‘Finally…’ that is the word that spurred the making of Jacobinte Swargarajyam, written and directed by Vineeth Sreenivasan, and shot fully in the UAE.
Running successfully in theatres in Kerala even after a month since its release, the film might very well have been named the autobiography of an unknown Indian family.
Because, by charting the trials, tribulations and triumphs of an Indian family in Dubai, the movie has become elevates the art of docu-fiction into an entertaining, mainstream feature narrative – a first of sort in Malayalam cinema.
Every character in Jacobinte Swargarajyam is real. Most of the events, twists, turns, situations and even dialogues happened in real life. Only, in Vineeth’s hands, they have been masterfully weaved into a cohesive whole that warms your heart and instils trust in the indomitable power of human will.
The multi-faceted Vineeth, the son of veteran actor-writer-director Sreenivasan, says that the idea was sparked when he came to know the story of Gregory Jacob (see box), a Dubai-based young entrepreneur.
“We had met first in 2008/09 through a mutual friend while we were shooting a music album here,” says Vineeth. “But I didn’t know anything at all about the fight that Gregory was waging.”
Gregory indeed was on a mission. With his mother by his side, Gregory was trying to turn around his father’s business that had fallen into hard times in the wake of the global financial crisis.
The family was splintered into three: Gregory, his mom and toddler brother Chris in Dubai; his father Jacob stranded in Liberia; his brother Basil and sister Merlin, back home in India.
“One day, Gregory sent me a photo of the family reunited. It was captioned ‘finally.’ And I instinctively realised that there was a film in their story. I could imagine the struggle that Gregory went through,” says Vineeth.
But it was not an easy job to put the idea into paper, he says. “The toughest part was to take the decision to make the film. First off, the script did not follow the pattern of any of my earlier movies. There were several situations and plot points that I was not sure would work on screen. I had to speculate heavily on how audiences would receive it – and I was going by my intuition.”
Vineeth’s approach was to take out the melodrama that is usual in family movies. “We decided to focus on reality and present the film in a manner that was relatable to the people. If it didn’t work, the film would have ended up like a docu-fiction.”
With several characters in different age groups, Vineeth also had to think like them. “Characters cannot speak the writer’s language; they must speak like how they behave in life. We took extra care to keep it all very real.”
Approaching the film as if he was writing his first script, Vineeth says he used to talk at length to every member in the family for hours together. “I think I am the only one who has heard the viewpoints of all of them. Since they knew me, they shared freely the finer details.”
This also helped Vineeth to stay true to the current milieu of the expatriate Indians living in the UAE, and their changing aspirations and lifestyle. The result is that “unlike my earlier films, when people would call me and tell me about specific scenes, after Jacobinte Swargarajyam, I have people talk to me about very personal issues and similar incidents that had happened in their lives.”
Vineeth also presents the real family as the titles roll. “If we hadn’t done that, people would have just walked out of the theatre halls with the feeling of watching just another movie. But when they realise that it happened in someone’s family, and that one individual could do such turnaround, it gives the film another dimension; it takes it closer to life. It makes audiences believe that if there is a crisis, they too can address it.”
The universal resonance of the film surprised him. “People are not vocal about their problems. But when they see their lives on screen, and they say they feel inspired and motivated to address them. This lends Vineeth a special feeling of “a sense of gratitude for doing something meaningful.”
Making Jacobinte Swargarajyamopened a new learning in life for Vineeth too. “In our rush, we forget a lot of things. We start taking things for granted. I learnt that we must give importance to the things that really matter.” He has made some changes in his own life too – but he says it is too personal to be shared.
As for comments that with his brand of feel-good family movies, he is being ‘Sathyan Anthikadu,’ Vineeth says he sees it as a compliment. “There are very few filmmakers who have told stories about Malayalis with such sincerity as Sathyan uncle. If anyone feels I am following his school of filmmaking, I am happy about it. I do not see it as criticism.”
Vineeth says he is upbeat about the Malayalam film industry today. “After watching JSR, Lal Jose told me that our audiences are as good as ever; it is we, the filmmakers, who changed.”
“We have a great audience and they are receptive to experimentation; Action Hero Biju, Charlie, Kali, Ustad Hoteland Bangalore Days were different at some level and people enjoyed them all. The audiences are observant; they were reacting positively to even the minute detailing in Maheshinte Prathikaaram. I think filmmakers must go all out, experiment with their movies and keep our audiences entertained”
Vineeth says that the sequel to Thira, his film based on the subject of human trafficking, is very much a go-live project. “But the way we have planned it, it needs a big budget, and the availability of actors is also critical. We are looking to sort that out.”
Vineeth has not planned out his next movie; he has committed a few acting assignments, one being Oru Muthasshi Gatha; the others are in scripting stage.
Hats off to Dubai
Vineeth is all praise for Dubai – and describes it has the most film shooting-friendly government policies. “Many people had cautioned us against shooting in Dubai and the UAE. They said we might have to encounter many restrictions. But we were thoroughly floored by the professionalism.”
Describing the shoot in the UAE as a pleasant experience, Vineeth recalls how Dubai Police had secured roads including the busy Sheikh Zayed Road for the shoot, while the authorities at the Dubai International Airport and Dubai Metro, among others, opened doors with total freedom.
“Back home, there are some restrictions and we tend to work around them. Here there was total freedom.”
Vineeth and Nivin Pauly cannot but praise the Malayali community in the UAE for their cooperation. “They even set aside their holidays to accommodate us. While shooting in Karama, they would even do the crowd management. I hope we can return the kindness they showered on us with the film,” says Nivin.