“What do you think?” Nik Amir Mustapha responds as the crew, present on the day of our shoot, hypothesise over the plot of the hugely successful Imaginur. “It is fundamentally a love story,” I say while someone else declares that it is a story about coping with dementia. I direct him to a tweet which dissects the film and attempts to explain the thought process behind the scenes.
But Nik Amir who directed the film is non-committal in his response, often answering question with a question. As has been written before, the director prefers to leave it to the audience’s imagination.
“After the first couple of screenings, there were a lot of different theories,” he says. “We have an intention, but we don’t want to say what it is.”
At the time of the interview, Imaginur had grossed more than RM6 million and counting, substantially more than Nik’s debut film KIL.
“We have the window for the first three days for local cinema,” he explains. “Cinemas decide the fate of films based on the first three days in the cinema but the word of mouth started early on.”
The film which has been labelled a ‘romantic’ sci-fi revolves around Zuhal, played by Beto Kusyairi, who appears to be experiencing some sort of a personal crisis. He winds up in hospital and from then on, the audience is taken on a series of flashbacks through which different characters are introduced. Among them, Nur played Diana Danielle.
I may seem a philistine to others who watched the film but there were moments when I got the impression Nur, who is Zuhal’s love, was a figment of his imagination. Then there was the hypnosis involving Dr. Ramli played by Afdlin Shauki. Did it really happen or was it symbolic of the process of trying to unlock Zuhal’s memories?
What Nik Amir will divulge us is that the film challenges us to think about our existence.
“What defines us?” he asks. “It is our memories. But what happens if there is some problem there, there is a hiccup. How then do we define ourselves? That’s more of an existential question that we discuss.”
It is a complex plot. But it was this contemplative aspect that was the catalyst of the film. It was only later that more “accessible” themes of love and family were incorporated into the film.
“I have always had a problem balancing between international audiences and locals, people who enjoy the Netlix-es of the world and who are more exposed to certain types of movies. I am always in the middle,” he states. ”I had to think of something accessible first before going out and saying it this manner.”
A love story emerged as the accessible angle but there were also themes of memory and dreams that were incorporated into the story.
The idea for Imaginur was originally conceptualised before KIL, which was released in 2013. Originally, it was about dreams and memories but when Redza Minhat came on board in 2016, the theme was expanded to include elements of family and taking care of loved ones.
The duo strike a chord, having worked together on all three of Nik Amir’s films, playing the lead role in KIL and co-writing Terbaik Dari Langit and Imaginur.
“We are very complementary,” says Nik Amir. “I am more visual and more structured about the plot. He (Redza) is more detailed-oriented, very philosophical, and cerebral. He works on the dialogues etc. He puts it out first then I will look at it and try to ground it. Asking, for example, if this is how people talk.”
The dialogue that people tweet, he adds, the smarter quotes, that’s all from Redza. As co-writers they spent years developing the story. The process became even more intense when Redza moved to London for work. But they would spend hours on time fleshing out the plot.
“We had a rough form but it has always been about dialling in to what it is really about,” explains Nik Amir. “Those discussions were long. They took years.”
The other critical aspect of the film was the casting. From the outset, Nik Amir knew what he wanted. Naturally, the actors had to be good at their craft but also had to be intelligent and importantly, understand what the writers are trying to say.
To the external eye, it may seem that Beto and Diana are opposites but when Nik Amir met with them, things clicked.
“I don’t know the reason but they agreed to do it straight away,” he says. “They are intelligent and get what we are trying to do.”
As the storytelling is complex, there were lots of discussions between the director and actors to ensure constant collaboration. The flashback scenes through which the plot slowly unravels had to be shot several times, as each scene had subtle differences.
The film also has a strong visual impact, creating a somewhat timeless element. The look and the feel of the film is nostalgic, yet it has elements of sci-fi.
For their first film, the director of photography and art director took an approach that didn’t focus on the technical. Instead, they look at the story.
“They spent a lot of time watching how the actors interact and then the technical aspects came, not the other way around.”
The distinctive headgear, created by the art director Rabanni Sujak, who has an architectural background, was inspired by Star Wars.
The film was originally shot in 2020 but went through some delays due to the pandemic. In July last year, it was showcased at the New York Asian Film Festival 2022. It made its debut in Malaysia in February this year.
“In Malaysia we had three pre-screenings. At the end of it, people were crying which is strange because we really didn’t see it as a crying movie.”
For a film to achieve longevity, momentum is key. The first week was pretty slow, he admits, but soon after everyone began discussing the nuances, prompting more people to go see it and eventually the audience grew through word of mouth. Platforms like TikTok and Twitter also worked well in creating awareness about the film.
“My belief is that the audience is ready,” he says. “There are two types of audiences. The first is the Netflix kind of crowd who are already watching films like this, but they don’t know that there are Malaysian like this. The other is the mainstream audience who looks for commercially successful films. There are a lot of the Netflix crowd but they don’t go to the cinema. We were lucky that it got viral and this crowd went to support it.”
The interesting thing about Nik Amir is that he has a range of influences. His engineering background gives him a logical approach to things. His film training fuels his creative side.
“It cannot just be syok sendiri and just do whatever,” he states. “It is business also and I am aware of that too.”
It has been nearly ten years since Nik Amir first appeared in Augustman, then as one of the magazine’s Men of the Year. “Back then, I just did KIL and some other passion projects,” he says.
“Now I have been involved in brands, commercials but at the same time I have also seen more movies, read more books and had team collaborations. I have learnt from the previous projects so it’s been ten years of learning.”