Sometimes, the stories that go into the making of a movie are far richer and deeper than the movie itself. Yes, the two (or more) hours that we spend in front of the screen, taking in the amazing stories that the people both on the screen and the many more behind it have spent many months (and in some cases, a few years) to make are great. But sometimes, going behind the scenes to find out how exactly these films came to life is an experience in itself, and more often than not, we are left with a far greater appreciation for what we’ve just seen, because we come to understand the hard work, dedication, perseverance and sacrifice that the talented actors, directors, producers, editors and so many others have put in, just for our entertainment.
Particularly so if that film breaks new ground that none before have done so. On February 7, 2019, one of the first ever joint Indian-Omani films was released in the Sultanate. Titled Zayana, which is Arabic for goodness, the film tells a tale about an Omani woman who goes to India for medical treatment...or at least that’s what she tells her husband. After failing to hear from her, he goes in search of her, and thus unfolds the tale of the film. T Weekly sat down with the crew to find out how the film was made. Directed by Khalid Al Zadjali, often regarded as a pioneer of Omani cinema and television, it took about 80 crew members behind the scenes to make this film a reality. About half of them were Omani, with the other half being Indian. Omani national Faisal Miran, who served as the movie’s executive director, and Indian expat Kiran Madhav, who signed on as executive director, shared what they went through to turn this film from modest script to ambitious reality. “It is a very long story, but I will try to minimise it,” said Faisal.
“We always wanted to something between Oman and India. The relations between the two countries are very ancient, but sadly, we have never had such a collaboration. A lot of Indian filmmakers used to come here and shoot series and films, but this sort of actual co-production has never been done. We wanted to associate this with a topic that it similar to both cultures, because the idea that comes is that we are doing history here, so we needed to have that sense of responsibility and we had to careful and respectful. We knew that we could not make a comedy, for example.“With all due respect to comedy, we needed to make this something different.
Even one of our actors, Riju Ram, was very excited, but he also knew that we had to be careful,” he added. “We faced a language barrier, because this film has three languages, Arabic, Malayalam and English. These are typical Omanis and normal Indian persons, and normally, they can’t just talk, because the cultures are so different, so what brings them together is English.” In addition to filming in parts of Oman, including Muscat, as well as the interior regions, the team spent a week and a month up in the green, grass-covered and forested hills of Kerala, which is characterised by cool winds, continual rain showers and some amazing weather all year round. While it is in many ways a photographer’s and filmmaker’s dream, the Zayana crew first had to make getting there a reality. To bring forth the authenticity and realism associated with the film’s story, the crew needed to film in areas not normally open to civilians, such as rehabilitation centres located in the serene hills, which are great for resetting your health, and in the thick tropical forests that made up a large part of the mountainous landscape.
“The Government of Kerala were very supportive, because the film industry there is a big movement,” said Faisal, as Kiran Madhav explained, “We had to be careful, because we had to put two cultures together in one movie. It took us a full year to make the movie. In India, we shot in some exotic places that were untouched by people. This movie is shot in a restricted area in a hill-station called Ponmudi in Kerala, so we had to take special permission from the ministry, and once you have that permission, then you need security to go inside. “Shooting in the untouched places was really tough, because we had to file a lot of documentation, and go through a lot of authorities, but there was a proper channel to do all these things,” he revealed.
“We have experience in this matter as a production team. The script required such exotic places. The hero, Adel, goes in search of his wife in one of the rehabilitation centres located in Ponmudi, so it is to capture the natural beauty present in India, and show it to the crowd in Oman. There are a lot of NRIs and a lot of Omanis who are not aware of this natural beauty. That was the idea of both Faisal and Dr Khalid Al Zadjali, the film’s director.” Dr Khalid is a well-established film director and filmmaker, and is actually considered one of the pioneers of Omani films, because filmmaking is in his blood. Always enthusiastic about filmmaking, he dreams of seeing Omani filmmakers rising up and setting up their very own Omani film industry. During casting, some of the roles were hand-picked by the director, and while they were asked to audition just like everyone else, Faisal and Kiran admit that once they had delivered their lines, it was impossible for them to un-see them, because the people fitted these roles just perfectly. Zayana, which is also the name of the titular female lead, was be played by Omani actress Noura Al Farsi, while her husband Adel is portrayed by Ali Al Amri. Riju Ram play Fadlullah, while supporting characters Kaani and Marhoun are played by MR Gopakumar and Talib Al Balushi. “However, some of those who auditioned could not see the benefit of cinema, they were more into theatre,” admitted Faisal.
“They thought this was just a one-time show and did not see how cinema could cross international boundaries across the world. Seeing this on the screen is actually a feeling of relief. Even when we were making the script for this movie, our intentions were not primarily commercial. We were part of a team, and we wanted to make something unique and different and tell a story. “To see that screenplay translated onto the screen was an honour,” he explained. “Anusheelan, our Indian scriptwriter, did a great job in translating some of the scenes and toning them down, and made them feel natural and our director, he wanted to make it unique. That was his intention. It is Dr Khalid’s story, but all of us sat down and made this a reality together. One of the flaws that we have in Oman drama is that it feels a bit fake to some extent. There is no rawness or reality to it. All of these are works of fiction, but the way certain people act and do the roles, it does not feel that real. The authenticity is missing. We needed to make it very natural.”In fact, so committed were Dr Khalid and his team to ensure Zayana’s heart and soul was felt by the audience, that they screen-tested this in front of an Egyptian critic who is known for his no-nonsense approach to evaluating films. Once the credits began rolling on the screen, however, he stood up and began clapping, because he told us that he had not seen an Arab film like this in a long time. “The topics in this are not usually discussed in films, in this way and in this form,” admitted Faisal, who did not shy away from discussing several of the hiccups that the team did face both during the making of Zayana and once the edit process had begun, to ensure the final cut would do the team justice.
“In terms of the shooting, we had a lot of challenges, but we decided to only focus on the movie and the goodness it brought,” said Kiran. “Both of us worked as translators and coordinators. Faisal handled the Omani production and technical teams, while I handled the Indian ones. There was a lot of teamwork involved, but it was a bit hard to coordinate with them at times. Things kept popping up in terms of technical and personal issues, so it was up to us to step in and settle these things.” But while the team will have many memories making this film, Faisal and Kiran were only too happy to talk about the things that brought both cultures together.
To accommodate and meet the needs of the Omani crew, Kiran had arranged for a chef from Oman to accompany them to Kerala, should they find the piquant spices that are standard ingredients in Indian cuisine far too hot for their palates. “The Indian team were very careful as far as the spicy food was concerned. He knew how to prepare Omani food, which was weird, because we were in India and we were having Omani dishes every day,” said Faisal. “We had with us Talib Al Balushi, a veteran Omani actor, and he is a foodie. The two of them used to explore the local dishes and then made Arabic versions of them for the local team. Personally, I enjoyed it, but my team did not. “They brought a lot of cheese and bread with them, but we had our master chef with us,” added Kiran. “He worked in Oman, and he knows the language as well. I think they faced more challenges while staying over there, because this was the first time many of them were staying in a forest. For us, it is easy, because we just wear a lungi and walk around, but for many of them, they weren’t accustomed to this. It’s always raining there, there are a lot of mosquitoes and reptiles, the grass is always wet, so they are not used to it.
” There was, however, one particular food that the Omanis grew particularly fond of. “I tried the sambar¸ I tried so many dishes there, and most of the Kerala dishes had bananas in them,” recalled Faisal. “We bought a huge cache of banana chips, and that was a daily thing for us over there. I think at one point, ever our skin started turning yellow because of the bananas we were eating. Of course, we all ate on banana leaves as well. That’s a must when you’re going to Kerala!” But despite the challenges, the team knew they were there for a reason, and as is the case with all film crews when faced with adversity, they pressed on with their objectives. The completion of the film was always key to them. “One of the most memorable moments was we had was to shoot scenes that required a foggy atmosphere,” revealed Faisal.
“We needed to shoot the scenes from multiple angles, so you cannot recreate the fog. The natural fog was amazing and unique. It kept raining, and we had to reschedule certain scenes...one particular scene required us to go back a week later.” Kiran added, “One particular scene required us to go 27 hairpins and 3,500 metres above sea level. This scene has Zayana herself walking among the clouds, because the clouds are at that level. There was a lot of hard work going into making this movie. “I could feel that passion, so I wanted to be a part of this film,” he said. “The response was better than what we expected. This is an experimental movie so we did not know what the reaction from the Omani crowd would be. An Omani can go, an Indian can go and watch the movie, so anyone living in Oman can relate to this movie. That’s what makes this movie relatable to anyone in Oman.
Zayana: Going behind the scenes of Oman’s history-making film