Location Diaries: Take Off
Director Mahesh Narayanan talks about his experiences while filming the movie
At Ras al-Khaimah (United Arab Emirates) in December, last year, the crew of Take Off had placed black ISIS flags all over. This was to resemble a rebel-controlled area in Mosul, Iraq. The movie is about the ordeal of nurses in Iraq, in 2014, as IS battled to take over the country. In order to create a realistic atmosphere, slogans of the IS were painted on the walls.
“We had a lot of Pakistani extras as Iraqi soldiers,” says director Mahesh Narayanan. “They were alarmed when they read the Arabic slogans. They thought that we were making a film showing the IS in a favourable light.”
They pleaded with Mahesh not to put them in any sort of trouble as they were all construction workers.
“They did not understand that it was a fictional film which would be shown in South India,” says Mahesh. “Instead, they thought that I was making a hard-hitting documentary.”
Mahesh tried his best to convince the extras through his Arabic-speaking co-ordinators, but they remained unconvinced. In the end, they all left.
Then, somebody posted an image of the location on Facebook. The next day the police arrived. After all, it can be a cause for alarm to see IS flags in Ras al-Khaimah. Once again, Mahesh had to explain that it was a film set and had the necessary permissions. “It took me a long time to convince them about it,” says Mahesh. “But in the end, the police left.”
Mahesh himself almost fell into trouble. Last June, he had gone to Dubai to check out possible areas for shooting. At the immigration, when the officers checked his handbag, they spotted a book, ‘Pakistan: Before And After Osama’ by former Pakistani journalist Imtiaz Gul. “I did not know that it was banned in the UAE,” says Mahesh. “They have a long list of banned books. However, they handed the book back to me, but made a red mark on my boarding pass.” But he had a stroke of luck. In his luggage he had some computer hard drives which carried a large amount of material on the IS. Thankfully, it is not easy to check a hard drive, so Mahesh was able to go in, without further problems.
As Mahesh talked in a café in Kakkanad, Kochi, suddenly, four young men came up, sporting smiles. And then one by one, they shook his hand, and said, “We enjoyed Take Off a lot. It was a good film.” Mahesh smiled gratefully. After 52 films, as a noted editor, it was probably only now that he is being recognised in public. Soon, the youths left, and the conversation continued.
To recreate the city of Tikrit, the home town of the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, a 30ft tall flex poster had been made of the leader. “We wanted to use this as a cue to indicate to the audience that Tikrit was a place that belonged to Saddam,” says Mahesh. Incidentally, the real-life nurses worked in the Tikrit Teaching hospital, which was a stone’s throw away from the Presidential palace. But the shoot was being held at Ramoji Film City in Hyderabad.
Before the cameras rolled, the art department people had placed the poster on the ground in order to clean it. Inadvertently, one of the assistants was standing on the face of Saddam Hussein, to wipe another part of the poster.
A few extras saw this and shouted, “Do you know who this person is?”
The assistant replied casually, “Yeah, I know, it’s Saddam Hussein.”
Immediately the extras shouted, “Don’t stand on his face. You should show respect. He was a prominent leader of Iraq.”