How Virus director Aashiq Abu introduced fresh narratives in Malayalam cinema, nurtured fellow filmmakers
Aashiq Abu, along with Maharajas college mates Anwar Rasheed and Amal Neerad, helped in breaking the hierarchical hegemony in the Malayalam film industry
He’s been in the industry for ten years and has a disparate portfolio of films to show for it. Everything from romance to action, comedy and more. As we prepare for the release of his tenth film in ten years, the much-awaited Virus, here’s a short profile of the director Aashiq Abu.
At a time when actors and technicians based in Thiruvananthapuram were enjoying an unprecedented monopoly over Malayalam cinema, there emerged a group of young Turks from Central Kerala and Kochi who played a key role in nurturing and making the path smoother and democratic for a group of new and dynamic talents into Malayalam cinema. Aashiq Abu, along with Maharajas college mates, Anwar Rasheed and Amal Neerad, helped in breaking the hierarchical hegemony in the industry and introduced a fresh narrative in cinema about perspective, scripting, execution, cinematography and acting.
“Aashiq, along with Amal and Anwar, have been involved with theatre and movies right from their times in the campus. I have seen them closely from those days at Maharajas college and they have used that friendship to make remarkable movies,” says film critic Vijay George.
Debuting with Megastar Mammootty and after
By the time Aashiq Abu made his first film, Anwar Rasheed had already debuted with the Mammootty-starrer Rajamanikyam and Amal Neerad with Big B, headlining the Megastar again. For Aashiq Abu, who had first met the Malayalam superstar at a college inauguration where he was the chairperson, and took a liking to the young man, it seemed destined that his debut film’s hero would be Mammootty (who has introduced around 70 new directors to Malayalam cinema). “Cinema was never part of my dreams. In college, I was always actively interested in politics. It was Alaipayuthey, a film in which I saw nonlinear narration for the first time that first triggered my interest in cinema. Then in 1998, IFFK was held at Kochi and Life is Beautiful was the first film. It blew me away and campus theatre where we acted. After graduation, we made a campus film which was well-received, followed by a music video that took me to director Kamal and helped the process of making my debut film easier,” said Aashiq Abu in a TV interview.
Daddy Cool, his uneventful debut, was about this father-and-son bond and despite Mammootty’s presence, the film tanked at the box office. But two years later, he resurfaced with Salt N Pepper (2011), with a new pair of writers, Syam Pushkaran and Dileesh Nair and placed a love story against the backdrop of food, a genre that was unfamiliar in Malayalam cinema. The casting was a stunner — he opted for an actor who had by then become familiar as the ardent villain and turned him into a middle-aged romantic hero — Lal. Shwetha Menon was roped in as his dubbing artiste in her mid-30s, single and unhappy. There was also a young love story. Food was deliciously placed as the cupid between them. This brought in a fresh new wave in Malayalam cinema, in terms of dialogues which were casual, a fresh narrative style and characters who were very relatable. Its Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Hindi remakes were bought by actor Prakash Raj.
22 FK and learning on the job Holl
Next year, he came up with a disturbingly unusual revenge thriller, 22 Female Kottayam (2012) - which had a narrative driven by a woman and was loosely based on Sriram Raghavan’s Ek Haseena Thi. Tessa (played by Rima Kallingal who married him soon after the film) is a young nurse from Kerala who works in Bangalore and gets conned by her boyfriend who not only pimps her to his boss (who rapes her) but also plants drugs in her bag and gets her arrested. Quite a few cinematic tropes were pulled apart in the film. The virginity of a heroine, for one, was shrugged away. There are attempts to break stereotypes especially when it comes to female characters in the film. “22 FK was mentally exhausting. The whole unit went on a vacation soon after… just to get over it,” says Rima Kallingal.
Aashiq Abu, despite coming across as a director who wants to present a radical, progressive woman through his cinema has often fallen prey to his fundamentally conventional mindset — at least in his earlier films. Film academician Manjusha V agrees: “I had issues with 22 FK though. It was not enough that she was raped once, but twice and later sent to jail for her to finally turn into an avenging angel. When he betrays her trust for the first time and sets up this rape, wasn’t it enough to plot a revenge plan against him? And I had issues with the soppy exchange between the two in the climax as well.”
That’s why his career graph also shows a filmmaker who has consciously worked towards bettering himself, ironing out the flaws, striving to be politically correct and, most importantly, being a good listener to criticism.
“He completely listens to what other people have to say. We have had very heated discussions. If someone says anything off-hand in our group, he is taken care of in the most ruthless manner. We are in a space like that. We all want to grow and evolve and be better human beings. We should do it selfishly, fine tune our emotions and reactions in our relationship which will in turn help us as artistes,” says Kallingal.
A decade, 10 different films and a golden partnership
In a career spanning 10 years, Virus, his upcoming release will be his tenth film. Most actors and technicians who have worked with him talk about a special vibe and creative freedom he creates on the sets. “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,” says Muhsin Parari, who has co-written Virus.
His collaboration with writers Syam Pushkaran and Dileesh Nair can be seen as one of the most successful writer-director combinations in Malayalam cinema today. From the sleeper hit Salt N' Pepper to Idukki Gold (2013), to his best film yet, Mayaanadhi (2017), it’s been a game changer in many ways, and they have evolved together in the process.
“He has entertained the viewers and made some genuine political statements as well. Be it 22 FK, Da Thadiya, Rani Padmini or Mayaanadhi, he has tried to mix emotions and a bold outlook, which needs to be applauded,” maintains George.
Abu has systematically worked towards surprising his audience by not repeating genres. A food film (Salt N' Pepper), a revenge thriller (22 FK), a rom-com (Da Thadiya), an anthology (Gauri), nostalgia/ feel-good (Idukki Gold), a gangster action drama (Gangster), a feel-good film headlined by two women (Rani Padmini), an intense love story (Mayaanadhi) and the latest, a medical thriller (again a first in Malayalam cinema) based on real life incidents.
He has had his share of humongous failures as well. When 5 Sundarikal, the anthology was released, Abu acknowledged that he had let down his audience through his film Gauri. But nothing quite prepares us for a film like Gangster (2014), headlining Mammootty, one of his most hyped films that was ridiculed by the critics and audience alike. It’s probably the only time his fondness for collaboration turned out to be his undoing. The film reportedly began with a set of writers and was passed over several hands before eventually ending in no man’s land at the writing table, which reflected in every scene of the film.
His best hero and heroine
His best heroine unarguably would be Mayaanadhi’s Appu/Aparna (Aishwarya Lekshmy), who breaks the glass ceiling when she refuses to let anyone shove chastity down her throat. When she says “sex is not a promise” (though it does sound a bit out-of-place), it seems a much-needed feminist assertion, where the role of women in cinema is more closely viewed and dissected than ever before. Appu is ambitious, open about her sexual needs and doesn’t think marriage is the endpoint of their relationship. Rani Padmini is also interesting as it is one of the few films to pass the basic Bechdel test in Malayalam cinema besides crafting a heartwarming bond between the women (played by Manju Warrier and Rima Kallingal).
In Mayaanadhi, he introduces one of his most sensitive heroes till date. Mathan (Tovino Thomas), the eternal, optimistic, unconditional lover, who leads two parallel lives. He gets into various shady deals, accidentally kills a cop and, when needed, thrashes two cops simultaneously. But, in front of Appu, he is as mild as milk; someone who, despite being shooed away and insulted, keeps coming back to her like a lost puppy. She calls the shots in their relationship and Mathan is the willing, loving boyfriend who might even agree to get her the moon if she wants. In a way, it rightfully marks his slow and steady fruition as a director that has culminated in a film like Mayaanadhi that ticks all the politically correct boxes in a film.
The Aashiq Abu school of filmmaking
What Abu has given back to cinema also would be a line-up of talented young men who thrive in that democratic space and gained confidence to create their kind of cinema. Dileesh Pothan, (director of Maheshinte Prathikaram), who started as his associate and Madhu C Narayanan, (who assisted him since Salt N' Pepper and later directed the best film of this year so far, Kumbalangi Nights), being the leading names.
Then there are his regular group of “collaborators and friends” who helped and promoted each other’s films. Muhsin Parari recalls being called by Abu after watching his music video Native Baapa, wondering whether he can 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.”
Left-leaning activist and feminist
Being an active SFI student leader from college, it’s not surprising that Aashiq has been very vocal about his politics. Be it on social media or interviews, his communist leanings are evident. It also ran him into trouble when he put up a post criticising Kamal Hassan’s depiction of Muslims as terrorists in Viswaroopam.
The husband and wife have always received flak on social media for their feminist ideals. Two years ago, when a female actor in Malayalam cinema was abducted and molested in a moving car, they were one of the few people from the industry who came out in support of her and demanded justice. It was Aashiq who openly spoke in support of Parvathy, when she was undergoing cyber bullying for her statements against the Mammootty film, Kasaba. So, it was no surprise that Abu announced Virus with an ensemble cast of actors at a time when a lot of female actors were denied work in the industry following their association with WCC. Not just that, they also installed an internal committee to address such harassment issues in their production house.
“I think he has hardly changed. I have seen him go through the ups and downs and being calm about everything. It’s a proper yin and yang between us. We have helped each other grow. We have been together for seven years and there is no way we are not going to rub off on each other. Ninety-nine per-cent of the time, we are together as we don’t have a regular 9-5 job. It’s a wonderful experience. I have grown and evolved not just because of him but because of what we have been through in the last five years,” says Kallingal.
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