The Aashiq Abu brand of films has set a trend. The top notch director talks about his life and what cinema means to him

Njaan ingananu bhai… (I am like this) goes the refrain from the hugely popular song Enthanu Bhai, from Da Thadiya. And that more or less conveys what filmmaker Aashiq Abu is all about.

A middle-aged married man with a kid, a regular middle-aged man and woman bonding over food; a rape victim getting even (in a cringe inducing fashion) and a man who weighs slightly over 120 kilos are really not the stuff of conventional commercial cinema in India. They are the lead characters in Aashiq’s films Daddy Cool, Salt N’ Pepper, 22 Female Kottayam (22FK) and Da Thadiya, in this order.

“Everybody has a story, which is not necessarily about a man, a ‘hero’ with a six pack and a 32” or 34” waist…there are other criteria for being a hero. A man who weighs over 120 kilos will have a story that is interesting. It all depends on how you look at it,” says Aashiq. True, it is all about how you see it.

And this way of seeing adds value to the extremely saleable Aashiq Abu brand.

We are sitting outside Lal Media’s studio at Vennala. It is a hot, muggy afternoon when the skies threaten to open up and don’t. Aashiq is wrapping up work on Da Thadiya. He looks mildly tired, but is game for the tete-a-tete he has promised. His trademark shades give us company as he talks films, his life at Maharaja’s College, and films again. Maharaja’s College anthropomorphises and becomes a living entity in his narrative.

Coming from a family (in Edappally) that has ‘absolutely nothing to do with the film industry’, it was at Maharaja’s that curiosity led him by hand to films. “It wasn’t a childhood dream or ambition to make films,” the says. For the student activist who went on to become the chairman of the college union and was also an award-winning editor of the college magazine, films were a fringe interest. It was there, he confesses, he had the freedom to explore and he found films. He was also active in campus theatre and some of his seniors and contemporaries in college were Amal Neerad, Anwar Rasheed, Samir Tahir to name a few.

And all of them went on to make cinema. “It just happened, it wasn’t deliberate. We went our different ways, and the varied paths converged,” says Aashiq. After his post-graduation (in Islamic History) he made a campus film, Manasariyathe and music video ‘Shalabham’. Films had, by this time, become more than a curiosity. He joined director Kamal as an assistant director for close to five-and-a-half years before he struck out on his own, with Daddy Cool.

But it was his second outing, Salt N’ Pepper that made him. Some people attribute the ‘new gen’ wave of films to this one film, with its unexpected theme, unconventional casting and treatment. “I don’t think any one film can change anything. The time was ripe; the audience was ready for something different. There were other films such as Traffic and Ee Aduthakalath which came out at the same time. All these films as a whole contributed to the shift,” says Aashiq. This comes out as a statement of a fact rather than pretended humility.

Success not taken for granted

Although he doesn’t appear to take for granted the success of the film, he says changes such as these are inevitable and cyclical. “The success of this one film or of these films cannot be treated as a formula. We cannot be making similar films for the next decade. It, then, doesn’t serve its purpose,” he cautions. These films made a mark without humungous budgets and mammoth star power.

It is the small-beautiful-realistic funda. “These were small films. And it gave the confidence to everybody in the business that small films can work, that people would want to see such films. You can make a commercial film that has class. Class doesn’t have to mean making a film for the festival circuit.” These formulae cannot be turned into money making ventures because it will not work. “Nobody is going to want to see another Salt N’ Pepper. Each film has to have its stamp of individuality.” A sense of responsibility to the cause of good cinema is integral to his concept of individuality.

His films are stylishly slick and there is a certain degree of fearlessness in his work. Or it could be confidence. And this creates a certain buzz around an Aashiq Abu film. Starting from the font he uses for a film’s title to the poster design and layout, to the sets or costumes, his films have brought in an element of the contemporary into Malayalam films. Be it the script, music or star cast…every film throws up a surprise. The biggest surprise and revelation was Pratap Pothen.

Unconventional

He has been unconventional, to say the least, in his choice of actors. He can avoid the date hassles. He says he, anyway, doesn’t understand the principle “that, for instance, an actor who has once essayed the role of a cop should always be a cop? Each actor can be used in different ways which is why I used Lal (Salt N’ Pepper) or Pratap Pothen (22FK). Even Sathar (22 FK). There is so much more these yesteryear actors can do,” he says. And what a comeback Pratap Pothen made with 22FK!

It is probably the adman, he is a veteran of several ad campaigns, in him that sees the perfect picture. He sees no harm in that perfect frame. “If a scene demands it why not?” he asks.

So that’s the scene with Aashiq Abu, it’s time for a wrap and he gets back to giving finishing touches to Da Thadiya.