearts. And every actor, even in minor roles, deserves applause for etching to perfection a creator’s vision of a simple, nearer to life world, or rather, village.
However three persons deserve nothing short of a standing ovation – director-writer Salim Ahmed, actor Salim Kumar and actress Zarina Wahab, and in that order.
Salim Kumar won the country’s top most honour for his portrayal of Abu. But what he has indeed won, he did without competition, without a jury panel, without room for debate: the heart of every single viewer. In the portrayal of a frail, powerless old man, the actor exuded utmost power. A million subtleties swim in the eyes of Abu – innocence untarnished by age, pathos inflicted by life, faith unmoved by setbacks, a dream that leads him to wobble on.
Zarina Wahab as the meek Aiysu supports more than her ageing husband’s character. She evokes poignancy and warmth seemingly without an effort, a stellar portrayal of a subdued character.
Writer-director Salim Ahmed emerges successful on every score because when a story is told from the heart, it finds a million echoes across souls. And a million words could be strung together to write about Salim’s labour of love, but at the end of it, I realise writing this review has been futile. To know Adaminte Makan Abu, one only needs eyes that can see reflections, ears that can hear the murmur of grass and the echoes of prayers, and a heart that can hold dreams, and whose door is left only slightly ajar.
When against a pitch dark early morning, Salim Ahmed’s Adaminte Makan walks to the mosque, we realise he just walked from our hearts, after planting a flame of hope there. Adam’s son, blessed being.
This review was originally published in the blog, in perpetual confusion