All of us must have had that one particular friend in school, who was nice to us and cordial but never really got down to roll in the mud with us, so to speak. This person was most likely a stickler for rules while we we were completely oblivious of the existence of these very rules, we rather chose to stick to the bare minimum that was necessary to keep us away from any punitive action from the teachers. This also made that person a “model student “ before the teachers and we distrusted or for that matter even disliked this person. These circumstances prevented us from getting close to this person beyond a point and to be fair to us, it was exactly how that person wanted it to be too. It was just how things were, you didn’t bother as long as they didn’t bother you. Growing up and turning an adult in India exposes you to the society as a whole like in any other country but here we also get to learn to navigate the invisible cultural boundaries set not just by religions but also by the complex dynamics of caste. Despite the inherent pluralistic nature of the dominant religion, it’s a fact that the practice of caste made sure that an individual who belonged to that community was no different from someone from any of the other religions that practiced exclusivity and the rules that came with it. Halal Love Story if you ask me is the cinematic avatar of that student from school whom I talked about initially. The movie, to it’s credit is as real as it is honest. It’s not a bold statement, rather it’s a gentle affirmation of the status quo. Every thought needs to be voiced at some point, just as every story needs to be told and that’s where dialogue, conversations start in any sphere of human interaction. Zakaria has started one in Malayalam Cinema. And why should he not? It’s the reactions to the film rather than the film itself that prompted me to sit down and write what I have, to be honest.
Halal Love Story produced by Aashiq Abu’s OPM and released on Amazon Prime opens to TV footage of an event from two decades back that changed the world as we know it and the ramifications of which are felt even today and very well maybe the reason why the movie exists too, if you think about it. Halal Love Story is told against the same idyllic backdrop that we have come to associate with Zakaria since his debut as a director in Sudani From Nigeria or with Muhsin Prari the writer in KL10. If in Sudani the writer and the director told you the tale that you, the audience wanted to hear, here in Halal, they are telling you the tale that they want you to hear. Ultimately this movie is about making a movie but it’s not exactly Bowfinger and neither is it The Aviator. It’s not a spoof of anything either. Basically it’s about the efforts of a bunch of aspiring artists who are part of a religious organisation bound by the decrees of that particular religion, to make a feature film. They call themselves a progressive organisation and the movie appears to hold the view that the stances the organisation have taken on major events and issues in the recent past were not different from that of the Left Front in the State, politically. That’s where the movie provokes ever too subtly if you ask me. While one significant scene in this context has the members of the organisation at a recital of poet Murugan Kattakada’s “Baghdad” which was used by the Left front as an anti – imperialist anthem back then, another has the organisation’s office walls adorned with calls for Coca Cola boycott as backdrop, another anti – capitalist campaign entirely associated with the Left again, in the State. That in fact is a recurring “motif” almost, you even have a scene where the members refuse the Cola used as prop -on screen alcohol – in a shot for the movie within the movie. One is tempted to speculate if the writers were taking a dig at someone or indulging in a proud display of core ethics, here. The characters who set out with the initiative, to make a movie on behalf of the organisation they’re a part of, in keeping with the sensibilities and norms that they strive to uphold in every aspect of their lives, look up to Iranian Cinema as a source of inspiration. For the makers, but a classic from another cultural setting is apparently problematic, as depicted in a scene that looks contrived to say the least, the sole purpose of which, it seems is to establish a rather simplistic, unidimensional, moralistic perspective of a highly contextual and complex art form like Cinema.
The titular love story between a husband and a wife as they discover certain aspects about each other through the course of the making of the film within the film, is as halal as it gets and to the credit of the writers they have managed to hold the average OTT viewer’s attention with whatever little drama they could manage to generate considering the limitations of the plot, while getting their point across too. The pre -mobile- internet- social media era setting helps the writers here, while it could disconnect an entire generation of viewers. Indrajit is at home as the unassuming husband and Grace Antony ups her game here as the wife who is a loyal member of the organisation. The writers also set a rather suggestive and contentious premise with a subplot involving another couple who in fact have no love lost between them because the husband chose to walk a path that’s not halal, to sum up. Joju Joseph is in his elements as the husband who also happens to be the director roped in by the organisation to helm their movie venture. Unnimaya Prasad is the estranged wife. Sharafudeen impresses again as the young blood in the organisation, the fixer with practical solutions to instances that present a crisis of faith to the novice filmmakers. He is the one who navigates the big bad world out there armed with his beliefs.Though younger in age, he is the one whom Nazar Karuhedath’s character turns to, to get the ball rolling for the movie venture. The major conflict in the plot as the the movie and the movie within the movie draws to an end, revolves around the shooting of an act as simple as a hug between the married couple. If that sounds absurd, consider this, Valsalyam, the gold standard for “family drama” in malayalam cinema does not have a scene where the lead actor, presented as an epitome of character and values, shares a romantic moment with his wife. That’s the sort of unrealistic normalcy our movie makers have infused into our collective psyches over the years. Yes, Bharathan and Padmarajan have been honorable exceptions and they are revered precisely because of that too. Come to think of it, our movies have always been halal, whether you like it or not, thanks to the efforts of makers from Balachandra Menon to Sathyan Anthikad, the stalwarts of family dramas in Malayalam Cinema. To put things in perspective, this is why a Nayanthara donns a bikini in Billa and a sari in Bhaskar the Rascal. Forget movies, us Malayalis as a whole, across communities, are not a people who believe in open display of affection. It’s simply not part of our culture. So to raise red flags when a Zakaria comes along with a counter narrative of a movie is hypocrisy, to put it mildly. John Cassavetes apparently asked Martin Scorcese to make films about things he knew about, and he ended up chronicling the life of Italian Americans in the United States. Zakaria and Parari are doing just that, if you ask me. If it’s the politics of the organisation that the movie rather flaunts with a calm assurance that bothers us, it wouldnt be too far fetched a thought if I were to say that an iteration of scenes as the ones we see in this movie would be present in a movie about a movie venture by any of the two leading political parties in Kerala. Again on a closing note, I’m not quite sure why we should have a problem with Thoufeeq that we didn’t have with Baputty, who chose to stay outside the gates for the sake of sanctity.