When you visit a regional movie discussion group on Facebook, what you will see are the wide and diverse range of opinions posted over the past few days about the new Zakariya Mohammed (Sudani from Nigeria) directorial, Halal Love Story. The movie was announced this year with many expectations – Sudani from Nigeria had been touted the best of the year, plus this one had a talented ensemble cast, and the scriptwriter duo of Zakariya and Muhsin Parari, who penned both SFN and Aashiq Abu's Virus, were writing it.
Coming from such a talented crop of artists, I couldn't help but get excited about the impending release of the film, which was later revealed to be via Amazon Prime Video. To be honest, Halal Love Story turned out to be a mixed bag; at the end, I thought it passable film.
The plot follows a few religious movie buffs in Kerala's Malappuram district set out to produce a small-budget telefilm whose premise, scenes and characters would adhere to the norms and restrictions imposed by the religion they follow, and which is stringently dictated by their "Prasthanam" (organisation). The narrative of Halal Love Story is set somewhere in the early 2000s, when Bush's America (here portrayed as a villainous manifestation of crony capitalism and imperialism) declared and waged war against extremist militant forces. While they rope in local artistes and aspiring actors for their production, the makers intend to hire a "pothu" (public) director to helm the film. (In the movie, "pothu" isn't just a veiled reference to hiring a director from outside the community, but one who also enjoys the occasional smokes and drinks). Being a crowd-funded production, they have to wade through various predicaments to fulfil a project that would satiate the delicate sensibilities of the community they represent. Here, their major struggle is against the faith and the institution that precludes such artistic tendencies, yet in no way do the characters express this angst, nor do they want to, apparently.
What struck me as the most impressive aspect was how the makers of HLS drew inspiration from their own experiences of living and interacting with the community they grew up in and how they sketched this portrait of 2000s Malappuram with laudable attention to detail. Anybody who grew up in that time and place will attest to the accuracy and credibility of how these elements are given shape in this film. The occasional agitations against a brutal imperialist regime, the existence of a religious organization which instructs its followers to abide by the norms, and a community that is apparently content with leading the faithful, devout life.
Like Sudani From Nigeria, Halal Love Story is replete with hearty, funny, and memorable moments. One of its funny scenes that cracked me up was when a technician, during a shot, rushes to the neighboring house where a middle-aged homemaker is washing the household's clothes in order to tell her to stop the chore as the sound of the clothes being hit against the stone is disrupting the spot recording process. The technician gapes in surprise as the woman asks, "This sound is the sound of village life. What is wrong if they hear that in the movie?" We see that he is awestruck with the ironic and sudden gem of cinematic wisdom the woman delivers.
But despite these noteworthy moments, Halal Love Story doesn't have much for the viewer to take away in the end, apart from a slew of questions and doubts over the intended politics of representation in the film. As the producers try their best to make their film stick to the religious diktats concerning depictions of characters and certain scenes, a crucial juncture towards the climax raises the question of how they will tackle this vexing problem. The answer being provided is neither satisfactory nor clear, but we can't help but move on with it. It is clear that the writers wanted to show the conflict between dogmas and artistic expression, but in this day and age, the answer is more certain than ever. HLS doesn't want to iterate that. Also, the question of whether the makers of HLS want to mock and criticize the religious doctrines that come in the way of artistic expression or whether they find a means to embrace them will linger on in many viewers' minds after an initial viewing.
Despite an ensemble cast, it was Grace Antony and Joju George, the former a promising actor who is making her presence felt in the industry and the latter who has already proved his mettle as a talented and bankable actor, who stole the limelight with their relatable and laudable performances. Antony shines as the initially naïve, dedicated Suhra who later begins to confront the demons in her personal and marital life. George plays a troubled director who is stuck between his familial travails and the struggle to complete what appears to be a disastrous, problem-filled project. The other actors who join them, including Indrajith Sukumaran and Sharaf U Dheen, too have their fair share of moments, and function as respite in a half-baked film.
As far as its characters and setting are concerned, HLS is a brave, pathbreaking attempt away from the industry convention of depicting the tales and endeavors of the aristocratic, elite Hindu and Christian upper class (Valyettan, Aaram Thampuran, Narasimham, Nasrani). There has been a massive dearth of films portraying stories and characters from communities that didn't fall in the aforementioned classes. The recent string of pictures – Parava, Kumabalangi Nights, Kammatipadam, Sudani from Nigeria and many others – are brave, commendable steps in this direction. What Mollywood needs today are such striking and beautiful narratives.