Director: Zakariya Mohammed
Cast: Indrajith, Joju George, Parvathy, Grace Antony, Sharaf-u-Dheen, Soubin Shahir
To really get into the world of director Zakariya Mohammed's more complex second film Halal Love Story, one must pay attention to the period it is set in. These markers are everywhere, starting with the footage of a plane crashing into the World Trade Centre that the film opens with.
But what really connects the destruction of two buildings in downtown Manhattan to a village in Malappuram? Apparently everything, because this attack is what set off America's neo-invasionist policies, or so we're told in a recorded speech that's being edited in the library of a social progressive religious organisation called Jamathul Ikhwan Al-Wathan.
As we hear more about this imperialist power, the camera pans across the room to show us posters and bookshelves that make the place. Apart from a poster of Malcom X, magazine covers tell us that American troops have invaded Iraq in their search for Saddam Hussein. On the same bookshelf, we also see a copy of Outlook and India Today. If it's the headline "Godhra Burning" that catches our eye in one, the cover of India Today is simply a picture of the erstwhile Chief Minister of Gujarat.
For the pious North Kerala Muslim, there's little to take their minds off the fear that has 'invaded' their spaces. When one of the organisers Rahim sahib asks his editor for an entertaining 'thani' (pure) movie he can watch with his kids, there's not a lot of options left. They've seen The Message far too many times apart from obvious choices such as Lion Of The Desert. As for Malayalam cinema, a cover of Nana from the period shows Mohanlal's Ravanaprabhu on one side along with Mammootty's Chronic Bachelor on the other. And when the poster of an adult film called Darling comes up near Rahim sahib's house, he asks in exasperation "Isn't there anything but haram for us to watch?"
Finally, he makes do with a copy of Majid Majidi's Children Of Heaven, an Iranian film made under a set of strict restrictions and censorship imposed by the country's Islamist government. The rules are many and they forbid any display of romantic love between man and woman. Women are not allowed to be seen singing or dancing in their films and they, at all times, have to also wear a head scarf.
But can't this group of pious Malayali Muslims voluntarily follow the rules imposed in Iran to make a film that's halal but also imaginative? The kind of film that doesn't require the operator to be prepared to cover his projector, in case there's a backless scene, even if it's in a film that's as wholesome as Cinema Paradiso.
Or, is there no way to make something as "capitalist" or seductive as a movie without entering into that grey area between haram and halal? As another member of this organisation puts it, "What is haram is clear. What is halal is also clear. What matters finally, is the purity of one's intention," especially when it's in a space where the boundaries between art and faith blur.
The tele-film this group wants to make is titled Moonamathum Umma (umma, as in mother, not kiss) based on a fable where the Prophet asks a disciple to be most dutiful to his mother. But when the name of a director is mooted to make this film, the committee wonders if a "mainstream" director would fit better. They want a director like Sasi, Sathyan, Joshiy or Thambi to make the film, but not Fazil. Even Siddique might not fit the bill. What they actually mean when they're saying mainstream is a non-Muslim name on the film's credits…and so begins the dilemma.
But the purity of one's intention means a whole other thing in the context of filmmaking. And this starts right from the finances. Can money earned as interest (a haram) be used to fund this film? Or can one use the money given by a capitalist to make something that's eventually halal? Or does it even matter how the film gets made as long as the final result is halal, like their intentions?
This moral conundrum is shown brilliantly in a shot where two men are required to act as though they are drinking. Naturally, drinking alcohol is off limits because that's against their religion. But so is drinking a glass of Coca Cola because that's against their politics. Extend this conundrum onto their tele-film starring three couples and we see the aforementioned blurry lines develop into massive cracks in their belief systems.
The lead couples chosen for this film are all required to be married couples in real life, starting with a theatre actor named Shereef (Indrajith) and his wife Suhara (Grace Antony). And suddenly, the whole debate about the purity of one's intentions gets a meta form. Doesn't acting itself become a lie when it's done without honesty? Can a couple display 'honest' love and respect on screen, if there isn't any in real life?
In beautifully-directed stretches, we see scenes where conflicts in reality mirror scenes that were already written. We also get scenes that are in direct conflict with what's truly happening in their lives to become a surreal meta-movie where representation is reality. In one instance, the camera is used almost like a lie detector allowing the crew members to zoom in on the truth this couple is hiding. Going back to Rene Magritte's Treachery Of Images, it's as though the image of the pipe can, at times, be the real thing too.
Add another layer where this conflict between man and woman can double up as two counterpoints in the faith verses art debate, and we get a film that is sure to provide gold in future viewings. Drawing from the film, a copy of Shereef's How To Be A Good Muslim can be right at home with Suhara's An Actor Prepares…again because the purity of one's intention is as important to art as it is to religion/life. And it's only when the two sides come together in the form of a hug (just like a film's writer and director coming together), does the work of art grow beyond limitations of what's right or wrong.
With incredible performances all throughout, Zakariya manages to recreate the magic of his debut film Sudani From Nigeria, where even faceless, nameless characters leave a lasting impact. Soubin Shahir, playing a maniacal bi-lingual sound designer, steals the show with his cameo, even if it's just for a few minutes. Parvathy is equally effective as the catalyst that sets off an inner journey for the actors.
Sharaf-U-Deen exudes an earnestness, right from his gait to the way he dresses, making the character Taufeeq a very real person, despite the risk of it easily becoming a caricature. Indrajith is brilliant, too, giving us an idea of how tough it is to perform 'bad acting' when you're naturally so good. Watch him bring alive the mannerisms of an inner Prem Nazir with the tiniest of gestures — that's his character's idea of good acting.
But the film eventually belongs to Joju George and Grace Antony, who get emotional scenes that tear us apart. Even intentionally silly sounding dialogues ("don't think you're right because your name is Sheree, become a thettiff") get genuine emotion and depth because of the way Grace performs them, even as she conveys years of silence and hardship with mere glances. Had the resolution of the conflict between the lead couple been written more elaborately, we may perhaps have felt more satisfied, especially towards the end.
One can't help but question the maker's decision to reveal so much in the trailer, leaving little new to be discovered afresh. And that's another reason why the later stretches give us a feeling of a certain flatness, because we're already prepared for what's going to happen, given how much we were already told.
These apart, we get a thoroughly satisfying comedy with a heart of gold. It doesn't judge, nor does it look down on people for their faith. It is self-critical where it's needed, and Zakariya introduces us to a set of people we seldom get to meet in our films. It's eventually a film Rahim sahib would proudly call 'thani' cinema.