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