Watching director Priyadarshan and actor Mohanlal in action may remind you of a couple who have been married long enough that they can communicate with merely a glance or a raised eyebrow.
Consider this: we are at the filming location of Malayalam feature Athar And Madhavan Naayar in a villa in Abu Dhabi's Khalifa City. The scene to be shot revolves around Mohanlal stumbling into a bedroom looking flustered and disoriented. With just one take, they get it right.
There were no words exchanged except a definitive "OK" call from Priyadarshan at the end of his scene ensuring that the seasoned actor can get back to watching the thrilling India vs Pakistan Cricket World Cup semi-final.
Perhaps it's a natural progression considering it's their 43rd film together — a statistic that Mohanlal throws at us as soon we got down to chatting.
"This is my 43rd film with Priyadarshan. We have done so many films together. I have even done a Hindi film with him. After more than six years, we are working together for a hit again. Priyan has a different approach — 43 films, there is a long history," says Mohanlal.
Their working partnership dates back to 1984 and their working union has yielded many blockbusters, including Kilukam and Boeing Boeing.
Their latest partnership, a drama shot in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain about a Malayali expatriate, is proceeding at breakneck-speed. By mid-April, the film -— featuring deserts, Corniche and Yas Island in Abu Dhabi — will wrap up.
By movie standards, this is a classic cinematic quickie. But for Priyadarshan, who has helmed more than 70 films spanning Bollywood and South Indian languages, it is all in a day's work.
"I don't plan my films or strategise. I just make films that I enjoy. And here, I enjoy a different rapport with Lal. We came to the industry together and we both had the maximum number of successes with each other. We have enjoyed a 90 per cent success rate," says Priyadarshan.
This film also spells the end of his six-year sabbatical from Malayalam films. During his break from regional cinema, he was busy churning out Bollywood capers that were essentially remakes of his hit Malayalam films.
"What's wrong with making remakes? Remember, Martin Scorsese made many films but never got an Oscar until he remade a Hong Kong film," says Priyadarshan alluding to Scorsese's The Departed, which was an official re-make of a Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs.
"And the reason why my remakes work is because I never make a film as it is. I change it and adapt it to Bollywood tastes. I write a fresh screenplay and introduce new characters even.
Frankly, none of the Malayalam films will ever work if it's remade in Hindi frame by frame… Sometimes the Bollywood actors ask me: ‘What kind of Malayalam films are you making: dirty clothes, poor country.' They can't digest our kind of films. That's their attitude," says Priyadarshan, slamming critics who feel that he is creatively challenged and therefore resorts to remakes of his own films.
"Remember, we would never have known who was Anton Chekhov had somebody not translated his short stories. I am here to make films that I enjoy."
A sentiment that was immediately detected by Hollywood director James Cameron when he paid a surprise visit to Priyadarshan's film sets in March. The Titanic director, who is planning to film in India soon, was apparently in the mood for some hands-on experience.
"He was fascinated with our kind of films and asked many questions about our films, especially Bollywood. I explained to him that our films were an extension of our art forms. In fact, I told him that most Bollywood films are like Moulin Rouge or the old Hollywood musicals," says Priyadarshan.
The two even entered into a dialogue about making 3D films. "I am making a 3D film with Akshay Kumar, so it was good to meet him. Sometimes stars have big egos but such a big director like him did not have a big ego at all."
Apparently, Priyadarshan stalled his shooting in the desert after Cameron's arrival. "He said I should finish my shooting before the light fades, but I said: ‘The sun will come [out] tomorrow but you wouldn't come every day to my set'."
According to the director, Cameron decided to visit his sets when he learnt from his driver that there was a shoot in town. The two have also exchanged phone numbers so that they can meet up again in India.
Ask anybody on the sets and they will tell you that such an exception — delaying a shooting schedule — is a rare occurrence in Priyadarshan's work space. Fondly called a taskmaster, Priyadarshan is one of the few directors who has managed to make Bollywood superstars, including Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and Govinda, arrive on the set on time.
"It is not that I am a taskmaster. But even Salman [Khan], Shah Rukh, or Govinda came on time. But the secret is to know the nice way of handling these stars — you need to be diplomatically arrogant. Don't be too diplomatic and don't be too arrogant — mix the two. In Bollywood, sometimes actors turn up on time but the directors aren't even there," explained Priyadarshan.
His stickler-for-punctuality trait is highlighted further when he reveals his timeline for Athar And Madhavan Naayar. He hopes to release this entertainer in October with a premiere at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.
"We are progressing as planned. There's a sizeable Malayali population in the Gulf and I make films for entertainment so that everyone in the family can watch."
‘Cultural sensitivity exists in every country'
The Abu Dhabi Film Commission played a key role in assisting Priyadarshan with his film shoot in the capital. The "go-to" authority for providing cultural experts and location scouting, tabloid! caught up with David Shepheard, director of Abu Dhabi Film Commission (above, with director Priyadarshan).
How are you trying to lure filmmakers to come to Abu Dhabi?
Most of the time we are in competition, but it is down to us to put the best package and presentation and convince the filmmakers that this is the best place to come and shoot. Apart from the tax-free incentive, we are trying to connect with as many projects and filmmakers to convince them that we are placed above [rival regional locations] Jordan and Morocco
Are scripts your biggest deal-breaker — considering Sex and the City 2 was denied permission to shoot?
One of our key jobs is to work with the directors and writers earlier on the scripts so that their storyline is not later objected to. We get into a dialogue about what is relevant to the actual script. Sometimes, we even warn the filmmakers. This cultural sensitivity exists in every country, including Western countries.
Do you look back on Sex And The City 2 rejection or harbour any regrets?
Starting with the title, it was a difficult project to fit into this region. It also dealt with a subject that would not fit into the cultural sensitivity here.
Do you reject projects that peddle Arab stereotypes?
We get many scripts that give out this negative image of what it is to be an Arab or what it is to live in this region. Most of it is born out of not having the correct information. Therefore, we do a lot of PR and work closely with studios in the United States or Australia telling them what it is to be here. Another element of our work is to interact with talent of UAE and promote them as writers.