Directed by: Salim Ahamed
Music: Isaac Thomas Kootukapally
Lyrics: Rafeeque Ahamed
Starring: Salim Kumar, Zarina Wahab,
Mukesh, Nedumudi Venu,
For the longest of time, I've had the DVD of Adaminte Makan Abu (Abu, The Son of Adam) sitting on my shelf. For an even longer time, I'd heard about this film and how moving it is, and how deserving of its National Award for Best Film. I have no idea why I hadn't watched it until now.
Set in a little village in Kerala, seemingly cut off from the rest of a harsh world in its idyllic surroundings, Adaminte Makan Abu is the heartwarming story of a really good man, a man whose goodness reaps goodness from others.
When we first meet Abu (Salim Kumar), he's returning home after a visit to the nearby town where he hawks his wares. We learn that he and his wife, Aisu (Zarina Wahab) have one son, Sattar, who, after his marriage, has relocated to Dubai. He has completely ignored his parents since then. We also meet a few of the villagers – Hyder (Suraj Venjirameedu), the tea shop owner; Ustad (Thampi Anthony), the village elder/mystic; Govindan 'Master' (Nedumudi Venu), the village school teacher, etc.
Abu and Aisu are loving couple whose lifelong ambition it is to make the Hajj. This year, Abu tells Aisu, the Hajj committee have apparently decided to take twice the number of people as they did last year; they're calling for applications, and perhaps this year, he and Aisu should try to make the holy journey. Aisu is hesitant – can they afford it? Abu is sure Allah the merciful will show them the way. Even though it's only the wealthy for whom Hajj is mandatory, it's been his long-held dream to walk on the Holy Land.
Abu sells attar, religious tracts, and Ayurvedic medicine for a living. Aisu raises chickens and cows to help meet their needs. Abu's business is declining – no one wants attar any more; they get their perfumes from the Gulf. But he's hopeful that he will be able to visit Mecca.
The next morning, Abu makes a trip to Kozhikode (Calicut), to meet Ashraf (Mukesh), the proprietor of Akbar Travels. The local rich man, Maliyekkal Asnair Haji (TS Raju) had advised Abu not to place his faith in the Hajj committee – they draw lots from the pool of applications; it’s not necessary that everyone who applies gets to go.
Ashraf is a kindly man, and he promises that he will help Abu in whatever way he can. But first, Abu and Aisu need their passports. On his way back, Abu meets Ustad and asks him if the saint sees the Hajj in Abu's destiny. After all, the mystic has the gift of foresight. He also meets Govindan Master to ask for help with the documents that are needed. The next day, they get their photographs taken and submit their passport applications.
Running into Ashraf, Aisu is favourably impressed by his courtesy and consideration towards them. Things seem to be moving well. As days pass, Abu and Aisu do all they can to add to their Hajj funds. It’s a long struggle to make ends meet, much less save the money they need for this long journey, but however hard the struggle, it’s worth it.
One day soon after, a policeman comes to their house when Abu is away. He leaves behind a frightened Aisu and a terse message – ask Abu to come to the police station when he returns. Neither Abu nor Aisu know why he should be summoned so.
Abu decides to seek Govindan Master’s counsel. Abu is frightened that his son, Sattar, may have committed some crime. After all, the newspapers are full of such news. Govindan Master consoles him; there’s no use jumping to conclusions. He will accompany Abu to the station.
At the station, the police inspector wants to know how long Abu has lived in the Gulf. Abu is taken aback – he’s never been outside the state, let alone out of the country. But wasn’t there a case registered against him earlier? Yes, there was – it was a boundary dispute with his next door neighbour. But the committee of elders sorted it all out. It turns out that this is a part of the police enquiry that is needed for the passport. Abu leaves, relieved.
It is Hyder who lets Abu in on the ‘secret’. What the cop wanted was a bribe to clear the paperwork. If Abu gets his passport, he will be the first person in the region to have got one without filling the policeman’s coffers. Perhaps it was Govindan Master’s presence that stopped the inspector from asking Abu for money. Having cleared that up, Abu realises what he must do next. Pleased, the policeman promises him that the passports will be dropped off home.
Finally, the new passports arrive. (Only, Aisu cannot sign for Abu’s passport, and they’re forced to go to the post office to pick it up.) That night, they break their ‘piggy bank’ to count the money they have so steadfastly saved over the years. The next day, Abu takes the passports (and their savings) to Ashraf. It’s one step closer to realising his dream.
Abu is still trying to sell his wares, but as an old umbrella repair man tells him sadly, the times have passed them by. He, with his umbrella repairs and Abu with his box of attars are anachronisms in a fast changing world. Did Abu remember their old classmate who used to sell rusks and biscuits in the village? Now he owns eight bakeries in the city. Making money is also a talent. One that neither he nor Abu have.
Abu has to find some way of making some more money to meet his travel expenses. He goes to meet Johnson (Kalabhavan Mani) the timber mill owner, who welcomes him warmly. What can he do for Abu? Well, he and Aisu are planning to go on the Hajj this year. Johnson is more than happy. Has Abu made financial arrangements? That’s why he’s here. He owns a jackfruit tree; would Johnson take a look at it, and buy it for a reasonable price?
Johnson laughs. He had asked Abu about that tree a couple of years ago, but Abu hadn’t been willing to sell then. Now, he doesn't need to go see the tree; he sees it every day. Besides, this is not a business transaction – he will pay Abu Rs60,000 for the tree; is Abu agreeable? Abu is pleasantly taken aback. Johnson gives Abu Rs10,000 as advance. The rest of the money will reach Abu’s house within 10 days.
Abu is very happy. He hadn't reckoned on getting such a large sum so soon. But they still need some more money. Aisu decides to sell her earrings. This saddens Abu - one by one, all of Aisu's jewellery has been either pawned or sold off. But Aisu has no regrets. They were sold for necessities. She grieves, however, over having to sell her cow and calf, whom she treated like her children.
It's all for a good cause, however, and now Abu and Aisu have only one thing left to do. Take their leave of all their friends and neighbours, and beg their forgiveness for any sins of omission or commission.
Adaminte Makan Abu meanders through the world finding humanity and compassion at every turn. Salim Ahamed's world is peopled with niceness. Criticised for being 'too nice' and 'ideal', the village is still a microcosm of the universe, with all its contradictions. The film is rooted in the ethos of the Malayali landscape and community, and that makes the result more believable than otherwise. I'd like to believe that such a village, such people, exist (even if they are not often shown on screen) if only because it gives me hope for a better future.
The world that Ahamed imagines for Abu is limited to his wife and himself. Outside that charmed circle lies a small community of his neighbours and friends. And outside that, perhaps, lies his dreams and his ambitions - of making the Hajj before he dies. Abu and Aisu live a simple life prescribed by the Holy Quran, and Abu is conscious about not cheating anyone, or even of taking advantage of someone's generosity. Even if it means having to make do without something.
It's a mark of his goodness that, in their journey to seek forgiveness from their community, he also makes a long trip to meet the man who had filed a police case against him. It is this goodness that people respond to, including the man who had picked a fight with Abu.
It is this goodness that prompts people to offer their help to Abu - Johnson, the mill owner, initially offers a more than generous amount for the jackfruit tree; when it turns out to be hollow, he still wants Abu to take the money, since he had 'given his word'. Abu refuses his generosity; to his way of thinking, that would mean cheating someone. Which goes against not only his principles, but also the tradition of Hajj.
When Abu's plans fail, Govindan Master brings him his savings; grateful though he is, Abu has to refuse that as well. The rules governing the pilgrimage to Mecca are strict; one can only take financial assistance from blood relatives.
His goodness attracts Ashraf to him as well. When Ashraf learns of the debacle, he offers to send Abu and Aisu anyway, absorbing the cost of their travel, but Abu demurs. To go on this holy pilgrimage on credit? That will not do. Ashraf's parents couldn't afford to go to Mecca even though they had aspired to do so; now that he can afford the trip, they are no more. Abu's gentleness, and Aisu's longing touch a chord in his heart - could he send them in their stead?
Abu is gentle but steadfast in his refusal. That would mean that he and Aisu are going on Ashraf's parents' Hajj.
Salim Kumar, usually typecast into senseless roles that pass off as comedy, is brilliant as the old Abu. The way he walks, the deliberate cadence of his speech, his habit of gently nodding off ever so often - they all surpass the make up (Pattanam Rasheed) that transforms him - physically - into an old man.
In one of the final scenes, he tells Ashraf with a tinge of sadness in his voice, that you could plant a tree, water it, nurture it, and then, when it is large enough to cut, you find out that it's hollow inside, of no use, not even as firewood. On one level, it is the reason why they cannot go on the pilgrimage. On another, it stands as a metaphor for their son, Sattar, whom they had raised with such care, even selling off Aisu's gold chain to pay for his delivery, and who, all grown up and married to a rich wife, is ashamed to even acknowledge them as his parents. He's both gentle and caring, his goodness so palpable that one cannot help but root for him to achieve his dreams. The performance won him a National Award.
Zarina Wahab's performance is as loving and supportive as her character Aisu is on screen. Both she and Salim bring to life a couple who have been married a long time. Their affection for each other, the way they share their joys and worries, their gentle teasing – all evoke a sense of a couple who have grown old together, and who are content with their lives, however meagre that life might be. Witness their delight when they get hold of their brand new passports, the way she chides him about travelling at night even as she makes him a hot cup of tea, or the manner in which he exhorts her to wear footwear when she's outside - there might be snakes.
Supporting Zarina and Salim Kumar is an ensemble cast of 'character' actors who are well-known for their acting prowess - Nedumudi Venu (himself a National Award winner), Suraj Venjiramoodu (taking a breather from the hopelessly inane comic roles he's slotted into), Mukesh (who's made a career of 'supporting' roles), etc.
Ahamed's direction is deft, and he lets his story unspool leisurely (he's also the scenarist), without much, or indeed, any drama at all. There isn't any conflict, not outward at least; all the conflict in the film is Abu's own. He must make enough money for his and Aisu's journey, and while his friends and neighbours offer to help, each in their own way, he has to find a way of his own.
It was nice to see a man of faith being celebrated onscreen. In today's world, where to be 'religious' has a very pejorative meaning, it is refreshing to watch the story of a simple man whose life is defined by his faith, and who adheres to its principles in a sincere, non-preachy way. Even an agnostic like me was touched by Abu's perseverance in putting his faith and principles first.
Besides, it was also great to see a director extend a scene to capture a moment. Ahamed does that a few times in the film, but the two scenes that stood out were the one when Abu goes to the travel agents' for the first time. Almost unconsciously, he removes his footwear at the entrance. A man exiting quips in passing: 'If you leave your footwear outside, you may not find it when you return.' Abu quickly puts them back on. It's such a throwaway line, not necessary perhaps, but it establishes not only Abu's habits, but also underlines the difference between Abu's village, with its older traditions, and the urbanised town.
The second scene was when Abu learns from Hyder that the policeman had expected a bribe. Not having any idea of where he lives, Abu waylays the man on his way to work, introduces himself, apologises for his ignorance the previous day, and offers him some money. Now, most often, I'd expect the director to focus on Abu's reactions once the policeman reassures him that there's nothing to fear. Instead, Ahamed points us to the policeman's reaction – the smile on his face when he sees the money in Abu's hand, the pleasure with which he reassures Abu, the song on his lips as he happily cycles away. It's just a tiny scene, but again, so effective in establishing the character of the place and the people.
Madhu Ambat's cinematography, which delves into the nooks and crannies of the little village and showcases the dark realities that lie underneath, deservedly won him a National Award as well. Adaminte Makan Abu is well-crafted, both visually and aurally - the background score by Isaac Thomas Kootukapally, moving between hope and despair, between sadness and joy, helps set the mood of the film.
The ending is just what I expect from a Malayalam film (well, from a good Malayalam film) - it is not idealistic, but realistic. It is sad, yes, but it ends on a note of hope, simply because Abu himself has not lost hope. At some point, you are caught up in the fervour of his faith - he will make that pilgrimage. And, believer or otherwise, you find yourself praying that he will.