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A chest of stories

PMA RASHEED (Contributor) / 19 August 2007

DR MOHAMMED Iqbal, known by the pseudonym Iqbal Kuttippuram, is a homeopath by profession who practices in his own clinic in Dubai. But what many do not know is that he is also one of the most sought-after scenarists in Malayalam film Industry.

arabHis recently released film Arabikkatha (The Arabian Tale) narrates the bittersweet realities of Gulf expatriates. The movie which proved to be a blockbuster in Kerala is currently running in the UAE.

Dr Iqbal's first love, however, is for healing peoples' ailments as the name of his clinic (Homeopathiq- a mix of homeopathy and Iqbal) indicates.

Though cinema is his second preference, it is not just a hobby for Dr Iqbal. His deep passion and commitment to cinema made him a prolific screen writer in Malayalam. As a screen writer, he has done about half-a-dozen films, five of which have broken box-office records in Kerala. His credit includes - Niram, Megha Malhar, Swapna Koodu, Gramophone, Four the People and the latest Arabikkatha. Even though Gramophone, which narrates the tearful story of an isolated Jewish family in Kerala, was not a commercial success, it became a well-debated film among the serious movie-goers and critics.

Here the Arabian story-teller narrates his own life-story. Excerpts from the interview:

When did your passion for filmmaking start?

From childhood, I was really passionate about movies and the magic it creates. I went to the movies screening at Meena - a 'C' class cinema theatre in Kuttippuram, where I grew up. I was very fond of watching movies with good stories. Films written by MT Vasudevan Nair, Padmarajan and Srinivasan were my favourites in those days. I believe that they are the most talented script-writers in Malayalam cinema. In three different periods, they played key roles in bringing the culture of cinema watching to the common man — by telling stories of laymen and their feelings.

I was a big fan of actor-scenarist-director, Srinivasan, who happens to be the protagonist of my new film Arabikkatha.

What was the turning point in your career as a screen writer?

I didn't know what screenwriting was until fairly late in college. When I was studying for homeopathy, I wrote a script and went to meet the renowned film director Kamal, to show it to him. After one year, he called me for a discussion about a TV serial he was directing. But he didn't tell anything about the script that I had given him earlier. Ranjith had written the story and screenplay for the first two episodes, and the rest of episodes were done by me. The serial named Koodumattam was telecast on Doordarshan in 1991, and won that year's state awards.

arab1Gradually, I started getting involved in story discussions with Kamal. Later he asked me to write the script for a campus film. That's how my dream of becoming a script writer turned into a reality. Even though I was a debutante, the film Niram became a phenomenal hit.

After the campus flick, Kamal invited me again to write for his next movie Megha Malhar. The resounding hit film had a realistic edge, accentuating some authentic details of storyline instead of the glossy and meaningless scenes of mainstream cinema. A couple, who were in love when they were young, meet after they grow old. Then, they realise that they still yearn for each other.

After the big success of Megha Malhar, I worked with Kamal again for Gramophone. The film was about a music director, who earned nothing in life and died neglected. He lived in a seaside village in Kerala, which weaves a web of ancient culture and the busy contemporary life.

Swapnakoodu was my next film.

You have worked mostly with director Kamal...

Kamal is my Guru. During my meetings with him he shared his great insights and taught me how to write for good and successful movies. He gave me the opportunity to write for four of his films. He never asked me to quit my medical practice. So, I write scripts while I am working as a physician. While I was practicing in my native place, Kamal came and stayed with me for my convenience so I could write and practice medicine at the same time.

After the four films with Kamal, I worked with acclaimed director Jayaraj for the film '4 the People'.  The blockbuster hit with an anti-corruption theme managed to set a trend in the industry. A group of four brilliant students, who cannot tolerate injustice, take the law into their hands to fight for victims with the help of a website they had launched. By the end of the film, when the four heroes are shot dead, another four students rise to the occasion and the revolution continues. That was an unconventional experiment in the craft.

Arabikkatha is the latest mega hit under your sleeve. What do you have to say about it?

The success was beyond our expectations. It has given me confidence to create more experimental movies. It is my second cinema with a political theme. We didn't even have to promote the film in any way. The hype came naturally. I believe if the story is good, appreciation will come accordingly.

Though it's a harsh story of expatriates and was canned almost 80 per cent in Dubai, Arabikkatha is not about the woes faced by people in labour camps or about the isms that push people into tragedy.

The film reveals what happens to a hard-core communist, when he is compelled to join a global society

Srinivasan, to whom I narrated the story for the first time, plays the protagonist in the film. He has helped me conceptualise the storyline practically. His character, Cuba Mukundan, is an ex-communist who is forced to work in Dubai due to some problems. Mukundan finds it extremely hard to live under circumstances that he has always resisted. And the only person who is a solace to him is a Chinese girl, who came to work in Dubai from Communist China. Kudos to Director Lal Jose, for featuring Zhang Shu Min in the female lead role.

What, according to you, is the secret formula for scripting a successful movie?

arab2There is no magical formula! Writing is a painful process for me, and whatever the theme is, I suffer a lot when I am engaged in writing the script. I am quite sensitive to social issues and can easily interact with people, because I closely observe people as a doctor. These keen observations help me mould stories. I take long breaks between my films and wait for challenging story-lines to develop, because I don't want to repeat clichés. I yearn to write about the inner thoughts of characters. Screenplay is meant to be a blueprint for the entire movie, not just what the characters say and do, but how the film is supposed to look, feel and sound.

As an expat writer, how do you observe the deterioration in Malayalam film industry?

Malayalam film industry is today faced with an alarming lack of creativity. Most of the films that are being produced nowadays don't seem to impress the audience much.

What do you expect from your audience?

I always wanted to go away from the stereotypical way of writing. Films should be enjoyable for the target audience, as well as help break convention. I want my audience to have a happy feeling when they watch my films.
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