Halal Love Story(Malayalam, Amazon Prime)
Starring Indrajith Sukumaran, Joju George, Sharaf U Dheen, Grace Antony, Parvathy Thiruvothu
Directed by Zakariya Mohammed
There is much to be admired in director Zakariya’s look at art during times of intense radicalism.
Kerala, known both for its supremely sensitive cinema and religious radicalism is a state of cultural diversity and much of their cinema reflects that diversity. In director Zakariya’s directorial debut Sudani From Nigeria, a film that I both admired and loved, a black Nigerian footballer moves into a conservative Kerala Muslim family and converts them into tolerant inclusive citizens.
In Halal Love Story no such transformation takes place. In fact, the Muslim community is shown to be rigidly conservative(in one crowd scene a man ignores an arti thali that’s passed before him) but not in a toxic way. The film’s greatest achievement is that it drains all the toxicity out of religious conservatism and shows how the more liberal elements of a closely-knit community can work their way around the harsh tenets and ideologies.
The film cleverly follows a film crew’s journey in a small Kerala village where even a touch on screen between a couple is considered haraam. Halal shows how haraam can be dodged, sublimated and fine-tuned when push comes to pull. If two actors of the opposite sexes cannot be shown getting intimate then sign a real-life husband and wife.
This is what the production team in the film does. They sign a real couple Shareef and Suhra, played feelingly,if a tad self-consciously, by Indrajith Sukumaram and Grace Antony.As the real-life couple faces the camera it also faces some home-truth(the film is being shot in Shareef and Suhra’s home).
This is where I found the plot to be getting way too ambitious for its own good.The plot about constraints in a conservative community begins to stifle itself by over-burdening the narrative with elements of Brechtian drama, as the real and reel tensions of the husband and wife begin to converge in awkward ways.
The most manipulative section of the drama involves an acting coach played by Parvathy Thiruvothu who is brought in(unnecessarily) to select actors for the film that’s being made within the film.The section revels in the irony of the husband being rejected for his bad acting while the wife(reluctant to face the camera) gets the thumbs up.
The film-within-film format of Mrinal Sen’s Akaler Sandhane and Rituparno Ghosh’s Bariwali fails to provide Halal Love Story with the creative freedom that was afforded to The French Liutenant’s Woman where we saw Meryl Street as an actress playing a woman from the Victorian era and from modern times coming together in a socio-cultural clasp.
Halal Love Story strives for no merger between the reel and the real. It is happy to show the way art reflects on and affects real life , and moves on. For its doughty spirit and enterprising theme,the film deserves a huge applause. But finally the film is not half as interesting as it should and could have been.But yes, for opening up doors that most filmmakers fear unbolting, for showing the veil can be lifted without offence, this film deserves our unconditional attention.