When Jude Anthany Joseph first learned that his disaster film, based on the real-life 2018 Kerala floods, had been selected as India's official entry for the Oscars 2024, the ace Malayalam director says he was "pleasantly surprised".
"We didn't expect the Oscar nomination, not even in our dream," he tells The National. "All we wanted was to be recognised at the state or national level."
Featuring an ensemble cast, the disaster epic beat 22 other titles from across India, including controversial film, The Kerala Story, and Karan Johar's Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani, starring Bollywood actors Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt.
Now that this cinematic ode to the heroic grit and remarkable perseverance displayed by ordinary people in the face of devastating tragedy finds itself in the coveted Oscar race, Joseph and his team couldn't be more thrilled.
But it will not be an easy ride, given how fiercely competitive the Oscar's Best International Feature Film category is.
Only three Indian films have secured a nomination so far – Mother India in 1958, Salaam Bombay! in 1989 and the Aamir Khan-starrer Lagaan in 2002, and none of them have won.
Joseph offers a hopeful and yet, pragmatic perspective. "There's no harm in dreaming about winning an Oscar, but we are under no pressure because we have nothing to lose," he says.
For now, the 2018 team have kick-started their Oscar campaign to "make some noise" and "create some visibility" in the Academy circle ahead of the big event on March 10.
As part of these efforts, Joseph and some of his colleagues are set to travel to Los Angeles in November and set up shop to organise screenings across the US.
"We have been told we are up against 79 films from around the world, so the first step is to get into the final 15 list, which will be announced on December 21," Joseph says.
Indian cinema enjoyed a golden moment last year at the 95th Academy Awards when the exuberant dance number, Naatu Naatu from the Telugu musical RRR, became the first Indian song ever to take home the prestigious trophy. The same night, The Elephant Whisperers picked up a prize in the Best Documentary Short Film category.
Joseph is encouraged by the fact that there's much more awareness about Asian cinema in general and Indian cinema, in particular, than it has ever been in the past.
"We have a global reach now," he says, adding that the beauty of Indian cinema lies in its rich diversity.
"All regional cinemas in India have their own unique flavour, including Malayalam movies. We have always been doing highly original work, but it's just that earlier, our films didn't receive the recognition they deserved among Western audiences."
In the cluttered Indian movie landscape, Malayalam cinema has consistently stood out for its compelling storytelling, technical finesse and superlative quality of acting – all of this frequently accomplished in a fraction of an average Hollywood production's budget.
Joseph, 40, is part of the new crop of Malayali filmmakers who have reshaped their industry in recent years. His directorial debut, Ohm Shanthi Oshaana, was a critical and box office success, and was one of the highest-grossing films of 2014 in Kerala.
Visually engaging and fast-paced, 2018 tells a mosaic-like story of tragedy-stricken Keralites from the vantage point of each of its many different characters. Four years in the making, the film was shot on real locations in various pockets of Kerala, including Kochi, Kottayam, Thrissur and Alleppey.
Released in April to wide acclaim, it is now the highest-grossing Malayalam film in history, having so far made more than 2 billion rupees ($24 million) at the box office, outperforming the previous record-holder – superstar Mohanlal's 2016 action bonanza Pulimurugan.
The film has also been a major hit in the UAE and the rest of the Gulf, thanks to its large Malayali population.
Made on a budget of 300 million rupees, Joseph proudly points out that 2018's commercial success has come at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic had clobbered the theatrical business.
"I am happy that our film has brought audiences back to the cinema hall," he says.
Joseph and co-writer Akhil P Dharmajan drew inspiration from the horrifying headlines in the aftermath of the deluge.
Actor Tovino Thomas's brave character Anoop, who sacrifices his own life to save those of others, was also inspired by a news report.
"It was buried somewhere inside the newspaper and I was like, 'These are exactly the kind of little-known stories we need to celebrate'," Joseph says.
The 2018 floods, caused by unusually high rainfall, was one of the worst floods in Kerala's history. It claimed the lives of more than 483 people, with more than a million displaced.
The disaster was personal for Joseph, which ultimately triggered his decision to embark on this project.
"My home near Kochi airport was drowned," he recalls. "I lost everything... my vehicle, mobile phone and papers. Our power supply was cut off. I woke up my parents at 1.45am and moved them to a hotel nearby. My wife and kid were away in Kottayam and I couldn't reach there because the roads were closed. I literally felt like crying."
Rising star Thomas, 34, who is from Irinjalakuda, a town in Thrissur district, says he remembers thinking everyone was going to die.
Which is why, he says, when Joseph approached him for the film, he was initially skeptical.
"I didn't want people to think that we were cashing in on this tragedy," he tells The National. "But Jude was sure that he wanted to make the film to remind people how everyone in Kerala stood together in the time of crisis.
"The film is not about the disaster – it is about overcoming the disaster."