I was not aware of Mollywood: Reem Kadem
Actress Reem Kadem’s Malayalam dialogues have a slight twang, but they are quite comprehensible, and one would never imagine the speaker is an Iraqi American, who had never heard of a language called Malayalam until a year ago. “How is my Malayalam?” she asks, “I hear I am doing it rather effectively!”
Reem, who has acted in Hollywood and independent films is also an award-winning screenwriter. She will be seen playing the lead character in Renjith Lal’s English-Malayalam bilingual Naval Enna Jewel. Reem is the first actress of Iraqi origin to act in a Malayalam film, and would probably be the most determined among those who don’t know the language! She devoted four whole months to learn her Malayalam dialogues, reading them out first, listening to the recordings, and repeating them with the correct intonation. “I admit it has been one of the hardest experiences of my life. But I am proud and happy. At first, there was this Herculean task in front of me, and I was full of fear. But when I actually accomplished it, there was nothing better than that feeling,” she says.
Reem, though, is not allowed to talk much about her film, which, according to its director Renjith Lal, starts off with an Arabikkalyanam. “There used to be a custom in Kerala in which Arabs in their 50s and 60s would marry teenage girls from here, paying the families money in return. Usually, the Arabs leave for their home countries after six months. But the Arab in the story takes a liking for the girl he marries, and takes her with him to Iran, as his sixth wife. They have a baby after two years, who is named Naval, after the acclaimed Egyptian feminist writer Nawal El Saadawi. She grows up to be a revolutionary thinker, and the story is about her and her young mother, played by Shweta Menon,” he says.
The reason why Reem was chosen, he says, was because the daughter is half Iranian and half Malayali. “We wanted someone with that look and Reem fit the bill perfectly.” So what made her take up a project in Malayalam cinema? “Well, first of all, the character of Naval is extraordinary, a tour de force for an actor. It’s a ground-breaking character with a lot of complexities.
Also, I can connect with my character on a personal level. I was fortunate to have a mother who was an inspiration in her own way. She was one of those who escaped from Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1997 and I owe my life in the US to her courage and triumph. And ironically, now I find myself portraying an Iranian woman in a film. It really hit home for me,” says the actress. And was she aware of a state called Kerala and Malayalam cinema earlier? “I was born and raised in California. And to be frank, I was aware of Bollywood, but not of Malayalam cinema. I think I had heard of Kerala but it was like a far off land. If someone had told me a year back, ‘Reem, one day you will act in a Malayalam film and speak Malayalam, I would have told them – Please! Keep walking, I hope you took your medicine.’
How does she like Kerala? “I find people in India very humble and down to earth. I’ve been to some temples in Thrissur and Ottappalam, where we are shooting now, also to Kochi, the beaches there with fishermen’s nets. I just love the greenery and colours, it really feels like God’s Own Country.”
And finally, has she ever had to face prejudice for her Iraqi background? “Well, I have never been to Iraq, and the situation now is worse than ever. I find it sad. I have never had to face any kind of prejudice, probably because I grew up in America. I am not very religious either; I don’t pray many times a day or cover myself. But the times we live in right now are such that prejudice does exist people’s minds. I guess it is high time we realised that everything has to be done in moderation, and that includes religion too.”