A truly self­less un­der­tak­ing

Dubai film­maker Reshel Shah tells Chris New­bould about her new doc­u­men­tary, which re­veals the tire­less benev­o­lence of Ashraf Thama­rassery, the UAE’s ac­ci­den­tal un­der­taker

The National - News - Arts & Life - - Front Page -

What would in­spire a man to ded­i­cate his life to repa­tri­at­ing the bod­ies of the de­ceased, with no fi­nan­cial recom­pense – and, per­haps, to the detri­ment of his own fam­ily life and fi­nan­cial well-be­ing?

That is what Dubai di­rec­tor Reshel Shah set out to dis­cover with her short doc­u­men­tary The Un­der­taker, which chronicles the life and work of a re­mark­able UAE res­i­dent who has been do­ing just that for 16 years. Ashraf Thama­rassery found his call­ing while vis­it­ing a friend at a hos­pi­tal in Shar­jah. As he ex­plains in the doc­u­men­tary, while there he met a cou­ple of dis­traught In­dian men. Their fa­ther had just died and they did not have the knowl­edge or funds needed to send his body back home to Ker­ala.

De­spite hav­ing no ex­pe­ri­ence of such a sit­u­a­tion him­self, Thama­rassery was moved to help the men and oth­ers in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion. He has since re­turned al­most 4,000 bod­ies to their home coun­tries and re­fuses to take pay­ment for his ser­vices, in­stead choos­ing to live on the Dh4,000 a month he earns from his garage in In­dia, which is run by his broth­ers.

“He met those two peo­ple and it touched him, and now I just don’t think he knows how to stop,” Shah says. “And I don’t think he wants to stop, be­cause he’s now known in the UAE as a saviour to so many peo­ple and I think he re­ally feels that he wants to keep that, if that makes sense.” The work that Thama­rassery does is well known in the com­mu­nity, which led the film crew to his door.

“It’s in­sane,” says Shah. “I re­mem­ber at 5am one morn­ing we got to his house dur­ing the shoot. He showed me his What­sApp and he’d had 280 [new] mes­sages – we’d only left him at 11 the pre­vi­ous night.

“He just doesn’t stop. In the­ory, Fri­day is his day off, but if some­thing needs at­tend­ing to on a Fri­day … he’s there.”

Shah be­lieves Thama­rassery’s mo­tive for agree­ing to ap­pear in the doc­u­men­tary is more than recog­ni­tion or seek­ing fame.

“When I ap­proached him about mak­ing the film, he said to me: ‘If a thou­sand peo­ple watch this film, and one per­son de­cides they want to do this once a week, then I’ve made a dif­fer­ence’,” she says.

De­spite Thama­rassery’s ap­par­ent worka­holic per­son­al­ity, Shah says she de­tected a care­ful- ly crafted bal­ance be­tween his work and fam­ily life. “When he comes home, he just to­tally switches off,” she says. “You know when you’ve had a bad day at work and you come home and all you want to do is talk about it? For him, he will dis­con­nect the sec­ond he’s in the house with his wife and kids.

“I think be­cause he’s been do­ing this for so long he can do that be­cause, emo­tion­ally, he just doesn’t con­nect any­more. I think you’d have to be that way to do a job like this.”

The six-minute doc­u­men­tary is avail­able on­line, but Shah also has big­ger plans for its fu­ture. “We want to ex­pand it to a 40- minute se­ries, with four 10-minute episodes,” she says. “Right now, he tells us what he does but we want to show the au­di­ence what he does. Not in a taste­less ‘dead body’ way but we want to show the con­ver­sa­tions he has, the cost of flight tick­ets to repa­tri­ate the bod­ies, which he of­ten pays him­self, even if he has to travel back him­self with the body be­cause the UAE rel­a­tives can’t get time off work – he will not leave a body alone un­til he knows it has reached safety. We want to cap­ture all of that.”

Shah is now hop­ing to at­tract spon­sor­ship, both for her se­ries and Thama­rassery’s work. “He’s won more than 300 awards from com­pa­nies in the UAE, so we’d like to say to them: ‘ OK, thanks for the pat on the back, now show us the money’,” she says. “He is look­ing for an air­line spon­sor. The flight tick­ets are his big­gest ex­pense and it’s the one thing he re­ally wants.”

Shah hopes to have the ex­tended ver­sion of the doc­u­men­tary com­pleted in time for it to pre­miere as a sin­gle 40-minute film at the Dubai In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val in De­cem­ber.

She also is work­ing on her sec­ond fea­ture doc­u­men­tary, about the unusual Hindu tra­di­tion of el­e­vat­ing chil­dren with birth de­fects to the sta­tus of gods in In­dia.

Her de­but fea­ture doc­u­men­tary was 2015’s Black Sheep, which deals with gen­der- equal­ity is­sues in In­dia. It won mul­ti­ple awards, in­clud­ing a UN World Hu­man Rights Film Fes­ti­val Award. It is avail­able to watch at www.movie­saints.com.

Or­gan­i­sa­tions or in­di­vid­u­als in­ter­ested in spon­sor­ing or sup­port­ing Thama­rassery’s work can con­tact Shah at reshel@1daypro­duc­tion.com

Cour­tesy Reshel Shah

Di­rec­tor Reshel Shah, far right, has cre­ated a short doc­u­men­tary, ti­tled The Un­der­taker, about Ashraf Thama­rassery, cen­tre, who repa­tri­ates the bod­ies of those who have died in the UAE.

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