IFFI 2018: Sudani from Nigeria director Zakariya on inspiration behind critically acclaimed film, and discovering Samuel

Neelima Menon

November 21, 2018 13:59:28 IST

It is easy to understand where Zakariya comes from and why he made a movie like Sudani From Nigeria. It all co-exists — his roots, ideology and cinema. Every scene, every dialogue, every
character in his debut film, comes from a familiar place. It was like coming back home. His vision for cinema is deeply rooted in the place he spent his childhood and adulthood — Malabar, Malappuram and most specifically, the Muslim community where he belongs. Football is a passion, food is a celebration and families are forever. Sudani from Nigeria is one of the six Malayalam films to be screened at the ongoing International Film Festival of India (IFFI), Goa.

Everything about Zakariya surprises me, beginning with my query about that one film that inspired him to take to direction. “Home videos!” he tells me. Expecting the mention of a Fellini or a Padmarajan film, that reply thoroughly kicked me out of my reverie. The conversation is at a deplorable, dozy time for me — after 8 pm where I slip into my zombie state. Thoroughly awake, I repeat that again, stupidly — "Home videos?” “Yes, that was the trend in Malabar 10 years ago where they would make home videos that run over 2 hours about Muslim community and relationships. Theatre personality Salam Kodiyathur was the forerunner in popularising it.”

A still from Sudani From Nigeria. YouTube

A still from Sudani From Nigeria

Zakariya admits that till he got into college he had never been to a movie theatre, as children were not allowed that luxury in their community. So, he binged on films that came on TV, VHP
cassettes and of course, home videos. He was always associated with theatre and actively participated on stage and street plays. Home videos, he tells me had a huge fan following and they made an appearance twice a year and the actors were quite popular too. Ningalenne Prandhanakki, Kudumba Kalaham, Parethan Thirichu Varunnu…. he reeled off the
names. They always rallied around the middle class Muslim community, their daily struggles, relationship goals, family, socio-cultural milieu and importantly, they were all coated in humour.
“Salam was my hero. I loved the humour and simplicity he brought into those stories. When I look back I think Parethan Thirichu Varunnu was a beautifully made film that reflected Malayali
lives in Dubai. True, the making will be amateurish, but it had its heart in the right place.”

Having said that, it was really the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) that gave wings to his cinematic dreams. After plus two, he religiously attended every edition and remained steadily inspired by cinema. Zakariya began slowly — a comedy short film which was screened on city channels, one during Onam, a few more and two tele films (Ira Vamsham and Makkal). His first job in cinema was as an AD (assistant director) for an Arabic film shot extensively in Oman. “In fact, it was Oman’s second film and since the industry is still at a nascent stage, they always get their technicians from India. I got in through Ramachandra Babu.” The film took a year to make. Titled Aseel, it was shot in real homes in the desert. Oman, like Malabar, was big on home videos too.

After bagging the first place in Mazhavil Manorama’s Mobile Film Festival, he joined an advertising company as an assistant director. Meanwhile, he was also involved in the making of his best buddy Muhsin Perari’s debut feature film — KL10 Patthu. It was while working as an assistant professor at Mediaone Academy of Communication that he wrote the script for Sudani from Nigeria.

The idea for Sudani from Nigeria came from his own neighbourhood; people he met and spoke to daily — the Nigerian and his awkward conversations with the manager, the mothers who spoke the language of love, the friends and food. “Since it was all happening in front of me it took me a while to realise that there was a cinema here.” These are characters he had incorporated just as they are, without a hint of exaggeration. The elderly Kalari expert Unni Nair, for instance, is someone he knows who would break into Kalari whenever someone asked him, with no reservation about the place or time.

Zakariya kept going back to those Iranian, Korean and Latin American films he had devoured at the IFFK—“They always had a light subject and it always happened in their homes, villages and
small towns.” Zakariya was also inspired by Danny Cannon’s 2005 film Goal, about a refugee who is offered the chance to trial with one of England's top association football. “I would also watch a lot of football films.” At Malappuram, they would discuss Barcelona and Real Madrid players very casually, talk about their paychecks and constantly talk about football. “Football is in Malappuram’s blood.” A bit of imagination went into the Nigerian player’s backstory, according to him. Having lived amidst them, he was always curious why players from a World Cup football playing nation opted for a third world country like India where one does not earn great money from football. “Most of them don’t even know which country they are going to. But for them, it’s about playing to win.”

Food shares equal billing with football in Malappuram. “We take pride in our food. We live to eat. A day is often planned around the different meals we should be having. The film is a culmination of all these elements.”

Samuel in a still from Sudani from Nigeria

Samuel in a still from Sudani from Nigeria

The first draft took him a year and second one another year. Muhsin’s contribution as a co-writer was immense, he admits. He is a football fan, a player, and belongs to Malappuram. “We shared
the same experiences in life and had also made music videos together and we understood the same humour.”

Sudani from Nigeria, he admits, was never meant to be a commercial film. It was Mushin who convinced him that it was meant for the mainstream. Thanks to KL10 Patthu, Muhsin was well-
connected in the industry and together, they pitched the idea to Rajeev Ravi. He introduced them to E4 Entertainment’s CV Sarathi, who immediately sensed a possibility in the project. From then
on, things just moved like clockwork. He put them in touch with Sameer Thahir and Shyju Khalid, who were sold on the story and agreed to produce. “We aren’t big producers. And all the
money we have, we got from cinema. What we can do is make it a slighter bigger budget and let you do exactly the way you planned it. Let’s make this film together,” they told him. And thankfully just as they wished, Shyju Khalid agreed to frame the film. “It was important that the film interested the cinematographer as he played a crucial role.”

Zakariya says they initially thought of singling out one of the Nigerian sevens players in Malappuram. There were quite a few who sang and painted. But Shyju and Sameer would have none of it and insisted on getting a professional African actor. Google and Facebook were the hunting ground, apart from doing various auditions in Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and Liberia. They found Samuel on Google Images. But then there was a snag—he did not know how to play football. So, they ended up picking that one-in-a-million guy in Nigeria who did not know how to kick a ball. Since there was not much footage of him playing, they managed to figure that out as well. Whatever he played, he practised and got it.

Soubin Shahir was suggested by Sarathi, and since Sameer and Khalid called him, he instantly agreed. This was before he read the script! Once he read through it, Soubin was frantic. He had
no idea about the gravitas of his role. But once on board, Soubin worked hard on his role. “For someone who always improvised on the sets, he picked the script verbatim — nuances included.” Zakariya picks that scene where Soubin breaks into angry fumbled speech of English and Malayalam to a clueless Nigerian. “Many thought it was improvised on the sets, but he just delivered it exactly how we wanted it.” Another important contribution from the actor was breaking the ice with new actors. “He would hide behind Samuel and make sounds of cats and dogs. Even the Ammas took a liking to him.”

The biggest casting coup he admits were the two mothers. And also the most difficult. They scouted various theatres and schools (for retired teachers) and then someone told them about these two superstars in Kozhikode theatre, who were now retired. “We brought their videos, finalised them and made them audition in one of the home kitchens. But they weren’t confident about pulling this off.” Being professional theatre actors, they were used to learning their lines by heart with defined expressions and were clueless about prompting. Those were trying times, but their die-hard fans urged the filmmakers to give them time. "We would look forward to their dramas in our childhood. Give them some time, we guarantee you results.” The ammas meanwhile graciously told them to give up and concentrate on their cinema. That is when they decided to send the scripts to their homes. That was a lifesaver. At a camp that was organised soon after, Zakariya and Muhsin watched their characters gleefully take shape in front of them.

He admits the reactions to the film have been overwhelming. "Our biggest fear was what if the audience failed to feel for the scenes that we had crafted with so much warmth and wondered what the fuss was about? Thankfully, eyes and hearts welled up for the right scenes," he says, signing off.

All images from YouTube.

Updated Date: Nov 21, 2018 13:59 PM