Filmmaker Aashiq Abu, 41, shot to fame with the romantic comedy Salt N’ Pepper (2011), and went on to establish himself as one of Malayalam cinema’s most important storytellers with the revenge thriller 22 Female Kottayam (2012). Following a series of flops, he returned to critical acclaim with the love story, Mayaanadhi (2017). He is now preparing for the June 7 release of Virus, his most ambitious film yet. In a phone interview, Abu talks about finding inspiration in the extraordinary courage of ordinary people during last year’s Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala (which is also the subject of his film), and why he believes that the best is yet to come for the Malayalam film industry. Excerpts:
You’re releasing Virus a little over a year after the first case was reported in Kozhikode. When did you know this was a film that you wanted to make?
We started thinking about making this movie even as the epidemic was raging. After the first few cases were reported, we started thinking about it. (Virus writer) Muhsin Parari’s cousin works in the emergency department of the Government Medical College in Kozhikode, which was at the centre of the outbreak. In fact, he had attended to Lini Puthussery, the nurse who looked after the initial patients before succumbing to the infection herself. So we got to know about a lot of what was happening on the ground, at the hospital.
We were curious as well as fearful. Once the situation was brought under control, we started talking to a lot of people to find out what had happened, how the virus had spread and how it had been fought.
Rima Kallingal is playing a character based on Lini Puthussery. Is the film based entirely on true accounts?
To make the film we referred to a number of cases, although the film itself is a fictionalised account of the events surrounding the outbreak. The outbreak and its causes, the circumstances — these were like a big mystery and that’s how we decided to approach the film, because, otherwise, it would be like a documentary. There was a lot of speculation about the original source of the virus. To understand all of this, we relied a lot on a virology paper produced by Dr G Arunkumar (microbiologist, professor and head of Manipal Institute of Virology), who had dealt with the outbreak. He made the document available online. In fact, it is the only document available about the outbreak.
Right at the end of the trailer, we see the character played by Soubin Shahir being shunned by people. Were you intrigued by the fear and paranoia, which came into full play during the outbreak?
There was a lot of fear and paranoia in the affected districts (Kozhikode and Malappuram) at the time. I even recall that there was social boycott of the affected people and their families. There were no people on the streets, and the emergency department of the Government Medical College in Kozhikode, which is usually so crowded, was completely deserted. In public transport, people were sitting far apart from each other. But what really drew my attention was the collective spirit that rose up to fight the outbreak. This is especially true of the Class IV workers — the ones who dispose of medical waste, and the ambulance drivers, etc. — their services are essential. They came to the fore, putting themselves at risk, to fight the outbreak. Yes, they panicked at first, like everyone else, but they fought on. We have tried to do justice to these characters and their stories.
The cast, featuring Kallingal, Shahir, Parvathy, Tovino Thomas, Ramya Nambeesan, Asif Ali, Kunchacko Boban and even Revathy, is impressive.
The huge star cast was necessary to highlight the characters. This is so that people will pay attention to the characters. It was not originally meant to be a multi-starrer. It just became one. This is the first time that I’m working on such a large canvas.
You produced Maheshinte Prathikaaram (2016), one of the most well-received and critically acclaimed Malayalam films of recent years. Would you say, creatively and financially, this is one of the best times for the industry?
The industry has grown a lot over the last five years. There is a growing audience for Malayalam cinema in different countries, including South Korea and China, where Mohanlal films, especially, do very well. While I won’t call this the best time for Malayalam film industry because I believe the best is yet to come, I do believe this is a better time. And it will only get better, because the audience is changing, becoming more sensitive to quality, and, is, therefore, demanding better films.
Many described Mayaanadhi as your ‘return to form’. What would you say went wrong between 22 Female Kottayam and Mayaanadhi?
Every film is like an experiment. When I look back, I do know that I’ve had some success, but there are always corrections to be made. If you ask me about Gangster (2014), for example, then, yes, I definitely would love to go back and make some corrections. But this is true of all filmmakers. Everyone would like to go back in time and fix something.
Are you developing a script based on the life of social reformer Ayyankali (1863-1941), who worked to remove untouchability and caste-based discrimination in Travancore?
We had taken a break from working on that movie to make Virus. (Writers) Samkutty Pattomkary and Syam Pushkaran are writing the script for the Ayyankali movie.
In 2017, it seemed like the Malayalam film industry was poised on the verge of an important conversation about misogyny, but the last few months have been quiet.
It is just a start. We haven’t really started having this conversation, but you have to understand that this is a process. And, like all processes, it will take its time. Lots of people feel the bigger stars should be more responsible. But I don’t know. It’s a personal choice. Still, there are so many good people in the industry. Not all of them have chosen to speak publicly in support of the Women in Cinema Collective, but they are supporting them silently.