The road to Mecca is a long and worthy one in “Abu, Son of Adam,” an unfailingly sincere if dramatically underpowered debut feature from writer-director Salim Ahamed that balances measured investigation of the Islamic faith with broader concerns of mortality and community. Charting the quest of an elderly couple in rural Malabar to join the annual Hajj pilgrimage, the simple narrative has an O. Henry-style moral architecture but wants for human detail. Selected as India’s foreign-language Oscar submission after registering strongly at home over the summer, the lushly lensed pic should find sympathetic audiences on the specialty festival circuit.
Less a rigorous study of religious devotion (or indeed crisis) than a universal tale of charity denied and dreams deferred, “Abu, Son of Adam” was reportedly inspired by Ahamed’s own previous experience as a travel agent: The tension between the expense of the Mecca trip and the sense of spiritual obligation to make it is presumably not an unusual dilemma for many Muslim folk.
Opening with perhaps one too many picture-postcard shots of the verdant Kerala State landscape, the pic swiftly establishes the narrow social radius of the title character (the arrestingly blue-eyed Salim Kumar), a septuagenarian perfume-seller content with his modest income and quiet marriage to wife Aisu (Zarina Wahab), but estranged from his unseen adult son. No explanation is offered, but chances are his unflagging piety may have something to do with it.
With little to leave in the way of a legacy, Abu’s lone remaining ambition is to attend the Hajj, with Aisu in tow, before he dies. The financial and bureaucratic obstacles involved, however, are manifold: Passport applications are interrupted by prying police officials, while offers of monetary aid from assorted friends and acquaintances (including his kindly travel agent) are repeatedly turned down by Abu himself. The richest irony in Ahamed’s screenplay is that it’s strict religious obedience, as opposed to mere personal pride, that motivates his refusal.
Ahamed tells his story with clarity and compassion, but little humor or grit: The film has a tendency to shy away from overt dramatic conflict, as Abu’s gentle decency sees him escape or mollify one practical or personal opponent after another. As such, he’s a more admirable protagonist than he is a compelling one, and Kumar, best known locally for comic roles, is a committed but slightly over-deliberate presence in the lead.
Chief pleasures of this humble production lie in the confident lensing of veteran Indian d.p. Madhu Ambat, who is given unchecked permission to wallow in the Malabar countryside’s iridescent sunrises and acid-green blankets of foliage; it’s left more to the literal storytelling than to the plush filmmaking to remind us of Abu and Aisu’s hardships.