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Alif Review: A Murderously Overwrought Religious Drama

It tells the story of the trials and tribulations of a fiercely orthodox Muslim family in Varanasi – back when region was still reeling from the 1989 riots

Rahul DesaiRahul Desai

February 2, 2017 | 10:02 AM

FC Rating

★★★★★
film-companion
Alif Review: A Murderously Overwrought Religious Drama

Director: Zaigham Imam

Cast: Danish Hussain, Neelima Azeem, Pawan Tiwari, Aditya Om, Saud Mansuri

I had reviewed writer-director Zaigham Imam’s first film, Dozakh: In Search of Heaven, about a Muslim cleric’s desperate search for his lost boy in Banaras. His novel choice of subject reflected an extensive career as a journalist, but I remember cringing at the tacky translation to screen – it exuded the inexperience of a botched-up and stubborn learning exercise.

Imam is a writer, even a storyteller, but not yet a filmmaker. The craft isn’t for him. His second film, Alif, proves the same. It boasts of some of the most overwrought, shabbily executed and overacted scenes in recent memory. Again, though, his script isn’t half bad. In fact, there’s even a density to the universe he wants to create. The interconnectedness of the narrative is almost impressive, too. If only all of it had remained on paper. In fact, his first script was based on his own novel.

But he insists on this medium. Repeatedly. 

Imam is a writer, even a storyteller, but not yet a filmmaker. The craft isn’t for him. His second film, Alif, proves the same. It boasts of some of the most overwrought, shabbily executed and overacted scenes in recent memory.

Alif tells the story of the trials and tribulations of a fiercely orthodox Muslim family in Varanasi – back when the religiously diverse region was still reeling from the 1989 riots (presumably), divided by fundamentalism from both sides. The primary thread revolves around a Hakim (Danish Hussain), who had sent his sister (Neelima Azeem) away to Pakistan years ago to protect her, begging for her forgiveness once she returns on a temporary visa. 

On one hand, he must indulge in a scam to keep her in India, and on another, she wants him to send his young son to a regular school (“Doctor, not Hakeem”) instead of their local madrasa. There’s also his chirpy sister-in-law, a poet, who falls for their neighbour’s rugged son, a conservative fellow determined to run the madrasa and hate on Hindus.

Somehow, all of this is related – a complex domino effect of consequences, which seems to have clearly overwhelmed the makers. Though I’ve no issues with the ambition of this tale, the most drastic problem is its language. And by that, I don’t mean Urdu.

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At two hours, the essence of the film seems to have been stretched by an extra hour. A strange starched graininess aside, every single scene is longer than it should be. For instance, when the woman comes back to the family home, the camera spends at least eight minutes following her teary foray into every room. We get it – she’s emotional. She’s nostalgic. But on it goes. On and on. There’s a difference between a film being an artful slow burning meditative sprawl, and just being plain overindulgent and unnecessary and slow and agonizingly paced – to the extent of cruelly teasing the viewer: “oh, you think we’re done? No, we’re not. You paid money for minutes, not content!” This is clearly no environment for editors. 

 At two hours, the essence of the film seems to have been stretched by an extra hour. A strange starched graininess aside, every single scene is longer than it should be.

Another example is every interminable scene between the kid and his awfully loud pal – their voices split the screen into several pieces and reverberate mercilessly in our poor ears. When they fly kites, they scream at each other from adjacent terraces, taking several deafening minutes to condemn us to the terribly redundant knowledge of one being better than the other. They repeat it 8972 times, in case we miss the nuances. I needed an aspirin every time the other kid so much as appeared for a second. Gnawing children in Hindi films have long been a pet peeve; this one only puts me on the brink of no return.

As with the first film, basic concepts of sound mixing and design seem to have been interpreted as “louder, the better”. There’s also a teacher in the kid’s new school, who can best be described as an exceptionally violent and comically enraged Islam-hating child-beater who thinks he is perhaps better than, say, a psychotic pedophile. He picks on the kid with the venomous energy of John McEnroe murdering imaginary referees in his head. 

All in all, too many voices, too much unnecessary noise, and many ideas ruined by kindergarten sensibilities.

All in all, too many voices, too much unnecessary noise, and many ideas ruined by kindergarten sensibilities. Even the end credits took ten seconds to start rolling after the last frame. Alif is the cinematic equivalent of a liberal geriatric climbing to the topmost level of the Hagia Sophia.