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Abu, Son of Adam, India’s official submission in the foreign language Oscar sweepstakes, follows the adventures of an old Indian Muslim man and his wife as they attempt to fulfill their lifelong dream of traveling to Mecca for the Hajj. This slow-moving, Malayalam-language film takes too much time revealing its charms, limiting its appeal to Oscar voters, but patient viewers will be rewarded by its satisfying, if ironic, payoff.
Festival audiences will enjoy Abu’s ambience, while the bird song and lush greenery of Kerala will no doubt steer curious viewers to consider making a pilgrimage of their own to the South Indian state known as God’s Own Country. The film opens before dawn in a peaceful rural setting, as elderly Abu (Salim Kumar) slowly performs his ritual ablutions for his first prayer of the day.
Abu and his wife, Aishu (Zarina Wahab), simple and honest folk of modest means, have decided to make this the year that they finally make the Hajj. To attain their dream, though, they will have to make some major sacrifices, such as selling their two milk cattle, selling all of her jewelry, and — key to the story — cutting down their prized jackfruit tree to sell as lumber.
Each step in the process presents new challenges and lessons, whether it’s posing for their first-ever passport photos; deciding whom to bribe to speed the process along; or braving the long bus rides back and forth to Kozhikode to the office of a Hajj travel agent.
The pacing of the film is its main weakness. Devoid of melodrama (its songs have also been excised for international distribution), the slow-moving Abu has a valuable message but it takes its time getting there. One scene simply depicts the husband and wife sitting silently in front of a small-town post office as they wait for their passports to arrive in the mail. In another lengthy scene, Abu painstakingly counts each bill in a strongbox full of 10-rupee notes, while his wife falls asleep beside him.
But to his credit, first-time filmmaker Salim Ahamed has struck gold with several aspects of Abu, Son of Adam.
First, Ahamed has depicted the way globalization has touched contemporary Kerala: many of its men have gone to Dubai or other Gulf states for work, and even though they send money back, their absence has changed the region immeasurably.
Second, Ahamed depicts the choices an old man has to make as he nears the end of his life; in the film’s most moving scene, Abu reconciles with an old enemy because without his forgiveness, Abu will not be able to go to Mecca with a pure heart.
Actor Salim Kumar, just 43, has won awards in India for his portrayal of the aged Abu, lending grace and depth to the character. His makeup, by Pattanam Rasheed, deserves special mention, as does the captivating cinematography by Madhu Ambat.
Will Abu and his wife get to make their journey to Mecca? Without giving the ending away, I’ll defer to a poet on the other side of the world who put it this way: “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometime, you might find you get what you need.”
Production company: Allens Media
Cast: Salim Kumar, Zarina Wahab, M.R. Gopakumar, Mukesh, Kalabhavan Mani, Thampi Anthny
Director: Salim Ahamed
Screenwriter: Salim Ahamed
Producers: Salim Ahamed, Ashraf Bedi
Director of photography: Madhu Ambat
Editor: Vijay Shankar
Music: Isaac Thomas Kottukappally
No rating, 101 minutes
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