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Halal Love Story Review- With his atypical kindness and simple affection, Zakariya imagines the meeting point between traditionalism and the supposed impurities of filmmaking

Debanjan Dhar

Audio Review

In Halal Love Story, the cultural wing of an Islamic organisation in Kerala , that peddles its thinly veiled art through street theatre, decides and seeks to make a telefilm for attracting more takers into its fold. Raheem and Thoufeeq take the lead in collectivising the enthusiasm, mobilising the various players and getting the herculean project off the ground.

It’s a conservative organisation and the viewer is constantly reminded of what is ‘halal’ (permissible)and’haraam’ (forbidden ). Thorny sensitivities and delicate touchpoints are cautiously tiptoed around, brushed aside with nervous laughter, and both Raheem and Thouheeq insist on the film staying stubbornly and firmly off any curious exploration of the grey areas , because ultimately the tenets can’t be transgressed. They hire Siraj to direct , whose habits of alcoholism and smoking , engender some initial discomfort . Thouheeq as the writer oversees the crowd funded project and beseeches Siraj to cast an actual couple to play the on screen couple in the film . Shereef, the staunchest street theatre performer of the organization, hops on to the bandwagon and naturally his wife, Suhara, despite her initial reservations , gets involved. Siraj hands her a copy of the Stanislavsky Method, which she takes to heart and she emerges a fine method actor.

Since the film unfolds at the height of the 9/11 attacks and the general wave of Islamophobia has gripped the world, it’s important to note director Zakariya’s steadfastly positive and carefully nuanced outlook towards the Muslim community especially when mainstream Indian cinema has either invisibilised their identities or reduced them to ignorant stereotypes. Zakariya doesn’t miss a beat in directing gentle jibes at the American neo imperialism and the emergent capitalism of the day , through an irreverent, pointed exchange between Thouheeq and a small scale entrepreneur. The humor isn’t broad or slapstick but mines largely from the peculiarities, singularities and oddities of the circumstances the characters unwittingly find themselves in. One of the film’s uproariously hilarious scenes has to do with the under-articulated angst of the person on the set who manages the sync sound . Soubin Shahir playing the meticulously minute, frustrated guy takes the sequence to brilliant heights , as the unwanted intrusive auditory elements, ranging from a cock to laundry wash to a petulant baby are methodically dispensed with.

Zakariya handles the intersecting, casually disappearing boundaries between film and reality, through the real life marital dynamics of Shereef and Suhara affecting their characters and vice versa. As part of an acting workshop, when Suhara plumbs her character’s depths, the unspoken misgivings she has for her husband bubbles to the surface, and pent up resentments find expression. The emotional distance between husband and wife widens.

Like in his debut Sudani From Nigeria, the people in Zakariya’s films are amiable, good natured , and there’s not so much as a bone of meanness or selfish pettiness in them. The discord and conflicts never get really heightened ; they remain politely controlled, except for one lazily written scene involving a drunken Siraj demanding custody of his daughter from his estranged wife.

There’s this unwaveringly, resolutely sunny and cheery spirit that powers the film. A certain affectionate benevolence, not marked by any condescension, has become Zakariya’s most recognisable storytelling virtue. While the film breezily strides for the first half, there’s an unmistakeable sloppy soft belly that develops post halfway mark, as certain situations tend to repeat without adding any particular subtle stroke to the narrative . The weakest plot track is Siraj’s personal life as a father. All he wants is to lavish love on his daughter and some time with her , but his irresponsible nature has deprived him of that opportunity and he strives to retrieve that through some legal pursuit that’s written very vapidly by Zakariya and Muhsin Parari. The scenes delineating his anguish and desperate, keening desire for his daughter’s love are written with very little flair and freshness.

The performances across the board help coast over this scripting clumsiness. Grace Anthony is especially terrific as Suhara, who balances an initial, apparent docility of disposition with gradual solidity of self expression quite effortlessly. Indrajith Sukumaran as Shereef , who wrestles with articulating the weight of his past decisions to his wife, is exquisite in his understatement. I also loved Sharaf Dheen as Thouheeq , who brings a certain innocence, shy charm and credulity to a job one would otherwise dismiss as censorious. Joju George does what he can with the very thoughtlessly etched role of Siraj he is saddled with. Parvathy in a cameo injects an extraordinary energy into the film .

Ajay Menon’s cinematography is simply stunning, the panoramic shots of the Kerala countryside utterly breathtaking in their unvarnished splendor. Watch out for the beautifully shot song sequence that takes place in Suhara’s kitchen; the sunlit space has never appeared more striking, benefited enormously by Anees Nadodi’s elegant art direction.The score by Neha and Yakzan is adequately lilting. Aided by the unembellished sense of realism is Zakariya’s absolute lack of judgement on his characters. There’s no moral posturing that ever happens nor any denunciation of the traditionalism. This isn’t that film if you are looking for trenchant critiques; it’s more of a humane insight about people in those institutions doing what best they can within the framework of their limitations, without pushing forth any nefarious agendas.

You might argue Zakariya is soft pedalling through the contentious issues the social organisation might be straddled with , or that he’s glossing over icky fault lines for a more simplistic storytelling that averts complex investigations into its subject, but I bought into the sincerity and transparency and honesty with which he narrates. I know kindness and generosity are over-abused words but they are the most apposite descriptors for Zakariya’s worldview. He believes in an unstinting, indefatigable kind of hope and ends his film on a note of open-hearted embrace, and really, who wouldn’t want to get behind that ?

You can watch Halal Love Story on Amazon Prime.

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A space for reviews, retrospectives, analyses, interviews around all things cinema, standing left of the field.