The romance begins on a bus. Sufi (Dev Mohan) makes way for Sujatha (Aditi Rao Hydari): as she enters, he rises and moves to the seat behind where he was sitting. She takes his place, and keeps turning back to catch a glimpse of him. He looks at her, too. Two young people, two good-looking people: it’s something like love at first sight. At some point, he gets down and she notices that he’s left behind his jade-coloured rosary. So it isn’t just the romance that begins on the bus, it’s also the hint of divinity that hovers like mist over the movie, named for the couple: Sufiyum Sujatayum. Indeed, the opening words (seen on a black screen, so we don’t miss the text) are: “Her love for him made her the Almighty”.
Appropriately, when they find each other again, it’s through the prayers he sings into the loudspeaker at a mosque. These prayers are so potent, so powerfully sung that they draw back worshippers who have abandoned this mosque for a newer one. The speech-impaired Sujatha is drawn to the voice, too — and to the man. They complement each other in beautiful ways. She’s a dancer, whose anklets make the sounds her throat cannot; he’s a singer. He’s also a dancer, in the sense that he whirls like a dervish. He is able to balance himself on the tips of his toes. He has elevated himself to the highest form of the inward search for the divine, which is what the dervish tradition is about. But the tradition also forbids companionship and children, apparently. How does a man choose between love for a girl and love for God?
All of which puts an interesting religious spin on the traditional Hindu-Muslim love story: my favourite scene is the one where Sujatha performs a Kathak piece to Sufi’s azaan. Of all the Indian classical dance forms, Kathak is the one that integrates both Hindu and Muslim traditions — perhaps this is why it was chosen for the film. Sujatha, similarly, is a seamless blend of Hindu and Muslim traditions — or at least, she doesn’t differentiate. She doesn’t find it a contradiction that she’s wearing a bindi and dancing to a Muslim prayer. Back home, her family wants her to consider a suitable man (Rajeev, played by Jayasurya) for marriage: “suitable” equals “Hindu”, “dominant-caste”, and in contrast to the exotic but penniless Sufi, slaves away at a “boring” but bountiful insurance job in the Gulf. But even as she’s shown his photo, the soundtrack bursts open with a prayer from the mosque.
Thus, the task of the screenplay (by the director Naranipuzha Shanavas) is to convince us of this Great Love™, and twist the knife into our hearts at the great sorrows it brings upon Sufi and Sujatha. But that never happens. The film keeps giving us “touches” — floating leaves and feathers, a jamun tree that begins to bear fruit after a long barren period, pigeons, the repeated chant of rooh (soul) in the score — but what it doesn’t give us is a sense of the “madness”, as Rajeev labels this love. The device used to build the Sufi-Sujatha relationship is, most bafflingly, a diary, which can only convey passion if its contents are read out for us. But no, the words remain on the page. They remain between Sufi and Sujatha.
A clumsy stab at “love jihad” apart, you have to give the film points for always choosing to be classy, and always finding inventively visual ways to delineate the romance: say, in the scene where Sujatha lays out a prayer mat right next to Sufi’s and mimics his namaaz with her henna-stained hands, or in one of the most delicate bangle-breaking scenes I’ve seen on screen. But after a point, you want to get past the sad, soulful looks that Aditi Rao Hydari and Dev Mohan put across so well. You want to get into these characters and feel what they are feeling. What is Sufi thinking when he lands up at Sujatha’s doorstep to elope, after being chastised by his master? We see his choice. We don’t see the internal storms that resulted in it. We hear the phrase gham-e-judaai (the sadness of separation) in a gorgeous number by M Jayachandran. But we don’t sense it.
Compared to these abstract characters who seem corporeal versions of god and love but not really flesh-and-blood humans, Rajeev comes off as the film’s most intriguing personality. He seems to be a decent man, but how does one tackle a woman who’s forever haunted by her lover? Because we never feel the Great Love™, Sujatha comes off almost cruel in the way she shuts herself off to this caring man who seems equally haunted, and poor Jayasurya never finds the key to what makes the man tick. Even so, you see what could have been. Sufiyum Sujathayum could have been the story of a good man who helps his wife find closure, even as her lover’s memories keep tugging at her from wherever he is. Sadly, the film ends up another reminder that a love story isn’t quite a love story unless our hearts beat for the lovers as much as theirs beat for one another.