Why Malayalam film 'Momo in Dubai' produced by an Emirati filmmaker is creating waves

The film tells a positive tale of an expat's life in the Gulf

By Lekha Menon

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Published: Thu 16 Feb 2023, 11:03 AM

Last updated: Mon 20 Feb 2023, 3:30 PM

One of Nahla Al Fahad’s fondest childhood memories is that of watching a Bollywood film every week on Channel 33. The award-winning Emirati filmmaker recalls swooning over Shah Rukh Khan in Devdas and being touched by Sridevi’s Lamhe, to name just two Indian films that impressed her. This was of course, much before the OTT revolution that blurred boundaries and introduced movie lovers to cinematic gems from across the world.

But back then, apart from the music, dancing and colours, what impressed young Nahla the most were the emotions and relationships that underpinned the storylines of most Indian movies.

“Bollywood ‘s popularity cut across geographies because the storytellers and filmmakers were proud of their culture and family relationships that inevitably got reflected in the films they made,” she says, “In the UAE, we grew up watching and loving these movies. In fact, we connected to Indian culture through them.”

Little did Nahla know that years later, she would herself play an important part in showcasing the universality of Indian cinema, through a collaboration that, in many ways, represents the deep cultural bond between the two nations. As co-producer of the Malayalam film Momo in Dubai (alongside Harris Desom and Anish PB) , that releases in the UAE today, Nahla is proud of the new step she has taken in her already accomplished career.

“I have always wanted to push boundaries with cinema and team up with filmmakers from India, Syria, Lebanon or any other country. India was a great choice because of our shared love for the movies as well as the ties between the two countries.”

Emirati Director and Co Producer of 'Momo in Dubai,' Nahla Al Fahad, with Scriptwriter and Co Producer Zakariya and the film's director, Ameen Aslam
Emirati Director and Co Producer of 'Momo in Dubai,' Nahla Al Fahad, with Scriptwriter and Co Producer Zakariya and the film's director, Ameen Aslam

A Connection Through Cinema

Her association with the movie began during the pandemic when she got introduced to Zakariya Mohammed, director of the much-lauded 2018 Malayalam film Sudani From Nigeria, through social media.

Nahla and Zakariya forged a friendship over a common interest in cinema and soon started exchanging notes on scripts and stories online. Zakariya who was working on a tale about expats in Dubai and the challenges they face through the eyes of a young boy, shared the idea with Nahla who loved it. Their long zoom conversations then turned into offline catch-ups once the skies opened up, and an interesting UAE-India cinematic collaboration was born.

A scene from 'Momo in Dubai'
A scene from 'Momo in Dubai'

Life Through a Child’s Lens

Momo in Dubai is as much rooted in the UAE as it is in India or more specifically, the state of Kerala, from where a large number of expat workers hail. Tracing the dreams and aspirations of Keralites in the region, the film follows 9-year-old Momo (played by Master Athrey) whose lower-middle class wage-earner father Habeeb (Aneesh Gopinathan) gets his family to the UAE for a visit despite immense financial hardships.

For the hyperactive Momo, it’s an unbelievable opportunity to visit a foreign country, be photographed in front of the Burj Khalifa and get a chance to boast about his adventures to his friends. The film is about the hopes of millions of workers whose lives get intertwined with the multi-cultural landscape of the UAE even as they toil hard to fulfill the dreams of their families and provide them with a better life.

Master Athrey plays the central character of Momo in the film
Master Athrey plays the central character of Momo in the film

Zakariya, whose Sudani From Nigeria and the subsequent Halal Love Story touched a chord with audiences beyond Kerala with their charming characters and refreshing innocence, says he always wanted to tell stories from a child’s perspective.

For Momo in Dubai, he drew heavily on his own experiences in the UAE and observations of the lives and desires of people around him. “My brother stays here and now, even I have the Golden Visa, which brings me to this city often. Moreover, we know many people and each of them have their own experiences, struggles and dreams to share. It’s these collective experiences that inspired me to write this script,” he says.

With co-writer Ashif Kakkodi, he set about charting a moving story that spoke about serious expat issues with a touch of poignancy and a dollop of humor and positivity. What made it different from the several movies made on a similar theme (the 2016 Nivin Pauly starrer Jacobinte Swargarajyam and Fahad Faasil’s 2012 release Diamond Necklace come to mind), was that Momo in Dubai centred around a child and his outlook towards life. It is not always rose-tinted but the sense of hope never dies even when the going is rough.

“It was a creative challenge to project such issues and dreams through the eyes of a young boy. But I have been influenced by directors like (Iranian filmmaker) Majid Majidi who chose this route to convey the most complex emotions. As a writer and filmmaker, I am most interested in exploring intimate stories and human emotions, especially the unconditional love and support that we need to give each other,” says Zakariya.

Director’s Hat

The directorial baton was passed on to Ameen Aslam, a Kerala native who has been an Abu Dhabi resident for the last 14 years. Ameen and Zakariya go back a long way with the former having worked with the director on short films, theatre, ads and documentaries back in Kerala. Together they found in Momo’s story, a perfect channel to share the journey of millions of Malayali workers in the Gulf.

“Every middle class or lower middle class person who comes to the UAE to make a career has one dream – to bring his family here and take them around the city. I have had that experience myself when I brought my family here for a visit the first time,” says Ameen.

In the film, Momo’s father yearns to meet his wife and kids but work pressures force him to cancel the long-pending trip to Kerala. Eventually, despite the financial difficulties it entails, he decides to fly them over for a holiday, thus beginning a delightful tale about the joys and despair of the ‘Gulf Malayali’s’ life. “Immigrant struggles on screen are nothing new but I wanted to give it a positive and inspiring twist,” says Ameen who included several nuggets from his own life in the film.

For the debutant director, Momo in Dubai is also a tribute to the all-inclusive, welcoming spirit of the UAE. “I came to this country over a decade ago and have made it my home. Throughout these years, I have received a lot of support from my employers and friends to work and fulfill my ambitions. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that this is a region where dreams come true,” he adds.

The coming of Nahla on board made it a true collaboration of like-minded artistes who wanted to share human stories that resonated with people across borders. “It was a learning experience for me too,” Nahla admits. “A great takeaway throughout the making of this film was the focus on emotions in the way stories are told and the manner in which family bonds are portrayed. I believe cinema should tell similar stories that are authentic and real.”

While both Zakariya and Ameen are already planning their next projects, Nahla has plenty on her plate too. She is working on documentary, drama series and a movie script but something more urgent is on the anvil – a trek to the theaters to catch SRK’s recent blockbuster Pathaan and a trip to Kerala to watch Momo in Dubai with the audience there. “This UAE-India collaboration is just the beginning, Inshallah there will be a lot more,” she says.

(Momo in Dubai releases in the UAE today)

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