We talk to some of the Malayalam stars appearing at this weekend's Middle East Biggest Onam Festival.
Songs and stars of India's south set to dazzle the UAE
They may be far from home, but the UAE's sizeable South Indian community can now celebrate the Onam Festival in true Kerala style.
Organised by the Dubai-based The Country Club, The Middle East's Biggest Onam Festival has Abu Dhabi and Dubai concerts featuring some of the Indian state's leading music and film stars.
Vijay Prakash - who along with AR Rahman was part of the team behind 2008's global smash hit Jai Ho - will pair up with the actress, singer and dancer Meera Nandan in Abu Dhabi's National Theatre tonight before joining the actress and dancer Rima Kallingal at Dubai's World Trade Centre on Saturday.
Already held in India on August 29, Onam is a cultural festival celebrating the homecoming of the legendary Indian emperor Mahabali.
Kallingal explains that it's usually marked with family gatherings.
"It is definitely a huge day for us," she says. "We put flower patterns in our home and we make, like, 14 different kind of dishes. It is a time for us to get together and have a blast."
This is what Prakash hopes when hitting the Dubai stage next week.
A regular performer in the UAE, Prakash says sharing the occasion with thousands of homesick souls is a responsibility he doesn't take lightly.
"For the audience it is truly a special moment," he says. "They connect to the memories of the songs and from the part of India they come from. The songs are a kind of bridge to their home."
The same cannot be said about Jai Ho, however.
The signature song from Slumdog Millionaire, composed by Rahman and featuring Prakash's vocals, was celebrated globally and wracked up awards including an Oscar and a Grammy.
Prakash, a composer in his own right, says no one involved in the song predicted such a reaction.
"Never did we think it would be an international hit," he recalls.
"But even then you can tell the song had a sense of happiness about it. The song talks about victory and it actually went on to win so many awards." But there is something to say about coming second.
Kallingal couldn't come any closer to victory in 2008 than when she lost in a tie-break for the Miss Kerala beauty pageant.
Her competition performance, however, was spotted by some of Malayalam cinema's top directors and Kallingal went on to star in nearly 20 films, including this year's successful revenge thriller 22 Female Kottayam.
Kallingal will exhibit her evocative dance repertoire with a band playing classical songs from Malayalam cinema.
She explains that unlike Bollywood's pop song-heavy approach, soundtracks in Malayalam cinema are moody, and only used to service the script.
"We are more into blues and melody," she states.
"If you look at Tamil, Telegu or Bollywood for that matter, even though they care about melody, there are a lot of fast-paced numbers, which you wouldn't find in Malayalam films.
"Our music is very situational and that is why it stands apart. That is also why I find the lyrics are more meaningful."
It is the chance to gauge such audience reactions that keeps Nandan on the road.
The singer and dancer has toured all across the Gulf, including Dubai, and is excited to make her Abu Dhabi debut.
"Whenever I travel I never feel like I am coming to a different nation," she says. "I see Malayalis everywhere."
Nandan made an immediate impact on South Indian cinema with her 2008 debut Mulla, earning her a South Filmfare Award for best debut actress. The year later she picked up an Annual Malayalam Music Award (AMMA) for best supporting actress in a ceremony held at the Sharjah Cricket Ground.
Nandan says her travels confirm to her that the Malayalam entertainment industry has a spreading influence in the Gulf.
"I've been to Doha, Bahrain and other places, because as an artist it is very important for me to see the audience feedback," she says. "What I find is, first is Bollywood, then it's Tamil and then it's Malayalam, but the scene is going and growing."
Kallingal describes the Abu Dhabi and Dubai performances as a great way to sample Kerala's rich music scene as well as being a homecoming of sorts for the audience.
"They are people who couldn't go to Onam for a long time because they are stuck at work," she says.
"But I feel that what I am doing is that I am taking it with me from Kerala and bringing it here for them."
• The Middle East's Biggest Onam Festival, featuring Vijay Prakash, Rima Kallingal and Meera Nandan, will be held at Abu Dhabi's National Theatre tonight and the Dubai World Trade Centre on Saturday. Free passes to the event can be picked up from either The Country Club's Abu Dhabi or Dubai offices. For office locations and further details visit www.countryclubdubai.ae.
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