In a scene from the 2012 Malayalam film Ustad Hotel — winner of the Indian National Film Award for Best Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment — the discussion centres around sulaimani tea and life.
One of the protagonists, an old cook imparting recipes and life lessons to his avid grandson, says, “Every sulaimani needs a bit of mohabbat (love) in it… and when you take a sip, you just know.” Watching the movie, and gazing along with the actors at the choppy waters off the Malabar coast, you feel what they feel, and as they take a sip, you know.
It’s simple yet soulful dialogues like these that fetched Anjali Menon the National Award for Best Dialogue for 2012-2013. The film’s dialogues — natural, very real world, yet with the right smattering of northern Keralite, and particularly, the Kozhikode dialect — were its biggest draws. All the more surprising, when Anjali reveals that she did not know how to read or write the language until 2005! “Like many other languages, Malayalam is very different in its written form, than the spoken version. I struggled with it completely. The beauty of these films is in the dialogue. My knowledge of it being basic, I stuck to really simple dialogue. My characters speak in a simple way: it’s much easier for me to work with what I know, and for some reason, it resonated with people,” said the soft spoken, down-to-earth Anjali, over the phone from Mumbai, where she lives.
The director and scriptwriter — who grew up in Dubai — has just three films to her credit, but has made waves with her nuanced understanding and mouthing of modern and young Keralite sensibilities. Her stories straddle relationships in the present day, cross-generational tensions, and life away from home as NRIs, all presented against a kaleidoscope of slick cinematography. Ustad Hotel, in particular, is a crowd favourite for its story with a humanitarian moral, set against frames of the region’s delicious old-world cuisine and hospitality.
“I’m not one of those people who can write on demand, and prefer to work on my own time and inclinations. I have very strong limitations with what I can do in Malayalam. But learning the language in order to be able to write the script was very rewarding. Today, I have a child and I treasure the possibility of being able to pass on the language to him,” says Anjali.
Yet, despite these ‘drawbacks’, Anjali is hailed as one among the blooming crop of ‘new age’ Malayalam filmmakers, moving away from the larger than life-macho hero confines that have ruled the state’s cinema of late. The newer, experimental films are full of unabashedly urban men and women who lead lifestyles and make choices that go beyond the norm.
HOMECOMING: Anjali’s directorial venture Manjadi-kuru is set largely in the late 70s
But Anjali says she feels more of an outsider. “I’m just some sort of gypsy who has wandered into the whole set-up. But it’s a great time to be passing through, with lots of interesting people making interesting concepts. Wonderful voices are emerging, doing things never seen before. Even the film trailers and songs are so fresh and exciting. You can’t expect a set sort of syntax anymore. I think it’s due to audiences being more open to it; that’s the biggest payoff.”
Her upbringing in the UAE has “an inevitable result on my work,” she says. “The closest description would be that of a reverse migrant — someone who has lived most of her life abroad — and it was a conscious decision on my part to move back to India. But my experiences as a Gulf kid had a huge result on my work. For instance, Ustad Hotel was about the protagonist making the hard choice on where he wanted to live, India or abroad: you could definitely see parallels to how I’ve chosen to live my life.”
“At some level, I have roots in every place I’ve lived. That kind of consciousness shapes how we think. For instance, take the simple cultural act and value of wearing a sari. Today, I relish wearing saris, because I’ve not had enough opportunities to do it before. I’m clad in one as I speak to you,” Anjali notes. “Obviously, there will alw-ays be people who know better about this land than I do, but I’m not in a space where I want to compare myself with anyone. I don’t want to try and fit in.”
SOULFUL SIPS: Ustad Hotel is a tale of relationships and finding one’s true calling
Which is probably why her films are a class apart. Anjali’s other major film — Manjadikuru (Lucky Red Seeds) — more of an art-house creation that she directed, swept awards at the South Asian International Film Festival in New York back in 2009, winning Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematographer and Best Emerging Talent, and won Kerala State film awards as well. Its story, too, was themed on the rootlessness of migrant life, and homecoming.
Talking about the films’ success, Anjali says “the fact they even got made is amazing, and very rewarding. Writing seems very exotic and romantic, and I’ve had some luck with it, but my heart lies in direction.” She doesn’t rule out the possibility of directing someone else’s screenplay or script, if it’s something she can connect to.
Simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication, and it lies at the heart of Anjali’s work and ethos, even in the way she carefully selects her words during the interview. “I do believe that about life in general; keeping it simple really works. Complicated doesn’t necessarily have to be good. I’d rather use two words instead of three, if it brings home the point. Just a little can go a long way, and if what is communicated is of value, you don’t need to dress it up.”
It’s the reason why her own film production company is called Little Films. The outfit develops and promotes independent film and digital projects with distinct content.
For now, Anjali is ready to let her hair down and have some fun. “It took several years to make and release Manjadikuru (the film ran into censorship issues). Now I’m penning this story which has young, fun characters in their early 20s, and I’m looking forward to making that with Anwar Rasheed (director of Ustad Hotel), who is producing it.”
Asked if she has faced any problems being the rare woman at the helm in Malayalam films, she says, “Personally, my mindset when faced with a problem is I choose not to think it’s because I’m a woman, but rather one I’m facing as an individual. I believe in equal opportunities. I’ve worked with several individuals and groups of people, and had a positive experience, but I won’t deny that sexism exists.”
Neither has she toed feminist angles in her work. “While Happy Journey (her short film which was one of ten films in Kerala Café, an anthology) had a woman as the central character, it’s more important to explore how men view women, and understand why men think about women the way they do. Even young Faizi’s point of view in Ustad Hotel was about a choice. He could either choose to see women the way his father did, as unnecessary burdens in the quest for a son, or look at them differently. The idea is to dignify the female characters,” states Anjali.
Anjali cites Robert Altman, Wong Kar Wai, Krzysztof Kieœlowski, and among Indian filmmakers, Gulzar, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Shyam Benegal, Padmarajan, Venu Nagavally and Fazil, as her influences. Her other loves? Food and poetry. “While writing Ustad Hotel, certain things were very clear. One, that it would be set in Kozhikode (Calicut), and that the story would be told through food. But the core of the story was Sufi principles. A lot of Rumi’s poetry is about love, and how an integral part of expressing love is through food. That’s when I thought of the role food plays, at a much higher level. Calicut is the Mecca of hospitality, where influences of food and Arab trade are so strong. Such cultural influences really helps stories,” Anjali says. Or, perhaps, it’s because her stories come with a bit of mohabbat in them…
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