Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Adaminte Makan Abu and the Oscars

I've been having quite a few conversations lately, on and off-line, about how the values in Indian films get perceived by us Westerners, what we notice over what Indian people notice, what gets our blood boiling that they gloss over, what we disagree with, while Indian audiences embrace. And Adaminte Makan Abu, India's entry for the Oscars this year, has provided one of the best examples recently. But I'll get to that discussion later. First allow me to pimp the movie because if you haven't seen it, you're missing out!

Abu (Salim Kumar) is an old sales-man who travels a great deal in order to sell his perfume essences (and holy books) which are quickly going out of style. At home his wife Aisu (Zarina Wahab) adds to their savings by selling milk and fruit to other villagers. They have a simple home with just one room and their biggest dream is to make it to Mecca for Hajj once in their lifetime. You love these two right away not just because they seem like such nice people, but also because you see them looking after one another in a way that doesn't get explored enough in movies with young couples these days. The other day I saw one of those chain quotes on Twitter, and it fits well here: "Love is not Romeo and Juliet dying together, it's grandma and grandpa growing old together". It's cheesy, but at the same time so true. We see that love between Abu and Aisu right from their first scene together in the film and it makes them so endearing to us.

This year it seems as if their dream might come true and Abu decides to put everything he has into arranging the trip. His health is deteriorating and his trade is no longer sought after, so money is not easy to come by. But his faith, hope and everyone's blessings push him forward towards his goal.

Supported by the gorgeous cinematography which subjugates your attention from the first frame and doesn't let your eyes stray even for a precious second, the story of Abu talks about forgiveness, being kind, and living a righteous life regardless of rewards and setbacks. It's a wonderful little message and its delivery is, like Abu, slow and gentle. The smaller or bigger gestures of the villagers when Abu finds himself in financial trouble are a true, and thankfully not preachy, ode to the virtues of leading an honest, selfless life. Truly a heart-warming lesson in humanity brought to us in sweet metaphors and delightful little symbols.

For an even more detailed review of the film (though I'm warning you, plenty spoilery), I recommend heading over to Totally Filmi because from here on I am done with pimping and will proceed to sharing with you my thoughts on how this film would fare at the Oscars if it makes it.

Two things got a great deal of thought from me after watching this movie, and I expect both would play a heavy part in how Adaminte Makan Abu would be viewed by people here as opposed to people in India.

First of all, and this may have something to do with me having been raised by an energetic mother who changed her profession twice to stay afloat (the second time in her 50s), I personally find myself unable to sympathize with people's incapacity to adapt. Abu is so lovable that I can't help but feel for him, but at the same time I also can't help but judge and think where he would have been if he had tried to change his trade. The only reason why he is in his current situation is because he hasn't managed to keep up with the times. This is all he knows and this is all he can do with himself.

Once again, as in quite a few other Indian films, though this time in a very subtle way, progress and the business world are presented as the root of all evil, or at the very least, the antithesis of a righteous life. This is further illustrated by the character and side story of the real estate agent. Granted, he was also greedy, but forgive me if I am starting to really resent this constant association of greed and progress as if they were the same thing. Abu is meant to charm with his simplicity and his selflessness, but for a society that rates ambition among a man's highest qualities, this may not necessarily impress.

Seeing this movie from the comfort of my couch in Toronto I have to wonder how it would appear to other Westerners who, like me, consider progress through technology a desirable goal to strive towards rather than a destructive force (as much as environmentalists would disagree with that). Also how many of us Westerners would see Abu and his antiquated lifestyle as nothing more than a perfect example of the dead weight that is keeping India from soaring economically?

It may sound condescending and as if I am applying my Western values without any regard to the culture that this film came from, but consider this: if this mentality was so foreign to India, why would a character who used to have a cookie vending stall and now has 8 bakeries in the city be mentioned? And this time it's without any malice, he's mentioned with admiration and perhaps a teeny bit of envy.

"His car sometimes hastens this way splashing muck"

Moreover, the contrast between him and the two old men who never knew how to grow (the perfume vendor and the umbrella maker), is made even more poignant by the fact that they seem to be painfully aware of the fact that everyone started off with the same skills and opportunities.

"Making money is indeed a talent my friend"

Would Abu be as endearing in his helplessness to an audience full of people who change their job every 5-6 years? From this society where everyone expects to change their line of work completely at least twice in their lifetime, would we feel bad for Abu's perfumes that don't get sold?

The other aspect that didn't quite settle with me in the film is Abu's stubbornness to keep everything in line with the letter of the Koran: if the book says you can't accept money from people unless they are blood relatives, then he won't. If the book says he is to seek forgiveness even when he has done no wrong, he will. As an aside, interesting to note that he has no moral issues with giving a bribe. Probably because The Book doesn't have an opinion on it?

Is leaving everything in the hands of God something that we would be ok with? Is being the type of person who accepts everything as God's decision a palatable idea? Is God the only force to be trusted to show us the way?

"Allah will surely show us one among them [a way to raise the money]"

See, if this movie were about an American, Abu would be instantly labeled as a bigot. And hated on more than likely. Also, the persistence to not accept help would probably be named pride rather than humbleness. But this is not an American movie, so we learn to respect Abu for his resolve. Or... at least we're expected to.

What I'm really getting at here, and this may sound like I am criticizing the movie (when in fact I absolutely loved it), is that seen through the prism of Western values, this would be a completely different movie. And not necessarily a charming one, as it is meant to be. If it is to make it to the Oscars, this is where there's a chance it will not connect with people.

Then again, we have learned to respect different cultures and their unique components, so just because the film made me think of these issues, it's not a given it will stop anyone from loving it just like it didn't stop me. And maybe there is always a need for us to be reminded that the possessions we count on the most in life can sometimes turn out to be hollow on the inside.

Because in the end, and this is the true testament to Salim Kumar's talent and to the director's finesse, they make me root for Abu and Aisu nonetheless. And I do sympathize with Abu's helplessness despite judging it (perhaps harshly, perhaps not). And I am moved by the tenderness of his relationship with his wife. And I will recommend this film to everyone within earshot. But that said, I am very curious about how the Oscar crowd would perceive it. Very curious...

Adaminte Makan Abu (2011)
Director: Salim Ahamed
Starring: Salim Kumar, Zarina Wahab
Music: Ramesh Narayan
Cinematography: Madhu Ambat


mm said...

Thanks for this review, Dolce. Since I haven't yet seen the film, I'll confine my comments to the questions you raised.

First, about adapting -- isn't modern civilization about how the society treats those who can't adapt to change? Right now in the U.S. and Canada, there are many people who are being left behind or our of the economic pie, because they can't adapt. It's great that your mother embarked on a brand new career twice, but have you stopped to consider that not everyone has the capability or the opportunity to do so? Considering the North American population only, what about all those blue collar workers whose factory jobs moved away? Yes, they can retrain for the new industries in the information or service industries. But what if they just can't figure out how to work with a computer? People do have different levels of intelligence, you know. What if the intelligence they have was enough to learn a skill that would give them a livelihood before, but not enough to learn a different and more complex skill now?

Now coming to the case of the case of India, there are huge swathes of the population who are being left out of the current economic progress because they do not have either the skills or access to training. In the last general election (2009), one party put forward a campaign platform that was widely ridiculed by the English language media -- they characterized it as the "no English, no computers" policy. Now I don't have a fondness for the party in question, but there is no doubt that they were attempting, in a clumsy way, to address a real social issue. When every job with a decent pay requires a knowledge of English or computers, what are the 90% of the population who don't speak English supposed to do? Why should they be kept out of the pie? Is it OK for the government, or the rest of society, to shrug and say, "That's social Darwinism at work", and leave them to their fate, usually dire? You would probably say no. You live in a country that has an extensive safety net through various government programs for people like this. Right next to you is a country whose safety net has been under siege for many years now, and which is barely existing. Now in India you have a country with no safety net. None. What will happen to a character like Abu there? Isn't that an interesting human story to explore?

The second question is one of opportunity. You say that Abu had a friend or two who all had the same opportunities, but that the others made something more of their lives economically than he did. Not having seen the film, I don't know if the opportunities were indeed so identical, or if there were minor variations that could explain the different outcomes. But, even if they had the exact opportunities, consider this. There are many people, from many religions, who actively decide not to acquire material possessions. As long as they have enough to meet their basic needs, they don't want to earn anything beyond that, specifically because they see this as an "unpious" way of living. It could be a way of keeping greed at bay, or not losing sight of spiritual goals, etc. Don't forget that the vows taken by nuns and monks included poverty as well as chastity. So there is an established tradition in many different cultures and religions which sees voluntary poverty as a virtue in itself. Could it be that the "west", having moved away from its religious and spiritual traditions much more than a country like India, can no longer "connect" with such a world view?

(continued below)

mm said...

(continued from above)

Finally, to the aligning of "progress" with greed or other undesirable qualities, I hope you remember what happened in Russia right after communism was officially ended and capitalism introduced. Essentially there were a large number of "robber barons" who made their riches by exploiting everyone else. There were even American commentators, made uncomfortable by the sight of so many suffering people, who pontificated that that was the way of unbridled capitalism, and that was the way it was even in the U.S. at the beginnings of its development. What I'm trying to say is that much of the "progress" being experienced by India right now, is very much due to exploitations of the weaker sections of society, due to poor regulatory formulation, lax enforcement of such regulations as do exist, and nonexistence of a social safety net. If you applauded Aamir Khan for protesting against the Narmada dam, then you should not be questioning this aspect of this film now.

mm said...

Sorry to dump another novel on you! :)

And Happy New Year to you, too! I look forward to another great year fo blogging from you. :)

me said...

I had quite a different take on the film. I loved it, but what I loved most was the positive depiction of a religious life. Abu was a man whose whole life was wrapped up in the quiet, unhypocritical adherence to his beliefs and principles, which were much more important to him than money. To see such a person depicted on screen was a delight. He was shown as a very simple, decent man whose faith defined him and governed his life, and he was not derided for that. In the secular West, he would be written off as a fanatic, but I was thrilled to see faith and devotion celebrated and not mocked, for a change.
I'm a Westerner who definitely does not "consider progress through technology a desirable goal to strive towards". I'm not romanticising a lower standard of living, and nor did the film, I think. He wasn't depicted as being morally superior because he was poor, but he was shown as a good man because of his determination to put his principles and beliefs ahead of personal gain. THAT really resonated with me.
I knew from the beginning that it would not end well, but I'm disappointed because it could have. Just as he knew Johnson was overpaying him for the tree, so the Master could have BOUGHT something from him, thus allowing him to accept the money. That seemed to me to be a case of a bitter ending being considered better by default.

mm said...

Maxqnz, this is exactly the point I was trying to make. Thank you for putting it so concisely.

I don't think I've seen a non-mocking portrayal of a religious person in a Hollywood production (film or TV) in almost 30 years.

mm said...

Today is the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda. There was an article in the Times of India on him, where they had quotes from his speeches and writings, and here is one that I think is very apposite to this discussion:

"Each nation, like each individual, has one theme in life, which is its centre, the principal note round which every note comes to form harmony....if one nation attempts to throw off its vitality, the direction which has become its own through the transmission of centuries, the nation dies....if one nation's political power is its vitality, as in England, artistic life is another and so on. In India religious life forms the centre, the keynote of the whole music of life."

(source: Glimpses of Indian Culture - By Dr. Giriraj Shah p. 27).

I think this is still true of India, even though the words were said more than a 100 years ago, and even though lately there had been a move away from religion in some ways. So yes, there is a big difference in the way India and "the west" approach certain subjects, and that difference may give rise to a communication gap that is too wide to bridge. Let us see what happens. But the foreign language Oscars typically go for the more "edgy", advocacy type of film rather than one of quiet celebration.

me said...

@mm "the foreign language Oscars typically go for the more "edgy", advocacy type of film rather than one of quiet celebration" I was thinking exactly this just a few hours ago, while wondering about this film's chances. Not good, I'd say, for this reason. Too quiet and positive. It's also possible that a film with a positive depiction of Islam might not go down well with the US-based Academy

mm said...

@maxqnz - I think Hollywood would sooner show a positive depiction of Islam (to show that they're not prejudiced) than Christianity. :)

Where are Dolce and Namak? I've been checking back to see your reactions to the comments, but so far, nothing. Have you decided you've said all you wanted to say in the blog post itself? :)

Dolce and Namak said...

LOL I'm around, I'm around. Real life is sucking up a lot of my time, so I don't get to sit down in front of the computer for leisure as often as I used to. :(

I see the two of you have met each other. Excellent! :)

MM, I'll be fairly brief in response to your comments, not because it's not an interesting topic, but because I have this conversation in real life with my friends all the time and I know how it tends to go in circles without either side being convinced at the end of a debate. So since we can't discuss the implications in the context of the movie, I will just say that generally I am a big believer in human strength and in everyone's capacity to adapt (which doesn't always imply having superior intelligence). I won't get into the politics of it because it's not a topic I wish to discuss on this blog, but to me every human being owes it to themselves to have an intrinsic drive for betterment. And by betterment I never mean "more money" because I don't believe in making money just for the love of it. To me money is a means to an end, much like it was for this character, so if they are needed to reach a goal, I don't see why it would be unworthy of one's religion, or un-virtuous to work towards it (and in fact it's not "unvirtuous" even for Abu).

Last but not least, I have no idea what that Aamir Khan comment was in reference to. And since I have no idea what the issue was, I can say with utmost certainty that I never applauded him because I try to not talk about issues that I know little or nothing about. :) In general.

Anyways, the starting point of the entire debate was how these ideas come across through this film, so I'd love to know what you think of it when you do see it. I'm afraid a general discussion won't quite cover the topic so it seems beyond the scope of this blog.

But I do (sadly) wholeheartedly agree that a movie on the virtues of Islam would indeed win, at least with the critics, over one on Christianism. And that's sad because it really shouldn't matter what religion it's about.

Also, that's a lovely quote and yes, a very different perspective, and you're right, it's not necessarily the gap in outlook, as much as it is the quiet nature of the film, as maxqnz also aptly points out.

Still... not all hope is lost, let's see what happens with it. :) I hope you do watch it eventually, curious what you will think of it.

Dolce and Namak said...

Aawww, maxqnz, trust me, I too was rooting all the way to the end for something along the lines of what you described. But as we already discussed elsewhere with plenty of spoilers thrown in, maybe it is a happy ending after all, na? :)

I see what you're saying about celebrating one's religion, and I think you may have misunderstood my post. Granted that I personally never identified with Abu, but my post was not necessarily about my own disconnect with the film (because I loved it too and I was cheering for Abu with all my heart), but about the potential disconnect of the Oscar crowd with this type of film. Myself, I am right in between (as always!! :)) and can't quite decide between being frustrated with Abu and infuriated by his stubbornness, and respecting him for standing by his principles. That was mostly the battle that was running in my head, and to a certain extent I think you also had a bit of a battle there, otherwise you wouldn't have come up with an alternate ending, eh? :)

That said, it is truly refreshing and irresistably charming to have such a character on screen, with his simple ways and even for me, battle or no battle over principles, a complete delight. I loved him. But he also infuriated me. :)

Because if you think about it, none of it is about the money per se, it's about reaching that goal, and to me there is a difference between "personal gain"/materialism and Abu's goal. Which is exactly why you do root for him, because you know he wants it with a selfless heart. That's exactly why it's such a complex emotional ride. Sigh...

But all issues aside, I do hope more people see it and I'm glad you got around to it, it did seem like exactly the type of movie you would enjoy! :)

Thanks for dropping by, guys, and again, my apologies for the delay in replying.

me said...

"about the potential disconnect of the Oscar crowd with this type of film" The announcement of the nominees suggests you were right, sadly. No room for this excellent film :(

I think I probably did slightly misread your post, but my reply was also coloured by my delighted confusion at the novelty of a film that does not mock those for whom faith is more important than material success. The internal battle you mention was actually clarified elsewhere, when I was helped to see the cause of my problem, his failure to apply his own principles when it came to his son. I have no problem with the rest of it, since my own life from the age of 16 has seen me maker choices that upset and/or confused my mother, my teachers, my employers and others by my insistence that getting ahead is not what matters to me if it interferes with my worship. :)

mm said...

As maxqnz said, this film did not get on the Oscar nomination list. But I don't know if we can conclude from that that it was the religious subject that put off (or failed to attract) the Academy voters. Starting from this year or last year, they modified the rules, increasing the number of members who had to have seen the movie and nominated it. When Lagaan was nominated, it was sufficient if one member of the Academy had seen a film and nominated it, which is in fact what happened with it.

Rules aside, I also think that people in India are quite deluded as to what constitutes an "Oscar worthy" film. They think it's all about the subject matter/story, while, from my observation of the nominees over a number of years, it's more about the film making craft rather than the story itself. After that comes the connect of the members with the story, where familiarity with the cultural tropes does come into play. That is to say, if you are presenting a film that is true to life of a culture that most members won't be familiar with, or only familiar with the stereotyped version, you need to take the time to explain the cultural norms while telling your story. And of course that must be done in a cinematically interesting, even innovative, way, and it depends on the track record of your country.

This goes back to a discussion we had on an earlier post of yours, on why people automatically think Bollywood films are bad. Well, if the public face of your national cinema is "Bollywood" and not Satyajit Ray (as it used to be before the Bollywood blitz began), then you'll have trouble getting anyone to even see your film, let alone nominate it. So Indian filmmakers suffer from not only the lack of monetary resources to promote their film properly, but also the burden of a preconceived stereotype that was promoted by their own government. So I would blame the Indians more than the Americans for this outcome.

me said...

"from my observation of the nominees over a number of years, it's more about the film making craft rather than the story itself"

I would largely agree, which is why I'm so disappointed for Adaminte Makan Abu - I really think its craftwork is Oscar-worthy. I would, though, add my opinion that the Foreign Oscar seems to go mostly to darker films, the judges seem to equate bleakness and/or grittiness with art "worthiness", in my view. That, and the preconception of "Indian cinema = Bollywood" (as you point out, India bears some responsibility for this), probably doomed it from the start.

Neha said...

All those who have seen the movie does appreciate the strength of the character portrayed in it. Infact every Indian lives with a dream big or small as shown in the movie. Whether the oscar committee accept/reject this movie makes no impact on the indian viewers but if the movie makers give up on making such meaningful ones due to lack of a wide scale appreciation thats when we the viewers> really lose. I wish the director and the entire team behind this movie a great success and hope to see more movies that can relate to a common man's problem.

Anonymous said...

for a different take on the film

Mimi said...

wow! i missed your blogs. life/work got in the way. I missed a lot of great movies but im back and will be hoarding!
-thats what i feel after reading your blogs- it give me that urgency. this seems like a lovely film to watch.

Mimi said...

i love the new look of this page by the way..;)

Dolce and Namak said...

Sorry for the absence again. On the Oscar topic, I too think it would have been a good contender, definitely filmed in the right way and packaged beautifully, but yes, I think the Oscars typically look for something more hard-hitting for the foreign film category. Not that I am very well acquainted with previous shortlisters, but it certainly feels like Adaminte Makan Abu was lacking the bite that makes the Oscar committees go gaga. Oh well, here's hoping people watch it anyway. :)

Dolce and Namak said...

@ Neha: You're right, those of us who have watched it definitely appreciate all its strengths, but I think we were hoping it would go to the Oscars to ensure that even more people see it. :)

As for the makers of the movie, well, I can only hope that a director who made such a movie, with such a powerful message about inner strength and staying true to what you believe in would not be swayed from his craft so easily. ;)

Dolce and Namak said...

Hey Arun, yeah, to each their own. I found the cinematography absolutely striking and heart-stirring, so I suppose "different strokes for different folks" applies here.
Also, I read that objection about the characters being too nice and I read the director's response to it and agree with it: these people do exist, just because most movies don't give them the time of day, doesn't mean they're not real. Make of that what you will. :) I actually found that they were not without blemishes, in fact it's one of these blemishes that I took as the reason why their trip is not successful, so I think at a closer look you may find Abu is a well-rounded character and not just a poster boy for Islam. :)

Dolce and Namak said...

Mimi!! Welcome back! And thanks for making me feel bad that I haven't blogged in so long. :P I need to figure out a way to get back into doing this regularly. Real life can be pretty obnoxious sometimes, huh?
But glad you're back in Bolly-land and if you do get to see this one I really hope you enjoy it!
(Also glad you like the new design. :))

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