Zakariya Mohammed's Sudani from Nigeria swept the recently announced Kerala State Awards, picking up the honour for Best Debut Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor (Male), Best Character Artiste (Female), and Best Popular Film. The 2018 film is about a Nigerian footballer who comes to a small town in Malappuram and meets with an accident, changing the course of his life and those of others who take care of him.
Speaking to TNM, a jubilant Zakariya says that he's happiest about Savithri Sreedharan and Sarassa Balusseri, the two elderly women actors, winning the award jointly for Best Character Artiste (Female).
"Naturally, I'm happy about the film winning so many awards. But we, as a team, are happiest about the two women actors winning Best Character Artiste. They are actors who have been familiar with the Malayalam theatre scene for about 50 years. We are proud that they have got the recognition they deserve through our film. It is the sparkle of that award which has made us most joyous," he says.
In Sudani, Savithri plays Jameela, Majeed's (Soubin Shahir) mother, while Sarassa plays Beeyumma, her friend. It is the two women who bring warmth to the icy relationships around them, quietly asserting themselves and healing wounds - physical and emotional - with their capability to love and forgive. The story is by Zakariya, and he co-wrote the dialogues with Muhsin Parari.
Savithri Sreedharan as Jameela
So, how did Zakariya come up with these substantial characters, when most times elderly women on screen have little to do?
"When I was writing Sudani from Nigeria, it was these two women that I thought of for the heroine's role. There was no scope to introduce a young heroine organically in the script. So we decided to make the two old women as heroines. It was quite difficult to find actors to play these roles. We went looking for women actors with some experience in theatre. We did consider some older women actors who are already there in cinema but we wanted fresh faces. When we approached these two actors, it was around the time when they'd decided their career in theatre was over and they were mostly at home. We had to convince them a lot for them to agree to act in films. They were not excited by the prospect, they also did not have the self-belief that they could do it," he says.
However, someone from Zakariya's team had seen Savithri and Sarassa perform onstage and was sure that the two actors could pull it off.
"He told me that they had the talent to do these roles. We provided them with the training that they needed. That's how they came into Sudani," says Zakariya.
The director points out that the two women characters are ones that you see around you all the time in real life.
"Many people after watching the film told me that they could relate to the two characters because there are people like this in and around their home. I saw many Facebook posts like this too. Especially Beeyumma, the character played by Sarassa Balusseri, the name itself is quite famous in the Malabar region. There will be a person like that in every home!" he adds with a laugh.
Sarassa Balusseri as Beeyumma
At the heart of the delicate web of bonds that Sudani from Nigeria builds, is a beautiful message that humanity is not limited by borders and boundaries. We live in times of extreme hate, violence and conflict. Can art triumph over disheartening circumstances, and is it an artiste's responsibility to heal the world?
"Definitely. It's true that people imbibe from cinema, and we cannot deny the influence that it has on the audience to a certain extent. I consider it my duty to communicate positive ideas through films. We live in a country with a lot of difficulties, problems, and violence, there's no doubt about that. Despite this, I want to find positive people and tell their stories. However, Sudani didn't come out of this desire alone, it's also because this story came to me and took this form in a natural way," Zakariya says.
Soubin Shahir won Best Actor for his role as the conflicted Majeed, who resents his stepfather (KTC Abdullah in a heartbreaking performance). While Soubin has been in the industry for several years now, Sudani from Nigeria established him as a star. How was it directing the versatile actor?
"Soubin is a director-actor. But directing him is neither easy nor difficult! He has certain convictions about what he can do when. He isn't willing to perform a character unless he can get into it entirely. Sometimes, he would come for the shoot in the morning and when I'd explain the scene to him, he'd ask if we can shift it to the next day. That means he's sure that on that particular day, he wouldn't be able to bring out the emotion required for that scene. So I'd say okay. I see this as a very positive sign. He seeks perfection in his performance and he's proved that in his recent film Kumbalangi Nights," he says.
Samuel Abiola Robinson and Soubin Shahir
So, is the team going to celebrate having won so many awards?
"Of course!" exclaims Zakariya. "We do plan to have a celebration in Kochi or Kozhikode - we haven't decided yet. We could not celebrate 100 days of Sudani because of the Kerala floods. So, we will be celebrating the awards as well as the film's successful run at the box-office."
Zakariya and Muhsin are working on another film together. But it's too early to talk about it now, he says. We'll have to wait for at least two more months to get some idea about it. For those who've been touched by Sudani from Nigeria, there cannot be better news than the fact that these two amazing writers are coming together again.