Interview Malayalam

Dropped Hindi remake plan once Salman’s Tiger Zinda Hai happened: Take Off director Mahesh Narayanan


The editor and first-time director is fine with YRF Films portraying a different account of the 2014 episode wherein Indian nurses were rescued from Iraq, but feels their theory may not be true.

Photo: Shutterbugs Images

Mayur Lookhar

There are no winners, only losers in war. Any tragedy also carries innumerable tales of despair. India has fought wars with Pakistan and China, but it has seldom fought hand-in-hand with western powers in their battle against terrorism. The Indian contribution can’t be overlooked as Indians have been at the forefront in providing humanitarian aid.

The Gulf countries have a sizeable Indian population, with our people working in hospitals, construction and other industries. Indian nurses, especially from Kerala, have attained respect globally for their yeomen services in troubled lands. For most of them, working in war-torn areas is a matter of better pay and respect, both of which are scarce for nurses in their home country.

In the year 2014, 46 Indian nurses were caught in the crossfire between the Iraqi government and the jihadist rebels, who are now known as the dreaded terror group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). The combined efforts of Indian embassy officials, the foreign ministry, led by external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, helped to secure the release of the 46 nurses. How it happened? That remains a mystery as the episode is classified.

Once classified, an episode lets filmmakers create a fictional tale around a reality nobody knows. Come Christmas 2017, we will see a Rambo-like account of the 2014 rescue operation in Salman Khan’s Tiger Zinda Hai.

However, this episode was earlier adapted into a Malayalam film, Take Off by director Mahesh Narayanan.

The film was recently screened at the International Film Festival of India where it got a standing ovation. Parvathy, who made her Hindi film debut with Qarib Qarib Singlle this year, won the best actress award at IFFI, while Take Off won a special jury award. The film marked the directorial debut of editor Narayanan.

In an exclusive telephonic conversation with Cinestaan.com, Narayanan shared his Take Off journey, expressed disappointment over the tough career choices our nurses make and more.

Excerpts:

For Indian cinema to truly have a global appeal, it needed to tell a global tale. It’s one thing to make a film on a global issue, but an altogether different task for it to have global appeal. The film is a hit in India, but can Take Off take Indian cinema to global heights?

Well, this film was made like mainstream cinema. For me, more than the issue of global terrorism, I wanted to  show the plight of our nurses who migrate to these troubled countries. We had very good technicians on board, people who understood quickly what we needed to achieve. We can’t go and shoot in the actual location of Iraq. Recreating Iraq of 2014 was the toughest part of the film. You could say that we’ve made a film that matches international style. I guess we managed to do that by 60-70 per cent.

Take Off review: India arrives on global stage with thrilling rescue drama

The film got a tremendous response at IFFI 2017. I guess before we take it to the world, it was important that Take Off is accepted pan-India. Did the screening at IFFI serve that purpose?

For regional cinema, or mainstream cinema, we usually target theatrical releases. Within that section, we tend to lose out on film festivals outside India.  They need premières, we didn’t have that chance. From our point of view, Take Off has gained from theatrical releases, and now we are slowly approaching different festivals. My friends and filmmakers from Mumbai have started seeing the film from a different perspective only after it entered into competition at IFFI. We were supposed to remake it in Hindi, with Jet Airways having agreed to produce it, but then Tiger Zinda Hai happened and so we dropped the idea.

You mentioned at the press conference that the story came to you. What was the rough draft like, and how did the story change once PV Shajikumar and you got down to penning the script and screenplay?

The film has two separate tracks that intervenes at a point which happens in Iraq. The first idea came from a thought about a female protagonist, a divorced lady who is getting married for the second time and she needs to hide her pregnancy from her first child. I got this idea sometime between 2010-2012. The Iraq crisis broke out in 2014, then we met some nurses who returned from Iraq. We thought then why can’t we place this story with the nurses’ episode.

We didn’t take any personal story of the nurses, our characters were purely fictional, but the idea how they come and how the rescue happened, we had to research a lot. We took a believable theory. Certain people from the Indian embassy also helped us. The government couldn’t declassify the episode, but certain events were taken from it. There were events taken from the 2015 Yemen rescue [evacuation of Indians from Yemen by Indian armed forces] and even from the killing of non-Muslims by a Sunni extremist group in Bangladesh in 2016, like the terrorists asking the hostages to recite the Quran. The only problem we had was that it was only in India that the full version got cleared. I got a fatwa from Saudi Arabia that I cannot enter their country.

Well, you took away my question about the film vindicating the popular belief that it is Saudi Arabia that controls the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).

It’s actually the fact. Just look at the various newspaper reports. Of course, no one will say it publicly. Saudi Arabia told us that we shouldn’t be mentioning their country. Another part that was questioned by certain Islamic countries is Sameera using the burkha (veil) to hide her pregnancy. Even for the other Middle East release, I was asked to remove all the Saudi portions, they even asked me to remove certain portions of Sameera from the first flashback scenes. Three hours before it’s scheduled screening, Kuwait banned the film. We have a good population of Indian nurses there. Sadly, we couldn’t show the film there.

Our nurses, especially our sisters from Kerala have to make tough career choices. You briefly mentioned this key point at IFFI press conference. No one wishes anyone to be caught in a troubled land, but hypothetically speaking, if the 2014 rescue operation didn’t happen, we wouldn’t have been able to know about the plight of our nurses working in these countries. Is that a fair point?

For me other than discussing a subject on global terrorism, this is actually a tale on how the nurses from Kerala are suffering when they are taken to certain war zone areas. They don’t even know there is a conflict in that region. One of the nurses learns that this is Saddam Hussein's hometown, one girl then questions, 'Who is Saddam Hussein?' Most of our girls don’t know the socio-political situation in these countries. A lot of our nurses migrated to America, Canada in the 1980s. These nurses became a role model for the future generations. From the moment they enrol into their colleges, all they want is to take off from Kerala. They don’t want to stay in our country because nursing still doesn’t pay well. 

If the 2014 Indian nurses rescue operation didn’t happen then we would have been able to tell Sameera’s story in some other manner or through another incident. Usually, we have not been able to show our nurses in the right space. We are just making characters out of them, not showing what exactly they do.

Classified files entitle a filmmaker to use creative liberty.  What creative liberties did you use for Take Off?

Almost 90% of the film is fictionalised. The Indian nurses had mobile phones with them, we showed they didn’t and it was only Sameera who got access to a satellite phone, this was taken from a different rescue operation. A lot of things were fictionalised, but I needed to address certain key issues — how the Yazidis (Kurdish minorities) communities have been treated as slaves.

Second, in the initial screenplay we didn’t have an Indian terrorist working for ISIS. During the film process, we discovered that there are Indians, especially, Kerala youth who get recruited by ISIS. Our character (Indian terrorist in ISIS) is Malayali, but the story was based on the Kalyan youth (Areeb Majeed) who was brought back to India. He was treated by a Malayali nurse in an ISIS camp. Then we got some help from Al Jazeera channel and also Vice News, they helped us in recreating the Iraq episode. There were friends working in Najaf, Iraq, who also helped us a lot.

I’m sure there is a story behind the casting of Parvathy, Kunchacko Boban and Farhadh Faasil. Can you share with us how the casting came about? Were they your first choice actors?

Though we had not written the script for her, we asked Parvathy whether she would be fine playing a divorced lady, and mother of an eight-year-old. She gave her nod. The 2014 episode resulted in a story progression. I think it was special for her to deliver Sameera in the right sense, the right way. The whole film hinges on Sameera’s shoulders.

Like Parvathy, Boban, too, is a good friend. So, he too joined quickly. Farhadh came on board after the final draft was ready. They were no auditions. The original Indian ambassador to Iraq (Ajay Kumar) was a 38-year-old young man. I believe he was one of the youngest Indian ambassadors. Manoj (Faasil) was not based on Ajay Kumar, the only thing similar was that he too was a Keralite.

I only saw Parvathy in Qarib Qarib Singlle, where I thought she was fine, but I’m totally blown away by her show in Take off.  You had the best scene in the house. What did you make of her performance?

We didn’t shoot the film in chronological order. So, she had to keep her character progression in mind. A film like this doesn’t have a big budget. We couldn’t afford a second unit crew to set up a location as soon as we finished one set-up. So, we had long gaps. The entire film was shot in a total of 50 days, with an interval of two months. Not just Parvathy, but all the actors had to maintain a continuity.

She used to prepare a lot about how her pregnancy should be. There are certain sequences where she had to gain a lot of weight. Prosthetics were used barely. The sequence where Shaheed (Boban) touches her belly is original. She drank lot of water to make the bump stand out. There was never any drop in the pace of her performance. We didn’t have too many dates to shoot the film in order. We shot the end portion in the beginning and most of the flashback shots too. Certain sequences which come at the beginning were shot in the end. So, that progression had to be maintained by her. That was the biggest challenge for her, but she came through it very well.

One of the most defining scenes of the film was when Ibru runs from the hospital, only to get left scared by the image of the rampaging mob.  He jumps back into the arms of his mother Sameera, but then he opens his eyes, he sees Shaheed following. Without any dialogues, that scene explained the complexity of the relationship between the trio.

The film is full of conflicts. As soon as one conflict is resolved, another conflict starts. Ibru notices the third person in his house. A boy child gets matured soon. Sameera is unaware about it. She thought that Ibru is the same kid who she met in the last vacation. Within a year’s time, he has grown enough to understand that this man Shaheed is no ordinary friend. Out on the street, there is another conflict happening, I wanted the two conflicts to be brought out in one scene. That scene was when the interval comes in.

You told me that the budget of your film was just Rs6.5 crore. Looking at the film, it is hard to imagine how you could put up such a spectacle in such a tight budget?

Well, this can happen only in regional cinema. We have a proper schedule. We generally shoot our first scene before the breakfast. We maintained it throughout the shoot save for the 3-4 days when we shot in the night. Unlike Bollywood, we don’t have the luxury of shooting a scene multiple times. Credit to our technical team for pulling off those scenes. There were members from my VFX crew who have worked in big scale films, but they also also know how to carry out good work in a limited budget too. My good friend Viral Thakkar carried out most of the complicated scenes. Other portions, the climax area (border crossing) we shot it in Hyderabad where most of the area is clear, the chopper and everything were added later by Prasad EFX.

Take Off and Tiger Zinda Hai are films borne out of the same real episode. A Salman Khan film is expected to rake in huge box office numbers. If it succeeds, does it take away something from Take Off or you are happy with the response to your Malayalam film?

Well, here it is all about perspective. There was another theory to the episode, that most of the militants in the hospitals were actually Indian commandos, but I don’t believe in that theory. Ajit Doval (then national security advisor to the prime minister) came to the scene and he managed to put in Indian commandos, who rescued the nurses. That is a complicated theory which is hard to believe. They can make film on this theory. I’m not against that but you can’t alter the fact so much in a way that... we need to respect those women who actually came out of that situation. It must also be noted that India could only rescue these nurses, there are still more, especially the construction labourers whose whereabouts we still don’t know. This story (Tiger Zinda Hai) can be told from a R&AW agent’s perspective, but they should also show that these nurses have suffered a lot.

You dropped the idea of making a Hindi film once you found that Tiger Zinda Hai was based on the same episode. Was it that simple to not go ahead with a Hindi remake?

We can’t make it again because if a mainstream star from Bollywood like Salman Khan is making a film on the same idea, of course, the larger audience will believe this (Tiger Zinda Hai) theory. However, that to me is not the fact.

One criticism that I had against Akshay Kumar’s Airlift (2016) was that here was a story where the real hero Mathunny Mathews was a Malayali and the director Raja Krishna Menon turned him into a Punjabi Ranjit Katyal.  Since most of the nursers were Malayalis, can we say that only a Malayali film likes yours could have done justice to the episode?

I don’t think so. If you take a film on a larger scale, then defiantly whole of India should understand. This was a regional film so we used Malayalam as a mode of communication. Had I made the film in Hindi, I would have had Malayali nurses but they would have spoken a larger language, Hindi for everyone to understand. I liked Airflit because that was not your typical Bollywood film. They had shown certain things close to reality. You can have a star, but Tiger Zinda Hai will need to address the main issues. Then I have no problem with it.

When it comes to making films based on true incidents, is it fair to create a larger than life cinema to tell such true tales?

We need certain level of drama for people to understand. There is difference when a Kathryn Bigelow makes a The Hurt Locker (2008) and a Zero Dark Thirty (2012). The former was very much real, while the latter had certain drama added to it.

What I meant to say was they don't usually depict their true stories in a larger than life avatar, where the hero is taking down 100 bad men, filled with plenty of over-the-top drama, and action.

Yes, that’s true but I don’t think India has reached a stage where we can make such realistic films. It will probably take about another 10-15 years where we can afford a film without songs, over-the-top action. I’m talking about the mainstream audience. We can always make a Newton (2017), Titli (2015) for the multiplex crowd. However, for your mainstream audience we still require a certain formula to it. Look at Dangal (2016), I think that had a correct earthy balance. We saw the same mix with Chak De! India (2007).  Both films were about women empowerment, but stories were told with a male protagonist. So, we still need this male protagonist to tell such tales. Farhadh Faasil is no superstar, but we still required a influential character like Manoj but he doesn’t overtake the female lead.

India’s has chosen Newton as its official entry to Oscars. Leave aside the director in you, but between Take Off and Newton, which film do you think has more global appeal?

Newton has the global appeal. We didn’t send our film for Oscars consideration due to personal reasons. Newton has got the quality to reach globally. Earlier, I thought the Marathi film Court (2014) stood a great chance of being nominated for the Best Foreign Language category, but it didn’t make it to the final round. It had all the ingredients which were required for an international viewer, but it didn’t go that far.

For Academy Awards, you have to hold a number of screenings in the United States. It requires a lot of money. Now that’s a different game altogether. The government of India is proving to be of little help. I have heard that from this year onwards, the NFDC (National Film Development Corporation of India) is giving some Rs1 crore for film promotions in US. We don’t seem to be finding the reasons why we are being denied. I hope Newton reaches the final round, but the film that won the Golden Peacock (Best Film) at IFFI, French film 120 Beats Per Minute stands a good chance in the foreign category. A Hollywood Reporter report didn’t name Newton as a possible winner.

It’s your first film as a director, but you’ve been a successful editor for a decade. Now directing and editing your own film, how different is it from just editing a film?

This is nothing like I got a promotion from an editor’s chair to a director’s chair. I think it is an equal struggle like how an assistant director or a person from outside an industry would go through to make a film.

But by being a director don’t you have the final call as to what goes in the final edit?

Yes, that is true but there are certain advantages and lot of disadvantages too. It’s a challenge as to how you direct actors. My film was written in a way that I can only afford one take. There is a perspective for which the set has been built, a perspective for which the VFX has been created. So, I can’t go with a different take, a different option for my actor to perform. So, in a way, I have tied my actors’ hands. This is the boundary and you have to perform within that. Certain actors, especially those from theatre background would get offended as they don’t get much space to perform, They don’t get much freedom to take the scene to a next level.

So you were not looking for perfection from your actors.

No, it is a way of perfection from the technical aspect. From an actor’s point of view, he can’t play around with a particular scene. It’s because of the low budget. My film is a survival thriller. It had to be told in such a manner where intrigue has to be maintained from the first to the last scene. For that I had to make a correct, clear progression in the script. The budget constraints didn’t allow us to go for too many takes. That is a disadvantage but the advantage as an editor is that there are not too many scenes to be cut. We don’t lose much of our scenes. A big budget Bollywood film can afford to get a scene removed or reshoot if it doesn’t work in the edit.

Can you talk about your background?

I graduated from the Adyar Film Institute in Tamil Nadu. I did film editing. I started my career in Malayalam cinema, then slowly moved to Tamil and Telugu.  As for my family, I have a brother who works as a doctor in Thiruvananthapuram. My wife is a techie and works in Kochi. We have a two-year-old kid.

What’s the status on Vishwaroopam 2?

It’s in the post production stage. The film will probably release next year. Hopefully, we won’t have trouble releasing like last time. Mr Kamal Haasan, though, is into a whole different gear now (politics). Anything can happen any point of time, but we’re hoping for a smooth release.

Finally, what’s next for you after Take Off ? 

I have an idea. We are trying to work out the cast though. Once everything is locked, I’ll b more than happy to share the details with you. It will be a regional drama film.