What does a movie made in a village in Kerala and released online have to do with the ‘centre’ in New Delhi and the Indian Muslim subject? Halal Love Story has been released at a time when the Indian state shows no signs of slowing down its anti-Dalit, anti-Muslim and militant Hindutva agenda. Among the recent examples of this is the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance 2020, commonly referred to as ‘love jihad law’, passed by the Uttar Pradesh government under Chief Minister Ajay Mohan Bisht (the self-proclaimed monk-turned-politician ‘Yogi’ Adityanath), which has banned religious conversions for the purpose of marriage. This is symptomatic of persistent attempts by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to curb the growing representation of Dalits and Muslims in the public sphere.
The premise of Halal Love Story, set in the heart of the Malabar region, involves a group of people from a fictitious religious organisation who are trying to make a film. The characters in this film within the film, in their struggle to make art, and consequently, in their efforts to tell their stories, are constrained by the overpowering authority issued by an abstract and fictitious sankhadana (organisation). ‘Jamathul Ikhwan Al-Wathan’, a concocted name that makes oblique references to the Islamic group Jamaat-e-Islami, acts like a second state by exerting power over the everyday conduct of its members. A religious state, this intends to show, may use scriptural authority as a means to establish a curious hold over its adherents. It renders the characters’ artistic venture, in this context of intensified censorship, a political act.
The very fact that the movie involves Muslim characters set in a Muslim majority region of Kerala makes it a ‘film jihad’ for the far-right RSS.
Zakariya Mohammed’s movies, including his debut Sudani from Nigeria, have often shown a keen interest in the radical potential of conversational situations, as opposed to the functioning of authorities like the sankhadana or the state. His storytelling puts forward a subtle politics of resistance in the face of an omnipotent authority. Beginning with images of the 9/11 attacks and a speech in the background that calls into question the interventionist foreign policies of the United States in West Asia, Halal Love Story sets the ground for what the stakes might be when the two sankhadana members, Shaheel and Rahim Sahib, who are film enthusiasts, ponder over the possibilities of making a movie of their own. The current nationalist fervour that divides people along imaginary boundaries is instead replaced by extending transnational solidarities to oppressed Muslims elsewhere. When Abukka (Mamukoya) gets ready to act in a scene, he refuses to drink cola (which was in itself a replacement for alcohol) and accepts kattan chaya (black tea) instead. Abukka’s religiosity does not end at not drinking alcohol (which is “haraam”) but goes beyond it in his vehement opposition to consuming any product made in the United States due to the country’s support of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. The indirect reference to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement is an instance of a global movement being played out locally through a brief moment of humour.
The story also calls to mind Abbas Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees (1994), with respect to both content (set in provincial Iran), form (movie about making a movie), and his hyperrealist investment in the provincial or regional speaks of affiliations beyond the boundaries of the nation. This provinciality is primarily constituted by the spontaneity of everyday conversations where characters are found to converse in languageless ways through simple acts of love and care. Similarly, the moment when Siraj (Joju George) is touched by a simple act of concern (asking him if he was okay) by Thoufeeq (Sharafuddeen) are sequences that in itself become a site of resistance that overrides said norms of behaviour. These endearing moments are derived from unprecedented and awkward situations that organically develop when the pious Muslim meets the outlawed Muslim to make a movie together.
The characters in this film within the film, in their struggle to make art, and consequently, in their efforts to tell their stories, are constrained by the overpowering authority issued by an abstract and fictitious sankhadana.
The film goes beyond simply adding to the representation of Muslim characters, for instance, through one of its main protagonists, Suhra (Grace Antony). Though she appears for the most part to be at ease with the strictures laid down by the religious authority, in her restraint, she offers up subtle ways of unsettling the system. In one of the film’s more memorable scenes, battling with issues concerning her husband that comes in the way of their performance in the movie-in-making, she refuses to reveal her inner conflict to the well-meaning member of the organisation, Rahim Sahib. When asked whether she agreed to be part of the movie wholeheartedly and not out of compulsion by the organisation, Suhra replies, “Whatever the organisation has asked me to do, I am doing it wholeheartedly.” In withholding her story, she exerts autonomy by other means and of a different kind, offering different responses to old questions about gender and its relationship to authority.
The director also effortlessly manages to withhold from colouring both Siraj, the pothu (liberal) Muslim, and Thoufeeq, the orthodox Muslim, as either ‘progressive’ or ‘regressive’. The meeting between the directorial team with the scriptwriting team, cleverly set at ‘Paradise Bar’, emboldened in red lights in the background, deftly shows the convergence of different kinds of Muslims for the common goal of creating a “halal” movie.
The story has struck a chord with an audience that is familiar with the politics of Jamaat-e-Islami (an Islamic movement founded in 1941 by Abul A’la Maududi), especially as it plays out in Malabar. The criticism of its politics is so subtle in the movie that it can be lost on a general audience not familiar with the inner workings of the organisation. One of the many instances in the movie that hints at this is when the sankhadana promises all kinds of support for the making of the movie except providing financial assistance. The language used in this letter and the overall disposition of the executive committee members points to what gets lost in the bureaucratic authority exercised by its intellectual middlemen. The organisation tends to drag itself into a quagmire of discourse that does not deal with or even address the urgent issue at hand. That the letter only provides ‘permission’ to make the movie shows how power operates in and only through language that simultaneously testifies to its omnipresence. The fictitious organisation in the movie thus stands for the paradigm of organisational politics on the whole rather than any particular organisation.
The meeting between the directorial team with the scriptwriting team, cleverly set at ‘Paradise Bar’, emboldened in red lights in the background, deftly shows the convergence of different kinds of Muslims for the common goal of creating a “halal” movie.
It brings to mind a similar thematic dealt with in Sandhesham (1991) where brothers who are leaders of rival political parties turn against each other. The ‘sandesham’ (message) of this modern-day classic of Malayalam cinema lies in its suggesting that there is no real difference between the two ‘rival’ parties, as long as they are governed by and operate through organisational politics. The same applies here as well, where the name of the organisation is less significant than the idea of the authority implicit in it. The emphasis is on ‘art’ as a vehicle to bring out the many possibilities of doing politics. The movie tells the story of the ‘movie-to-come’ where given the peculiarities of the context, the struggles involved in the making are also peculiar. In so many ways, it is a testimony to the history of ‘Home Cinema’ which came about as a medium for playwrights and artists (who were part of the said Muslim organisation) to navigate permissible ways of producing art. Therefore, to speak of the craft, it is worth noting that Halal Love Story only goes so far as to tell the story of the struggle involved in making a movie, wherein the movie-as-such is deferred. In this sense, the movie is not, strictly speaking, ‘representative’ in that it remains incomplete and this incompleteness is the actual content of its subtle politics.
Additionally, the specificity of the language, regionality and humour is what makes Halal Love Story singular, and yet, marks its limit in terms of communicating to a wide audience – this is obvious from the range of reactions to the movie. The very fact that the movie involves Muslim characters set in a Muslim majority region of Kerala makes it a ‘film jihad’ for the far-right RSS. The responses from the left in Kerala classify the movie as being “regressive” and “dangerous” for the simple fact that it deals with issues that concern a community and its faith. Some of the leftists assume the movie is produced by the Jamaat camp, and hence obsess over and trace the ideology behind the movie to be ‘Maududian’, calling it propagandist. G P Ramachandran, popular film critic, approaches the movie as primarily being a commentary on organisational politics and criticises its makers for simultaneously appeasing both its own members and its critics, which he says operates in a two-fold manner – to effectively fall short on presenting a more direct criticism of Jamaat-e-Islami. Further, for him, the movie gives a certain sense of glorifying the organisation and hence “garbage”. Similarly, S R Praveen, like Ramachandran, makes references to nanma maram, the “well-meaning” characters that crowd the works of Zakariya and Parari, whose intentions are then put to question. But why be suspicious of the nanma or the good? This suspicion could probably be because of Jamaat’s own history of shifting political affiliation from LDF (Left Democratic Front) to UDF (United Democratic Front) in Kerala. If this is criticism born out of the hermeneutics of suspicion, shouldn’t we then be suspicious of the suspicion itself?
The movie culminates with the question of ‘embrace’ and the problems that public display of affection warrants in Malabar – something that may be observed in different parts of Southasia in general.
The vanguardism of the left and the implicit ‘anti-Muslim’ stance is suggested in the reception and criticism by large sections of the left in Kerala. They seem unsettled by the ‘ambiguity’ on the side of the film makers with regard to the politics of the organisation. This ‘ambiguity’ owing to its open-endedness could very well be both an artistic choice and a political one. Further, Abdussalam Ahmad, a prominent member of Jamaat-e-Islami, in what sounds like an edict, urges Muslims across sankhadana lines to watch the movie, as it is wajib (an obligatory act). This particular response instantly calls to mind the contents of the letter spoken of earlier. Ahmad here enacts a similar response by ‘granting permission’ and asking all Muslims to watch the movie. Interestingly, most of the members of Jamaat-e-Islami appear to think it is a movie that appreciates the work done by the Jamaat. To the contrary, the movie at best portrays the Muslim community of Malapurram, of Malabar and perhaps of the rest of the world, in its depiction of the problems and concerns faced by it through organisational or religious forms of power that quotes the scriptures at almost every juncture of decision-making.
That said, due credit should be given to Muhsin Parari, Zakariya Mohammed (co-writers) and the rest of the team, for filling the void in terms of feature films shot in Malappuram and its uniquely vibrant culture. The movie manages to hold your attention for the entire duration without a central protagonist. It brings in established actors like Parvathy Thiruvothu, Soubin Shahir and Mamukoya in minor yet memorable sequences in the movie. The movie culminates with the question of ‘embrace’ and the problems that public display of affection warrants in Malabar – something that may be observed in different parts of Southasia in general. The climactic conflict develops when Siraj insists on including the scene of embrace between the lead couple. Thoufeeq objects to the idea arguing that the organisation would take issues with the scene since it can be read as promoting sleaze. This recalls an earlier scene where Thoufeeq tells Raheem Sahib, “enikku padachoneyallapedi…sankhadanneyaanu; (I am wary not of god but the organisation).” The archetypal scene of the embrace, which is otherwise unproblematic, is given an added dimension with this conflict. It brings to light long-standing reservations people have regarding affection and the public expression of it. Suhra and Shareef’s (Indrajith Sukumaran) introspection of their intimacy and the consequent deliberation over acting the part are also instances of self-censorship. In the final scene however, both of them find themselves transgressing into the act of embracing. The making of the movie enables the couple to diagnose their crisis, while the said climax lets them arrive at a healthy reconciliation. It is the space of art that effectively renders itself as the possible medium to traverse the blurry lines between what is perhaps permissible and what is prohibited, the divide between being liberal and being conservative or the divide between submission to and transgression of authority.
This article was updated after publication on 19 February 2021