Mahesh Narayanan Director’s Cut: On being labelled Islamophobic, Malik, Take Off and his Hindi debut

·12 min read

It's the final quarter of the year, a time for stock-taking. No cinematic trend in India in 2021 has rivalled the manner in which Malayalam cinema swept past language barriers and 'national' media apathy to grab eyeballs across the country. Mahesh Narayanan has been a moving force behind this trend and a beneficiary. His C U Soon and Malik have made waves during the pandemic, with Malik being one of 2021's most talked about films. He is now juggling multiple directorial ventures, including his first in Tamil and Hindi.

The going has not been uniformly smooth though, with a section of Kerala's audience accusing Malik of Islamophobia. In an interview spanning several hours, the award-winning editor-writer-director spoke to me about this allegation that has dogged him since Take Off (2017), his politics and his filmmaking sensibilities. Excerpts:

Has the storm in Kerala after Malik's release settled down?

I think so. Differing viewpoints on cinema are inevitable anyway. But now people have started checking out the film's cinematic moments.

Some Kerala viewers consider you Islamophobic. How do you react to that?

Whichever way you treat a film, there will always be different interpretations. For example, when Raheemun Aleemun from Malik's soundtrack came out, some people criticised it because it uses different names of the Prophet €" they felt it should not have been used as a song. But later even people from the Middle East started recreating it, stating that it has to be seen.

It's okay for people to have their own take. And it's their right to criticise. Islamophobia is prevalent in today's India so people are bound to be suspicious.

I only disagree with those who call Malik a dishonest film. Fiction is anyway a take. You can say an article is dishonest. How can a fictional film be dishonest?

Do you still maintain that Malik is not based on the Beemapally shooting of 2009 in which six Muslims were killed?

I am inspired by certain events, but it's not only about Beemapally. Marad is also in the film, so are other communal incidents from coastal Kerala, so is Thoothukudi. However, largely because of the terrain I explore, people relate Ramadapally and Edavathura in the film to these places (the neighbouring localities of Beemapally and Cheriyathura in Thiruvananthapuram) that are similar to them.

But I'm not recording history. Malik is fiction. Many people are accusing me of making a propaganda film to rewrite history. I can't rewrite history since I'm not portraying real characters with real names. This film is only inspired.

I'm just happy that because of it, people are revisiting certain chapters in Kerala's history that many would have preferred us to forget or term as communal riots. Youngsters who didn't know of Beemapally are reading about it.

When I started writing the first draft, friends in the media got to know what I'm working on and asked: do you really want to get into this subject?

Fahadh Faasil, Vinay Forrt and Nimisha Sajayan in a still from Malik
Fahadh Faasil, Vinay Forrt and Nimisha Sajayan in a still from Malik

Fahadh Faasil, Vinay Forrt and Nimisha Sajayan in a still from Malik

Why?

You see, even the media are not inclined to report such incidents. Not only Beemapally, but certain other incidents also. Maybe compromise deals happened between those affected and those responsible. I feel the guilty are always protected.

I live in Kovalam, which is near Vizhinjam. If you are comparing Malik with Beemapally€¦ I've also mentioned the upcoming harbour project commissioned to a corporate agency in the film, because I've been seeing how land has been acquired since it was sanctioned.

People are forced to move out of certain places. Irrespective of which government is in power, the system takes advantage of even natural calamities like the tsunami and Cyclone Ockhi.

The harbour is with a giant corporate group. I have seen this corporate run ambulances in the region giving free medical check-ups.

And slowly, that area is being taken away, people are asked to move out, they are given houses in concrete buildings that serve no purpose for them since these are people who survive on the sea. It's a huge wider scenario and I'm always connecting things to a wider scenario.

A riot happens but we don't know the reason. We are told it's a communal riot, but it is not, and the public will never understand that it's state-orchestrated. At one stage we will see a situation close to a genocide. Then there will be an exodus because people feel unsafe there.

I have seen communal harmony being broken, barricades coming up, people being kept in two regions saying, "Now you people don't go there." All this has affected me.

I haven't understood your concern about the ambulances.

These ambulances create an impression that they are helping people but I'm suspicious whether they are being run to gain people's trust. These are just my doubts and fears.

Is it medical surveillance? Kerala has a strong health sector. The government is strong in the health sector and reaches everywhere. So when ambulances give free blood tests, medical camps etc in an area and it's not from the government or an NGO, I'll be suspicious.

The people of this region are also suspicious of anyone coming from outside the delta. Even if I go location hunting for a shoot, people will come and ask, "Why have you come here?" I will say I've come to check a location. Their first question is: "Are you looking for a location for some corporate?" They think any outsider is looking for land.

There are two sides to this. Many say, lots of people will get jobs and a means to make money. However, no one knows what happens to those who are displaced.

In such a place, efforts are made to get people out. First it will be normal talk. It gradually becomes threatening. If that does not work, there will be an incident that will be tagged with another kind of label. This is similar to many riots that have happened in India.

In many areas in this coastal region, people have had to leave at different times. Why? A place suddenly gets a reputation as being unfit for human living. Why? And if a resistance arises among people, what will happen? That is all I wondered to make a fictional feature film.

But would you specifically address the accusation of Islamophobia?

If speaking about extremism and political Islam gets me this criticism, I am ready for it. This is equivalent to criticising RSS.

Everyone says the problem is that I showed a green flag. They concluded that it's the Muslim League's flag. But a green flag does not belong only to the Muslim League. INL too has a green flag. It cannot be seen as a specific party's flag.

(Note: the Indian Union Muslim League is a coalition partner in the Congress-led United Democratic Front in Kerala. INL, the Indian National League, is a minor member of the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front currently in government in Kerala.)

Besides, I am also telling the story of a friendship. And the film is set in 2018. Many people say: you have changed history. What comes first in history? The year of the event, right? So when you look at 2018, won't you understand who was ruling then?

I have given all the characters a grayness. No character is filled with virtue or vice, you see their circumstances. But the fact that the politician in this film is a Muslim is the reason why I'm facing these accusations.

A still from Malik
A still from Malik

Nimisha Sajayan, Fahadh Faasil in a still from Malik

Yes, there's criticism because the corrupt politician Abu (Dileesh Pothan) is Muslim.

If I put a Christian or Hindu in that place, I would have been told the exact opposite.

It's like MT Sir (MT Vasudevan Nair) said: it would not be possible to make (the 1973 film) Nirmalyam today. In Nirmalyam, the man Narayani sleeps with due to her financial desperation is Muslim. Today the argument would be: why did you portray a Muslim like that?

Otherwise, we should show everyone as neutral. Santhosh Echikkanam had a similar problem after he wrote Biriyani. It's a nice story but a lot of people criticised it because the premise is that the biryani not eaten by guests at a Muslim wedding is buried €" meaning, it is wasted. So in his next story, he named the characters A, B, C, D. (He laughs)

The same thing happened to my friend Hareesh, the writer of Meesha. Mathrubhumi stopped publishing it, so DC did.

Can we stop making films fearing this intolerance? It is everywhere.

You equated your criticism of extremism in Islam with criticism of RSS. All religious extremism is condemnable, but is there an equivalence? RSS comes from India's majority community and is entirely the establishment in India now. Muslims, however, are a minority, and unlike in Kerala, a beleaguered minority across the rest of India.

What you say is right. They are an oppressed community. All I'm addressing in Malik is: what would the situation be if a resistance was born among them?

In the film, Ahammadali Sulaiman (Fahadh Faasil) tells Abu, "We used to fast together and you have stabbed us in the back." Earlier, (Sulaiman's wife) Roseline (Nimisha Sajayan) accuses Abu of acting in his own interests in the matter of the harbour project and he replies that if they oppose a government project, then as a minister he will have to participate in it. Meaning, he is not one of them. No one is addressing that, they are just addressing the religion.

Many people say I'm showing a "good Muslim" and "bad Muslim". What I'm saying is, ultimately "good human", "bad human". And how do problems arise between friends? How have people in all eras used religion to create divisions? Then they themselves say they are trying to resolve the discord, but divisions keep deepening and people get so embroiled in them that they are ultimately destroyed.

That's why I told you what MT Sir said. As filmmakers, artists, writers, we should be able to tell stories about what we see around us.

So why did you place the current happenings in the film in 2018?

None of those who are connecting Malik to Beemapally emphasise the line spoken by Joju George's character in the end. He says, "The Ramadapally firing was created by the police. There was no animosity between the communities there. It was orchestrated by the police with the support of the government that was in power at the time." If I'm trying to support someone, why should I include that line?

Were you careful while portraying Sulaiman because you were accused of Islamophobia after Take Off?

But Malik is not about Sulaiman. It is about an entire minority community in Kerala. It is about marginalised people.

Till date, most media in Kerala have not had the courage to discuss the reason behind the Beemapally firing, why a communal riot was created, some people were forced to flee, some relocated and a project is running there. Those who read this film as an account of Beemapally only want to say that it's Islamophobia and it has portrayed the victim as the predator. There is hardly any coverage of the incident itself. Look up "Beemapally firing" online €" after two threads you will get Malik. Because there are only that many references to the incident in the media. Many people want to keep it buried. Not just Beemapally, but the harbour project, Ring Road project, every project. I never say we don't need development. But what's the point of development that comes from displacing people?

Are you capable of making a light-hearted romance or comedy, far removed from the heavy subjects you've picked so far?

(He laughs) I've been trying, Anna. Seriously. I sat down to write a love story, but it turned into C U Soon. As an artist, I need to explore everything. But I seem to be affected by and imbibing the things around me. C U Soon emerged from a video I saw while making Take Off. It got clubbed with the love story. What can I do?

You have announced a Hindi film.

Yes, Phantom Hospital is based on research by the journalist Josy Joseph and produced by Priti Shahani (co-producer of Talvar, Raazi, Badhaai Ho).

Why is it in Hindi, not Malayalam?

Only because it is set in north India and Hindi is the language of the film's milieu.

Several people wanted me to direct a Hindi remake of Malik but I didn't want to do that because I made it in the context of the coastal terrain in a Malayalam-speaking community. Another director can do their take in a different space, I can't.

It's not that I have any fantasy of going to Bollywood. Definitely my mindset is always inclined towards the south, but this subject is relevant, well researched by Josy, and it's about a scam in north India so I had to stick to that geography. Whatever be the language, I want to do original content, and here I'm also getting to write Phantom Hospital.

I ask because you and Aashiq Abu are making Hindi films, and as a Malayalam film follower I fear that as Malayalam cinema gains more nationwide traction, Malayalam filmmakers will start trying to make Hindi films, assuming that will widen their audience, or they will modify their content, thus diluting the very rootedness in Malayali culture that gives their films the universality that is drawing a pan-India audience in the first place. How will you guard against that?

This is not the first time I have been asked to do a Hindi film. I have rejected projects that were not suited to my way of filmmaking nor close to my heart. I often ask myself: does this story have to be told? The answer, in this case, is, yes, and it has to be told in this manner, set in this environment. But whether I make a film in Hindi, Tamil or any other language, I won't lose my filmmaking sensibility or change my way of functioning.

Also, there's a certain freedom we get while making Malayalam cinema €" I want that freedom. I'm getting that with Priti and that's what I'm happy with.

For Anna M.M. Vetticad's reviews of Malik, C U Soon and Take Off, click here, here and here.

Anna M.M. Vetticad is an award-winning journalist and author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. She specialises in the intersection of cinema with feminist and other socio-political concerns. Twitter: @annavetticad, Instagram: @annammvetticad

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