ABU DHABI // After eight years in Bollywood, the Keralan director Priyadarshan is returning to his roots.
And to do that, he has thrust himself - and his cast - into the deserts of Abu Dhabi.
His next film, Attaram Madhavan Nair, is the first Malayalam-language film to be shot entirely on location in the emirate. For the next 45 days, the 60-member cast and crew from India will shoot in Yas Island, Jabal Hafeet, the raw desert, and elsewhere.
The film's star Mohanlal, a veteran of the industry and longtime friend of Priyadarshan, said it was his first time shooting in Abu Dhabi.
In spite of the sand blowing in his eyes yesterday, an hour away from Abu Dhabi in the Al Ain desert, he refused to gripe.
"This is our job," Mohanlal said. "I cannot complain about the sand, or the sun or the wind. This is our profession."
He said he had played Gulf-based Indian characters many times before. "They have so many stories, so many connections," he said of the Keralans who call the UAE home.
The film, an adventure story, follows two friends living in Abu Dhabi through car crashes, mistaken identity and kidnapping.
It is a mild departure for the director, who is mostly known for comedies and drama. But he said he planned to keep it wholesome.
"As a kid, I used to really enjoy watching films with my parents," said Priyadarshan. "That is how I make my films now. Without embarrassment, so [they] can be watched with your parents."
Deep in the desert Mohanlal and his co-star Mukesh, his arms and left ear covered in scratches and fake blood, completed a scene in just five takes, one marred by misbehaving camels.
In between shots, Mukesh reflected on the life of his character.
"In Kerala, you see only one side of the life of those who are working here," Mukesh said. People "think once they come to the UAE, they are happy, they have no problems. But we are showing that they have problems yet they do it all. No matter the hardship, they do it for the sake of the family. This is our culture."
Nearby, Allagappan, the cinematographer, fretted about the sandstorm that was threatening to ruin his shots.
There is extra pressure because Priyadarshan is so accomplished, he said. "One of the challenges is working with a director who is a good cinematographer himself," said Allagappan. "But he knows what our difficulty is."
After the crew packed up and moved to a second shooting location, the stars and director leaned on a Jeep and waited, joking casually, for the next scene to be set up.
The familiarity isn't forced; Priyadarshan and Mohanlal have known each other since their university days. The actor has been cast in more than half of Priyadarshan's 81 films.
"I have had a 90 per cent success rate with Mohanlal," the director said. "There is already a huge demand for this film."
As they talked, costume designers headed out into the sand, carrying fabric-draped hangers.
Then the actress Bhavana arrived and began preparing for the shot with her fellow actors. She tied her hair back into a ponytail, readying herself for the crawling she would have to do, while her costumer picked out an outfit.
"I know it is a desert-type scene," she said. "I expected this. I am not surprised."
Everyone is waiting for Allagappan and Priyadarshan to make a call on the last shot of the day.
They pause for the sun to set behind the dunes while arranging and rearranging the scene: it will involve Mohanlal, Mukesh and Bhavana, lost in the desert, hungry and tired, trying to sneak into a majlis of tourists on a desert safari so they can steal some food.
"With the natural light we have only 10 seconds to do it. Two shots in that time must be done," Allagappan said.
And after a flurry of movement and dialogue, the sun is all the way down and the scene is over.
"This is known as the twilight shot," Allagappan said. "And it is Priyadarshan's favourite shot."
But tomorrow the cameras will be rolling again.