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Reem Kadem in Malayalam film ‘Nawal Enna Jewel’

Film is inspired by the life of Reyhaneh Jabbari, an Iranian woman who was executed in 2014 for killing a man in self-defence

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  • Adil Hussain and Reem Kadem in ‘Nawal Enna Jewel’.Image Credit: Supplied

A Malayalam film has been inspired by the life of Reyhaneh Jabbari, a 26-year-old Iranian woman who was executed in 2014 for killing a man in self-defence when he tried to rape her.

Directed by Renji Lal Damodaran, Nawal Enna Jewel featured Hollywood actress Reem Kadem in the title role of Nawal.

An American of Iraqi origin, Kadem grew up in San Diego. With the iconic Meryl Streep fuelling her acting dreams, Kadem joined the theatre at 14 and trained in method acting under Carey Scott (a successor to Stella Adler) and Alfred Molina. Kadem made her Hollywood debut with the series Veronica Mars. Her last work was TNT’s The Last Ship.

How did Nawel Enna Jewel happen?

There was an international search for the lead role. I was the only actress twice recommended to producer Alen Matters for the role by two different Hollywood contacts. He reviewed my demo reel and then did a Skype interview with director Renji Lal and I secured the role of Nawal.

What were the challenges of playing Nawal?

Nawal is inspired by Reyhaneh Jabbari, who was sentenced to death for defending her life. Amnesty International tried to save her after pleading with nearly 20,000 signatures to stop her execution.

She is a multi-faceted woman — heroic, strong, vulnerable, jubilant, tragic, loved, charming and educated. It was a thrill playing Nawal because as actors, we want to play characters that are filled with colours. It was no doubt the toughest one in my career with filming under hot weather conditions and long hours of shooting. The frightening challenge was the task of speaking in Malayalam.

There is a personal connect with Nawal, since my mother was thrown into jail for going against Saddam Hussain’s Baathist regime in 1979. Her family suffered greatly; she lost her younger brother to the regime.

Like Nawal, her life was in great danger at the hands of a corrupt government, and she had to flee the country. It really hit home for me, that the greatest role of my career to date, is also the most personal, and connects in many ways to my mother.

How did you prepare in a new language?

I spent over four months studying the language through visual transliteration and audio translations and pronunciations. I made flashcards that I would use. I wrote out the Malayalam pronunciation in English on one side, then I wrote the actual English sentence on the other side. It was hard but I wanted to make my mark in Indian cinema lasting and powerful.

What about working in a new industry?

Director Renji Lal has a strong work ethic and was committed to giving his best to the film. Shwetha Menon [who plays Nawal’s mother in the film] and I have become friends. She is a talented actress and I enjoyed watching her transform herself into the role. I also loved working with Adil Hussain, my other co-star. He is a skilled actor, and a wonderful person.

What’s next? Have you signed any other Indian films?

I am in talks in Hollywood for film and TV gigs. I have also been approached for a few Indian projects but I haven’t signed any deal yet. I am working on my own scripts — one called Baghdad in the Bronx, which gained honours. It is inspired by my mother. Another script is a comedy called The Real Me, inspired from my life.

Nawal Enna Jewel is the story of two women and begins with the life of Asma, a 14-year-old girl from Kerala, who is married off to an old man from the Middle East. Four years later, the widowed Asma is saddled with the burden of raising her daughter alone. More tragedy follows when Asma has to live with the execution of her daughter Nawal, who is executed for killing a government official who attempted to rape her.