Cast: Joju George, Indrajith, Grace, Sharaf U Dheen
For a country where religion is such a part of the fabric, it's surprising we don't have what the Americans call the "faith-based film". We've had the pure mythological. We've had the socio-mythological, the biggest one being Jai Santoshi Maa, which was released in 1975 and broke box-office records alongside Sholay. But we don't have producers/filmmakers like Alex and Stephen Kendrick, who make explicitly Christian-themed dramas like Courageous (2011) and War Room (2015). Speaking about the latter to the Gospel Herald (note the name of the publication), the Kendricks said they believe prayer is a powerful weapon that can transform even the most broken marriages, families, and countries. "Our number one goal in making movies has always been: How can we advance the kingdom of God, and how can we take the Gospel to the ends of the earth?"
This year, faithwire.com carried a story about filmmaker Matt Chastain, whose Small Group (2018), is about a documentary filmmaker who infiltrates a "small group" in a church in order to expose its hypocrisies. Chastain said that the Christian faith will be pushed further and further out of mainstream culture. "Up until the late 1990s and early 2000s, Christianity represented the 'dominant culture' in the United States. As that changes, believers will have to adapt and create content that resonates with an entirely new society."
That's the kind of thought that drives a "small group" of orthodox Muslims in Zakariya Mohammed's entertaining Halal Love Story. This group wants to make a film that's explicitly religious, a film that portrays Islam the way the religion is and not the way it is being "misunderstood in the world". This is a very real concern because it's the early 2000s, and 9/11 is still in everyone's mind. There's another concern. There are very few Indian films that a devout Muslim can see—like, say, the Iranian drama Children of Heaven. That's not a faith-based film, exactly, but its content is "halal" (permissible by the religion, lawful).
But is it, really? After all, it features Muslim women appearing in front of the camera, which will broadcast their images to thousands of strangers/non-Muslims throughout theatres in the world. In other words, we are talking about a religion with a contentious relationship with cinema—and that's what makes Halal Love Story something of a political statement. Even recently, the Children of Heaven director Majid Majidi got into a controversy with Muhammad: Messenger of God, because physical representations of the Prophet are taboo in some Muslim communities. In India, a group called Raza Academy issued a fatwa against all those involved in the project, including composer AR Rahman. A Hindu report quoted the chief of the organisation: "The actors have charged money to act in the film and they may have dubious character in real life. How can we Muslims allow such things to happen?"
All these doubts and concerns are no doubt part of Halal Love Story. Even if the producer and writer and actors don't take money (they are all part of the group), you still need money to make the movie, with all its operational and logistical costs. Halal Love Story, thus, sets up delicious ironies. The members of the Muslim group protest against global capitalism and Coca-Cola—but they are forced to beg for (filmmaking) funds from local capitalists. (Who else has money? Certainly not the Communists Kerala is so renowned for!)
They need a director, but they also wonder if this person should have a non-Muslim name. This plot point doesn't make much sense, given that the content of the film-within-the-film is so explicitly "Muslim", but the bigger point is this: given the time period Halal Love Story is set in, there are very few filmmakers with explicitly "Muslim" names like "Fazil". The director of this film is named Zakariya Mohammad. This is perhaps a small statement that the number of Muslim filmmakers has really increased today. (Refer, also, one of this film's producers: a certain Mr. Aashiq Abu.)
And when Muslims themselves make sly digs at Muslims, perhaps there is a bigger punch to the jokes—say, the fact that the director of the film-within-the-film (Siraj, played by Joju George) is a smoker and drinker and he's found in a bar that's named… PARADISE! (That name! Isn't that where all true believers aspire to end up?)
There are perhaps other digs that only Muslims might get. It's "haram" (forbidden, i.e. un-halal) to cast an unrelated couple as the film-within-the-film's hero and heroine: what if they have to touch each other? So a real-life couple is cast: Shereef (Indrajith Sukumaran) and Suhara (Grace Antony). Shereef is a pious Muslim who fancies himself a bit of a thespian, as he performs in street theatre. Imagine his shock when his homebody-wife turns out to be the better actor! I wondered what Islam says about jealousy, and a cursory Google search took me to quranexplorer.com, where I found this: Jealousy not only spoils the peace of mind but it also weakens the faith in Allah; because when a person gets jealous of another person he thinks that Allah has not fair enough with him…
So with his jealousy, Shereef is possibly diminishing his faith. Every night, he checks off boxes on his "how to be a good Muslim" book. (Have you been good to your neighbour, today? That sort of thing!) But when faced with the real tests, is he being a "good Muslim"? Halal Love Story is a very funny film, especially when Parvathy Thiruvothu (as an acting coach) and Soubin Shahir (as a sound recordist, leading to the best national-anthem joke since the one in Maheshinte Prathikaram) are around. And yet, the subtext is always serious, always linked to halal/haram, and what it means to be a Muslim.
Take the scene where a man who pastes posters on walls falls from his bicycle while passing by the house of a pious Muslim. The latter rushes out to help. The man says he'd like some water and maida, both of which are unquestioningly made available in an instant. So far, so halal. And what does the man do? He makes a gluey paste with the water and maida and puts up one of his posters on the compound wall right opposite the pious Muslim's home. The poster features a skimpily clad starlet, and it's 100% haram. We laugh, but we also see what's underneath these laughs. The pious Muslim is left wondering whether he did a good deed (helping someone) or a bad one (helping someone put out something that's so haram).
Unfortunately, the second half undergoes a tonal shift and becomes serious. "Becoming serious" is in itself not an issue. But given the humour-coated approach in the first half, some of the latter portions are too heavy, too big for a film that's so far been working in a miniaturist mode. This is very much like Sudani from Nigeria, Zakariya Mohammad's first feature, with the same co-writer (Muhsin Parari). Both films share some elements: a man who undergoes a transformation in terms of his relationship (Soubin Shahir there, Indrajith Sukumaran here), which happens through an external agency (the "Sudani from Nigeria" character there, the film-within-the-film here). And in both films, the writing in the dramatic portions isn't as organic as in the funnier portions. If Sudani from Nigeria featured a crisis involving the police and flashbacks to refugee life in Nigeria, Halal Love Story narrows its focus to Suhara's emancipation.
The conceit is that those acting exercises (by the Parvathy character) loosen her up. They make her get in touch with her feelings, and she speaks out about the grudges she harbours about her husband, which leads to a marital crisis. Suddenly, we seem to be in a different movie, which forces in situations in order to "solve" this marital crisis. Even worse is the marital crisis with the faithless Joju George character. It contributes very little, unless you look at the fact that the halal couple's crisis is resolved; the haram couple's isn't. Is there a judgement being made here?
But there's another similarity with Sudani from Nigeria. Both films are so well-acted, so fundamentally sweet, that you almost feel bad saying they are less than what they could have been. Grace Antony is the star of Halal Love Story: she has killer lines and looks, and she aces each one of them. Among the men, I loved Sharaf U Dheen, who plays the schoolteacher who becomes the screenwriter and keeps wondering about the halal to haram ratio in the film-within-the-film. The film's biggest meta idea is the sight of Shereef and Suhara talking about physical intimacy and sex. Yes, within the context of Halal Love Story, they are talking only to each other, man to wife. But outside, every single viewer watching this movie is witnessing this conversation. Flaws and all, Halal Love Story is a sign that Malayalam cinema is poised for its biggest revolution in "Muslim filmmaking" yet.