After I had stopped bitterly complaining about sand blowing into my eyes and accepted that we were in the middle of the desert, there was only one thing to be done: observe the crew at work.
This was the first Malayalam film to be shot entirely in Abu Dhabi. Of the 1.75 million Indian expatriates who call the UAE home, a majority of them hail from the south Indian state of Kerala. As an ode to their lives here, one of the country's finest directors and a leading actor from the Keralan film industry had embarked on a rigorous 45 -day shoot for Attaram Madhavan Nair.
At first, everyone seemed a bit stiff to me. The director, Priyadarshan, could not turn around without a dozen of his assistants waiting for him. The actor, Mohanlal, seemed aloof.
As I chatted away with the cinematographer, Allagappan, who was used to shooting against the backdrop of a greener Kerala, and was battling a sandstorm, he told me that when Mohanlal appeared in front of the camera, something happened, which changed an ordinary man into a convincing character. Basically, Mohanlal had the X factor. I looked over at the director. Given the circumstances (high winds, low visibility, irate camels), he seemed really laid back. But Allagappan warned me otherwise. That man in the director's seat could be very difficult if things didn't go his way.
Priyadarshan is a veteran of more than 80 films, and has cast Mohanlal in more than half of those. So I waited for the magic to happen. And it did. Although to me, the first take seemed effortless, the director pushed on. There were a couple of technical glitches. A car door refused to open, the camels misbehaved (to be fair, they were distracted by another pack of camels crossing the desert), and in five takes, the first shot of the day was done and dusted and we readied to move to the second location.
The greats finally relaxed. Priyadarshan and Mohanlal, along with their co-actor, Mukesh, and the assistant film director, all joked around casually, sharing a moment that did not allow for intrusion. From the outside, they looked as if they belonged on the set of Ocean's 11 or were the Rat Pack. Their cool confidence only made more people on the set want to meekly take pictures or ask for autographs. They obliged without hesitation, even though this was their down time. It was no coincidence that Mohanlal and Priyadarshan shared a bond. They were friends in university and had helped create each other's careers. The rest of the inner circle were long-time friends as well.
That is when I realised that I had just observed the masters at work. And play.