The face of Kochi should be what my camera has captured most extensively and intensely. That coastal city has also been the location for a chunk of Malayalam movies I shot as a cinematographer. 'Traffic' and 'Salt N’ Pepper' – both in 2011, then 'Da Thadiya' released the next year, and 'Ee.Ma.Yau' in 2018 summer... The list is long.
Away from the Arabian sea coast, I have found charm in my native Kerala hills as well. More so, along the Western Ghats in Idukki's green locales, especially Munnar. I could enjoy them during our shoots of 'Idukki Gold' (2013) and 'Maheshinte Prathikaram (2016). The tea gardens were particularly enchanting.
In fact, this March saw the release of a film named 'Sudani From Nigeria.' Its shoot gave our crew a difference experience altogether. The two-hour movie was shot entirely in upstate Malappuram. More than anything, what caught my imagination was the craze for football in that district.
I’m no soccer fan, to be frank. I don’t watch any match on television late into nights, leave alone attending a local tournament by sitting in the gallery. Honestly, I never knew much about the history of 'Sevens' that has teams with four players less than usual and the football following its set of rules. Actually, its organisers even bring in players from Africa.
When young Zakariya Mohammed, who directed 'Sudani From Nigeria,' outlined its story for me, we were looking for a small-budget film that won't be long and can be made without much time. The original idea was to begin the story from where Samuel Robinson, simply called Sudu (going by his Sudanese nationality), was to arrive home. Little did we plan of shooting scenes of real play in a crowded football stadium.
Later, though, we conceived a broader canvas for the movie. I, along with producer Sameer Thahir, co-writer Muhsin Parari, and Zakariya, went to watch a football match in Malappuram. The match was at Koyappa, famed for its Sevens tournament. I had heard about it a bit, but seeing it is really different!
It was a pleasant shock. No small stadium this! The thousands of spectators around were cheering in frenzy. Amid them were sellers of refreshments, making a roaring business. It's an all-men crowd; it's tough to squeeze yourself through the entry gates after buying tickets. This picture contrasts with the earlier phase (in the 1980s and '90s) when women, too, used to be avid watchers of Sevens football.
The atmosphere was vibrant, electrifying. It was then I realised I had never watched a match — football or otherwise — sitting in a stadium. We got seats close to the players' dressing room. The energy that flows into you while matching a live match up close is terrific. Sometimes the ball would boom into the crowd. We, particularly Sameer and I, felt the thrill. Impulsively, we shot some great action videos.
Reality as it is
The screenplay was only unfolding at that stage. The scenes from the football match convinced us the need to include them in our upcoming movie. We revisited the tournament for a semi-final match; this time with Soubin Shaheer, who was to star in the film. But then, so thick was the crowd that Soubin failed to get in. Even so, we shot certain bits. In fact, the initial scenes in 'Sudani From Nigeria' were captured from above using a drone. We went for as much footage as we could, because it was clear that no artificial scenes in the stadium can replace the real ones. The Sevens match at Koyappa thus lent a touch of authenticity to the football scenes in our movie.
Vibes of love
The rest of the scenes were shot at a village called Vazhayur, bordering Kozhikode district. That is where the film has houses of Soub and Sudu. It's for the first time people of Vazhayur got to see the shoot of a film. Their excitement reflected and echoed in the cooperation they extended to the crew. Everyone was on their toes, ready to any kind of help.
Believe me, I never experienced such reaction at any other film location. Some of the local people did get a chance to act in bits in the movie. Every bit of 'Sudani From Nigeria' began gaining a touch of reality. We shot the tea shacks and buses as they were, after securing permission. Nowhere did we put sets. There was no hindrance to anything whatsoever; perhaps the only disturbance was the sound of the birds and animals of the pastoral location.
Equally memorable was the shoot we had at Ghana, where we had a week's schedule. Our location in this West African country was at a UN-facilitated settlement camp. The initial plan was to shoot in a small colony. There, we thought of pitching a tent, but that would only let the film slip into cliched looks. Hence, the final decision to shoot at a settlement at the capital, Accra.
It turned out that we chose a place that was once a small colony. The hard realities of its people's lives began to emerge with great poignancy. They failed to get even essential goods; not even rations. Even water-bottles needed to be bought; nothing came free. We could essay such travails in the movie.
One thing that struck was that Ghana, for all its poverty, largely looked far cleaner a country vis-a-vis a much better economy like India. Even its slums have no garbage heaps. The public toilets are clean. The women may be leading a tough life, routinely carrying stuff overhead, but it takes just a streak of music for those souls to unload them and break into a brief dance of joy. None of them seemed bogged down by domestic responsibilities, professional work or extreme poverty. Each bit of the sights in Ghana was enlightening for the average Malayali.