Culture and society in South Asian Arabia

Firoza is a staff nurse at the government hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Firoza moved there from Malappuram in South India over ten years ago, and she loves her job; or at least, having a job in the Gulf, where she makes much more than she would at home.

Once her shift is over, she heads back to her quarters in the women’s hostel. At home she prays, she reads, and she watches movies. The movies come from a shop close by which stocks a good selection of titles in Malayalam, the language spoken in her native state, Kerala.

Recently, Firoza watched a movie called Olappurakkenthinu Irumbu (“Why This Iron Door for a Hut?”), by her favorite director, a former schoolteacher and aspiring actor-turned-playwright-turned-filmmaker named Salam Kodiyathur. The movie is about three wayward sons and their long-suffering mother, and the travails of elderly neglect. The movie startled her into thinking of her own mother, enough to make her phone home. Then she rang up her friends and recommended the movie enthusiastically. Finally, she called the director — his cell phone number was listed on the back cover. She told him that she had enjoyed the movie very much and that its message had got her thinking. But she also had a few concerns. Why were there no other women in the movie? Where were the neighbors, the relatives? Firoza was certain that they would have come to her rescue — or at least said something?

Kodiyathur apologized. There should have been more about the social landscape in the story. “Next time,” he promised.

It’s difficult to imagine this kind of conversation happening between a viewer and a director. But the movies that Kodiyathur makes, that Firoza loves, are not your standard Hollywood hit or Bollywood blockbuster; they are unusual even for films produced in Kerala. Firoza is a fan of what is called Home Cinema — movies made on extremely low budgets, shot in record time, and released only on Video Compact Disk (VCD). And they are sold in the tens of thousands, mostly to people like Firoza — migrants from Kerala, South India, now living in the Gulf.

Western visitors often wonder about the lives of South Asians on the Arabian Peninsula, who constitute nearly half of the population of the United Arab Emirates and more than half of the foreign population living in Saudi. Where do they go? What do they do in their spare time? The answer, for many, is: they go home after a long day of work and consume media in their own languages. And somehow, amid the vast array of television channels, not to mention endless quantities of Internet media, there is still a place for artisanal cinema — the kind of down-to-earth, unvarnished, and unpretentious film that makes up in heart what it lacks in hype.

Salam Kodiyathur is a middle-aged man, instantly identifiable by accent as Malayali, and dressed like a schoolteacher — which he was, more or less agreeably, until one day in the year 2000, when he had an epiphany at a friend’s wedding. Kodiyathur, also an amateur thespian, had formed a drama troupe called Sarga Sangama (Art Fusion) a few years earlier with some friends. On weekends they would travel from village to village, performing plays he’d written — simple family dramas, mostly. But at that wedding Kodiyathur happened to pay attention to the wedding videographer. Wedding videos in Kerala (as elsewhere in South Asia) are a kind of marital aid — what the bride and groom and their assembled families cannot choreograph in reality is produced for them in the studio, complete with jump cuts, psychedelic dissolves, theme music, and back-lit, soft-focus endings. They are also an art form in their own right. Why not hire the wedding videographer to shoot one of his plays?

“I didn’t know anything about films, then,” Kodiyathur confesses to me. I met him at a hotel in Kozhikode, the seaside city on the Malabar Coast that is the heart of the Kerala Home Cinema industry. Kozhikode is very old — when Vasco da Gama arrived in the City of Spices in 1498, he found a trade network between Arabs and the locals that had been thriving for over five hundred years. Like most people here, Kodiyathur is a Mappila Muslim, part of a community whose distant ancestors adopted Islam from Arab traders and which has developed a culture and a dialect that infuses Malayalam with a smattering of Arabic.

His first movie was a father-son drama called Ningalenne (“You Made Me Mad”), and he came to Kozhikode to finish it. “I looked around for someone with two VCRs. We played the cassette on one, and recorded the good takes on the other — that was how I edited the film. Then I wrote copies of it to VCD.” It sold moderately well, so he found a producer to back him and made two more, including the spryly titled Varane Vilkanund (“Husband for Sale”). That producer, Razak Vazhiyoram, who had business overseas, had an epiphany of his own. Why not make a movie about Keralites in the Gulf? Vazhiyoram was willing to pay for travel to Qatar to shoot, and he had the inklings of a story. Kodiyathur turned that story into a screenplay, which ultimately became Parethan Thirichu Varunnu (“Dead Man’s Return”). “Like The Mummy Returns,” Kodiyathur grins, except not terrible. A man goes to a Gulf country to find a job, and as he begins to send remittances home, his family’s expectations balloon. He makes a triumphant return only to find his family ungrateful and unwelcoming, and he is forced to emigrate again to keep them in the style they have become accustomed to. Back in Doha, broken, he dies alone.

Parethan proved that there was a market for Malayalam home cinema in the Gulf; it proved there was a market for it, period, and spawned a clutch of imitators. Salam Kodiyathur may have been the first, but today there are about a dozen directors making Home Cinema in the Kozhikode district alone, and a successful film in the genre can sell close to a hundred thousand copies. Mind you, successful films in the big-budget Malayalam film industry, which is centered in Kochi further south and get released theatrically, can sell as much or more, although the entire scale of Kerala’s film production still pales in comparison to its Southern counterparts, the Tamil and Telugu film industries.

Despite Malayalam cinema’s reputation for realism (often linked to Kerala’s five-odd decades of democratically-elected communist rule), movie theaters show blockbuster action films, historical dramas, slapstick comedies, and murder mysteries. But for many Muslims in North Kerala, going out to the movies is forbidden, anyway. Home Cinema films focus on social issues of particular interest to the Mappila Muslim community — the travails of the common man, family, and traditions. “When people want to see action, or special effects, or musicals, they watch the theater movies, or rent Hollywood movies,” Kodiyathur says. “When they’re nostalgic for home, they watch my movies.” (Home can signify anything from women in headscarves and extravagantly mustached men to lush green hills, coconut trees, and white-sand beaches.) His storylines resonate with his audience more than any mass-produced film ever could; you might call him the bard of the Mappila Muslim. He does not bother to add subtitles to his movies, on the assumption that no one who does not understand the language would possibly be interested in them.

Parethan Thirichu Varunnu, the movie that started it all, feels astonishingly polished for its low-budget roots. There are no big sets, and most of the Gulf scenes are shot indoors, but the story makes deft use of flashbacks and jumps; plot points are brought out economically; the dialogue is effective. An early scene in which the protagonist talks to a visa agent about getting to the Gulf is shot as they walk through a paddy field.

In fact, Parethan looks and feels like a Nollywood film; specifically, Osuofia in London, a 2003 blockbuster that is still to this day the highest grossing film ever made in Nigeria. The films share themes and motifs: the idyllic village versus the big bad otherworld; home and away; the journey from impoverished but happy innocence to the difficult lives of the rich and the want-to-be rich. Both films moralize about the depredations of over-there, communicating the vicarious pleasures (and dangers) of travel to viewers back home — and the vicarious comfort of home to viewers abroad.

As with Nollywood, Home Cinema films are made on a shoestring budget — 10 lakh rupees or less (about $20,000). (Kodiyathur made his first movie for 2 lakh rupees.) In this, Malayalam Home Cinema films also resemble an artisanal film industry closer to home. The Malegaon phenomenon, vividly captured in Faiza Khan’s 2008 documentary, Supermen of Malegaon, largely consists of rough, homemade versions of popular Bollywood and Hollywood hits, like Malegaon ke Sholay and Malegaon Ka Superman. Malegaon films are made largely for Malegaon, and bring home the lure of elsewhere, whereas Malayalam Home Cinema offers a distinctly different fantasy — the fantasy of home.

The typical timeframe for creating a Home Cinema movie is radically compressed. The script takes a month or so; then the cast is assembled, and the shooting is completed in under two weeks. Kodiyathur has a formula, and it works. “All the big budget movies go to all these fancy locations to shoot their songs — North India or Singapore or Europe. My movies are all shot in one small village around here.”

I watched Olappurakkenthinu Irumbu, his latest film, the one Firoza called him up to complain about. The movie is almost entirely shot in two locations — the lead characters’ home (with the metaphorical iron door) and a nearby hut belonging to an Ayurvedic physician, peppered with shots of village streets and tea plantations. Kodiyathur himself plays the son who would like to be dutiful, but whose efforts to take care of his mother are undermined by his selfish wife, played by Dolly Phillip, a well-known actress from Kerala TV serials. (Phillip plays most of the female leads in Kodiyathur’s films, and it is not entirely an accident that she is a Christian actress from out-of-town; many local Muslim families discourage women from working.)

The promotional materials for the film are dominated by a man in a saffron robe, with nerd glasses and sandalwood on his forehead. The man is Sidhique Kodiyathur — he and Salam are from the same village — and Salam considers him “the secret ingredient” in his success. “He’s a comedian, and he appears in all my films. People want to come see him.” In Parethan, Sidhique Kodiyathur played a buck-toothed household servant who bears silent witness to the family’s fortunes; in this most recent film, he plays the Ayurvedic physician, who cures patients by giving them a phenomenally bitter medicine. The google-eyed guy with the wavy hair and the cruel mouth gets nearly as much airtime as the lead character, their two stories intersecting at the end. He does seem to have achieved an independent celebrity — in the shops in Kozhikode, you can buy compilations of ”comedy scenes” of Sidhique Kodiyathur.

Salam took me to visit a sound recording studio in Kozhikode where I met Saiju, a young sound engineer who has worked on several Home Cinemas. “It usually takes me seven days to complete the dubbing and mixing,” he says. “Four or five days for all the actors to come in and dub their lines, two or three more to level off the volumes, add sound effects, and mix in the background music.” The studio where Saiju works features professional mixing consoles and Macs, along with a number of soundproofed rooms. “For a theatrical release I’d have to do the full 5.1 surround sound, but since these movies go direct to VCD, simple stereo is enough. And Home Cinema dubbing goes very fast because everyone knows everyone else — all the actors have come here before, the music directors and musicians, too. So it doesn’t require that many takes to get it right.”

Salam nods. “The music is very simple — just three or four instruments. And most of the actors in my movies are regulars — some of them were even members of my drama troupe from before! That speeds up the whole process considerably.”

The economics of the business are interesting. The director and producer strike deals with a variety of distributors, who effectively license the right to produce the discs. The covers and stickers are printed in Kerala and shipped to the distributor, along with the film on miniDV, who then makes copies of the movies, packages them, and gets them into shops and libraries. Marketing is handled by Kodiyathur and his producer. They print poster-sized versions of the DVD covers, which can be hung in the shops. They also take out ads in the Malayalam-language press. Kodiyathur shows me a copy of a Malayalam paper published in Saudi Arabia. “There are about 25 lakhs Indians in the Gulf countries, of which about 20 lakh are Malayalis alone. They have everything there.”

Kodiyathur has one excellent trick up his sleeve, publicity-wise. “I announce the name of my next movie at the end of my current movie — even if I haven’t written the script for it yet,” he told me. “That way the audience knows to look out for the next one by name, in about eight to ten months.”

The next morning, I spend some time with K. T. Mansoor, whose visiting card describes him as a timber merchant. Mansoor is dressed in a white shirt and spotless white lungi, and he almost shyly mentions that besides timber, he is interested in getting into politics. But we’re meeting for another reason.

Mansoor was the producer on Kudumba Kalaham Nooram Divasam (“Family Quarrel, 100th Day”), Salam Kodiyathur’s fifth movie. He contacted him after the success of Parethan. “There’s almost a queue to produce his movies, now, because they always make their money back. I wouldn’t mind doing it again, but then there are many more, waiting.” He smiled. “Our photo appears on the back of the VCD cover, along with the director.”

It’s not hard to see why Mansoor and others would find producing Kodiyathur’s films such an attractive option. The movies I found in Kozhikode were being sold for between 80 and 100 rupees; prices are higher in the Gulf. If a film sold a hundred thousand copies, that would mean a gross income of 80 to 100 lakhs. There is income, too, from advertising. There are tiny logos on the back covers: a visa consultant, a hotel, a brand of electronics. Similar advertisements for businesses on both sides of the Arabian Sea are interspersed in the movie itself. Between direct sales, licensing, and advertising, everyone stands to make pretty good money.

Somewhat unusually for a filmmaker whose films are massively pirated, Kodiyathur seems not especially worried about piracy. “I know that people in the US and Indonesia and other places see my movies on YouTube or buy pirated discs. I know I’m probably losing some money, but then again I know that I’m gaining new customers — in the long run. At the moment, I’m earning enough.”

I ask him about his future plans. He’s made thirteen films in as many years, four of them shot in the Gulf. [Besides Parethan, there was Aliyanu Oru Free Visa (“Free Visa for Brother-in-Law”), set in Kuwait; Paathiyaathrakkoru Ticket (“Half-way Ticket”), in Qatar again; and Oru Dhirham Koodi (“One More Dirham”), in Dubai.] He insists he is not interested in launching a production house. “If I let others direct, I lose control,” he said, shaking his head. “But after making these movies, I am now well-known to the film and television community.” He plans to do a TV serial set in Malappuram. “Later, maybe a proper movie, who knows?”

Kodiyathur is a modest visionary, his canniness and humility both emblematized by his one-cell-phone customer service line. He is almost stoically matter-of-fact. But on one occasion he confided that the Arabs he met abroad always say that South Asians have no culture. It was an odd charge to hear from a parvenu country that spends millions of dollars to coax cultural products out its citizens, whose film festivals are full of European and American films. But it was ironic, too. For there is a body of cinema about life in the Gulf, that is consumed by the majority of the population of the Gulf, that requires no special pleading or state subsidy to exist. Call it Gulfiwood: the popular culture of the Arab working class, most of whom happen to be Indian.