Halal Love Story co-written and directed by Zakariya is, as the title suggests, about telling a love story within the confines of what’s permitted by Allah. But on a subtextual level, it is about destigmatising Islam, commenting on the boundaries that religion puts on people, slamming patriarchial norms, and most importantly, praising the power of cinema by diving into its nuances. It features solid performances from its cast, especially Indrajith Sukumaran and Grace Antony, comforting songs, beautiful production design, and cinematography that’s a sight for sore eyes.
India, and largely North India, is Islamophobic in nature. Can we all agree on that? For the past few months, be it because of an anti-citizen Act (I am talking about the CAA), the coronavirus pandemic, or the advertisement for a jewlery brand promoting communal harmony, polticians and supporters of such politicians and news channels who support such politicians have normalised Islamophobia. It’s now the knee-jerk reaction to everything and it’s idiotic when you realise that Muslims are a minority in this country with the majority being Hindus (Ah! Now it makes sense why Islamophobia is so rampant). Now, you might be wondering why I am getting all political in a review about an apparently “sweet movie” like Halal Love Story. Well, it’s because the movie begins with a telecast of the Twin Tower attack, which then prompts a Muslim man to destigmatise his religion with the help of a movie.
Halal Love Story is co-written and directed by Zakariya. It’s written by Muhsin Parari and Ashif Kakkodi. The cinematography is by Ajay Menon, editing by Saiju Sreedharan, music by Shahbaz Aman, Bijibal, Rex Vijayan, Yakzan Gary Pereira and Neha S. Nair, sound design by Arun Rama Varma, art direction by Anees Nadodi, production management by Benny Kattappana, and costume design by Mashar Hamsa. The cast features Joju George, Indrajith Sukumaran, Sharaf U Dheen, Grace Antony, Parvathy Thiruvothu, Soubin Shahir, Nazer Karutheni, Unnimaya Prasad, Mammukoya, and more. The story largely revolves around Rahim, Shereef, and Toufeeq’s intention to make a movie that’s not Haram (Prohibited, unlawful, forbidden, punishable from the view-point of Islam) and therefore Halal (Lawful, permissible, legal, sacrificed with the name of Allah). And through that process it heals the relationship between its leads, Shereef and Suhara, kind of opens Rahima and Toufeeq’s eyes, and liberates the director, Siraj.
Halal Love Story is multi-layered and the writers present it in an easy-to-digest way.
During a very personal conversation, I remember that I had mentioned that India doesn’t know how to depict filmmaking. There might be master filmmakers who make the best movies and TV shows in the world. But nobody is able to depict what goes on behind the scenes. I said that the West has nailed it and that’s half true. Even their depiction of filmmaking is not impactful enough. It’s right there and yet it’s far. Why do I think that is important? Because we’re a nation that’s moulded by what we see on screen and it’s important to give people a peek behind the curtain so that they can value it instead of just seeking entertainment from it. And I think Halal Love Story does exactly that and very efficiently. Its attention to detail regarding what goes on while setting up a shot and showing how that affects what’s real and reel and how the real can influence the reel or vice versa is truly breathtaking.
But why focus on that? Well, IMO, the writers want to show the nuances of filmmaking to tell us how every single one of those aspects have been misused to peddle anti-Muslim propaganda and led to the marginalisation of an entire community like anything. Whereas the reality is that there are so many people living mundane lives in remote villages. Does mundane mean that they aren’t special? Absolutely not. They’re special because they’re capable of love, affection, jealousy, ambition, imagination, creativity, conducting protests against aerated drinks, and because they’re flawed due to their years of conditioning and ability to address them and rise above them to be better people. That is beautiful and it is portrayed through well-defined characters and crisply written dialogue. Every single one of them are so simple and yet so interesting to unpack. And since their characteristics are conveyed through action instead of blatant exposition, the said act of unpacking never gets boring even when, from a macro point of view, it’ll feel like nothing is happening.
Zakariya’s direction is so sublime and easy on the senses that the movie feels like a warm hug.
I think a mentor/friend of mine that sometimes he likes to watch a movie about nothing. What I think he meant is that in a movie, someone’s actions might mean nothing or heck, their actions might be nothing. They might be a husband and a wife who are happy on the surface, but underneath there are a lot of unspoken things. It can be about a father regretting his actions and making a film in order to create a reality where he was still with his family. And it can be about two people trying to make a film. But when taken in the context of when the movie is releasing and what’s going on with the community that is being represented by the characters in the film, it becomes something more. The mundanity that everyone associates themselves with becomes universal when they see people who have been demonised for generations doing the same thing they do. It sounds easy but it’s tough to pull off by Zakariya does make it look easy.
Zakariya’s approach to everything is so sublime. Every frame in the movie is so soft that it seriously feels like you can watch the characters in Halal Love Story make a movie for forever. That’s obviously because of how meticulously the process of filmmaking is portrayed. I won’t say it’s entirely Wes Anderson-esque in nature. But you can definitely feel a symmetric rhythm to how they play out, how they’re edited, and most importantly, how cartoonishly cute the houses and the streets and the schools look (Kudos to the production designer to that). It’s inviting and comforting and sometimes that is all you need to escape the chaos that is going on in your life (Yes, I am a huge supporter of viewing movies from a personal perspective. So, even if a movie is lacking on technical grounds and yet managing to alleviate your mood, I will whole-heartedly laud it). In addition to that it, the movie is f*cking hilarious and thankfully not in a slapstick way. So, double kudos for that!
None of the actors, and I mean none of the actors, miss a beat in Halal Love Story.
I think I am going to go a little cerebral here. Everyone, actor or not, is acting. We are acting to seem presentable to others. We are acting to seem presentable to ourselves. So that’s one level of performance that actors are doing as well. Then they’ve to inhabit the skin of a character for the movie they’re playing. That’s another level of acting on top of the acting that they’re already doing. Then the character they’re playing has to play another character for a movie within the movie. And through all these performances, the actors are trying to put a piece of themselves, the true self, in the movie for the audience and for themselves. That’s a doozy and all of the leads are doing that while keeping things subtle. Sukumaran, George, Antony (Especially Antony!), Sharaf, and Nazar, deserve a round of applause for doing that. Thiruvothu appears in a cameo and yet, she leaves her mark on the movie because her character technically changes the tide of the story.
That said, every single one of the supporting actors deserve a bigger round of applause for also doing what the leads are doing despite having such less screentime. Shahir as the sound recordist is howl-arious and he’s on-screen for I guess 1-2 minutes. The way he says “silence!” just cracked me up every single time. In anybody else’s hands, I think it would’ve become caricaturish and forgettable. But he walks a very thin line and makes you imagine what he’s like on other movie sets where things are even more loud and more chaotic. I am up for a short film on just his character. The other supporting character that I was just fascinated with was the assistant camera operator. He blended into the scenery when he needed to and then became the focal point of the scene in the most funniest ways possible. Just keep an eye out for the improvised argument scene between Shereef and Suhura. And, you know what, that’s the mark of a good director as well; using your acts appropriately.
Halal Love Story is simply one of the best movies of this year. If you watch it in isolation and without any context, although the movie will give you ample amount of context from the opening scenes itself and during the final scene, you will enjoy it. If you watch it by taking everything happening in India into consideration, you’ll enjoy it and respect it and maybe even fall in love it. If I look at it from a very optimistic perspective, I think Zakariya’s movie has the power to detoxify the minds of the biggest of bigots in the world and stop them from marginalising the marginalised. And if that’s not powerful cinema, I don’t know what is.
Halal Love Story is streaming on Amazon Prime Video India.
Cover artwork by Bhavya Poonia/Mashable India