Zakariya’s new film told through the format of a meta-movie is intrinsically a spiritual successor to Blessy’s Kaazcha (2004) and Rosshan Andrews’ Udayananu Tharam (2005). The comparison is not only because these are meta-movies (movies told through the backdrop of movies), but also because these were meta-movies made for one similar object. During the 90’s, when casteist and hyper masculine star-centric entertainers started to swallow Malayalam Cinema there was a gap that came amid 2000’s, the audience began to gently pull away from theatres due to the mundaneness of formula, and thus, Malayalam Industry saw a spike in soft-porn production for the second time (the first time, it was during the 1975 timeframe when Bharathan and IV Sasi made erotic films, and many filmmakers followed this trend with sleazy duplicates.) Blessy and Rosshan gave a rebirth to ‛cinema’ from this phase through their debut films.
Halal Love Story gives a retrospective of this fractured era in Malayalam Cinema from a filmmaker’s vantage. But it also ratifies the vacuum ― islamic aesthetics and muslim representation ― caused by this era. So the film is a meta-movie in every sense of it’s word ― it’s a group of people (Zakariya and his crew) reliving a phase, it’s another group of people (the characters in Zakariya’s film) trying to rectify that phase; abiding by their religious beliefs. It is also a marriage drama within a marriage drama. But the complexity in tacking a ‘meta’ leaves a set of problems, both cinematically and politically.
The political context, the setting, and why?
Unlike his debut film Sudani From Nigeria, which documented the muslim life of countryside Malappuram, Halal Love Story adheres to a more cinematic framework. So the geography where the film is set, which is Rural Calicut, is given less importance. The narrative is more placed in the context of ‘liberal muslims’, members of the SIO. There have been criticisms sparking a row even before the release, calling out the film saying it put forths a ciphered endorsement of the organisation’s ideology. There is a general allegation that SIO promotes islamic extremist agendas by masquerading as progressive. These allegations are mainly being thrusted upon by the right-wing and the marxist left.
But nevertheless, there’s a clustered islamophobia within these criticisms. Zakariya exactly has an idea of this roots and deliberately chooses the setting of early 2000’s – a time when islamophobia peaked in Malayalam Cinema, and encompasses the solidarity movement of Plachimada coca-cola struggle which lead to an agitation against the proposed Express highway of the ruling government. Halal Love Story tracks this period of early 2000’s and tells the story about a bunch of party workers of Jamaat Islami planning to make a tele-film that adheres to the rules of their faith and religion (a Halal film). Rahim Sahib is the trailblazer, Taufeeq (Sharafudheen) dons the writer’s hat, Siraj (Joju George) is chosen as the director and, Shareef (Indrajith) with his wife Suhara (Grace Anthony) plays the lead roles of the film.
In Sudani From Nigeria, Zakariya tossed the good muslim/bad muslim binary and audaciously ventured to tell the story of a flawed and grey muslim protagonist. Now in Halal Love Story he chooses to tell a more audacious narrative about the conservative muslims who aren’t necessarily the likeable on-celluloid. But he says that with earnestness and a kind of spiritual energy reminiscent of Salim Ahammed’s breakthrough film Adaminte Makan Abu. So the film feels like a devotion to god. Zakariya opens the film with a romantic melody written to Allah, ‘Sundaranayavane’. Another song, just before the movie making begins is ‘Bismillah’, in which the lyrics seek the support of god for doing an auspicious deed.
Zakariya shows the conservative muslims as empathetic humans, he never questions the morality of their beliefs but he compromises their beliefs and proclaims cinema is for all kinds of audience. There’s a conflict between tradition and modernity through the characters of Siraj and Taufeeq. Siraj questions Taufeeq what is wrong with showing a hugging scene in the film. But Taufeeq is of the belief that every kind of audience deserves their kind of cinema, and says to not include a hugging scene. Zakariya makes a resolution that caters to both of them, through the medium of cinema (manipulating the scene through a camera trick), but it is patronising in the first place because the ultimate message panders to the motive that art has to confirm with beliefs and notions of people. That, instead of critiquing the Halal/Haram conceptions in muslim, Zakariya glorifies them.
This is the same also by which Zakariya treats the social construct of a family in Halal Love Story. In Sudani From Nigeria he upholds the belief of a ‘nuclear family’ and resolves the drama by reconstructing them. But regardless of this concept, what worked in favour of the film was the well written dysfunctional dynamics between a Mother, her Son and The Second Husband. An outsider, The Sudani from Nigeria, was used as a liefmotif of ‘humanity’ to reconstruct the family. Halal Love Story, similarly, upholds the traditional construct of a marriage using it’s meta-movie medium.
The Theme of ‘Marriage’
There are many parallels of marriage in the film. A completely failed marriage of Siraj with his wife at the verge of divorce, a content/happy marriage of Rahim Sahib and the main plot of the flawed marriage between Shareef and Suhara. The main parallel here is between Shareef’s marriage and Siraj’s marriage. This is an extension of the tradition versus modernity conflict of the film. But there’s a deliberate attempt by writer (Muhsin Parari and Zakariya) that the marriage which secures faith in Islam wins the conflict, and Siraj never gets a redemption because his life has already become sacreligious. In whatever way the film appears progressive through Unnimaya’s (Siraj’s wife) character, it contradicts with Suhara; who forgives her husband ― and that development is very silly, through a song video composed by Bijibal.
The parallels can also be told wrt to the ‘Maternal’ theme, which is again a continuation from Zakariya’s debut film. We can see maternal figures in the film which includes the typical housewife of Suhara who moulds the children, The Mother of Toufeeq; a widow who’s glimpsed and the independent Mother played by Unnimaya – but even she is pigeonholed inside the rules of islam.
Although the female protagonist gets a wide arc, breaking her social anxiety (Grace Anthony’s anxious acting deserves a mention), she never really has any agency in the film. Grace is sort of typed in the Kumbalangi Nights zone, raising the voice to her husband but in a minimal feminine way, as much as a quasi patriarchal-quasi progressive Malayalee could take. The party members are most of the time boxed together in a shot, the shots are always obstructed by any object in the frame, and by using frame-within-a-frame compositions and through shooting them outside the bars/grills, Zakariya depicts a mould of religion they cannot break.
The meta-movie in Malayalam
The meta-movie legacy in Malayalam starts with KG George’s Lekhayude Maranam Oru Flashback (1983), and then there started a sub-narrative choice of meta movie making. Writers like Dennis Joseph took this forward in films like Shyama, No 20 Madras Mail etc. But after a huge hiatus, the genre came back to cinema as a trend once the superstar culture affected films. The genre was used to counter the superstar culture by many writers.
This is apparent in Sreenivasan’s Azhakiya Ravanan (1996), a film that satirically exposes the production of Malayalam film in the 90’s. In the so-called “neo new-wave” by critics, this genre has had a great influence. There were a chain of films, apart from the above mentioned Kaazhcha and Udayananu Tharam, there is Ranjith’s Thirakkadha (2008), Martin Prakkart’s Best Actor (2010), and so on. Zakariya’s film reclaims the islamic aesthetics that many of the counter films don’t have. There’s another factor that binds Kaazhcha, Udayananu Tharam and Halal Love Story ― Homages to Tornatore’s 1988 classic Cinema Paradiso. These films are love-letters to cinema.
Halal Love Story emphasises over and over the importance of muslim representation in Cinema with nods to Iranian Cinema and Majid Majidi, who makes the most dignified films from a muslim word view.
One of the most beautiful things about Zakariya was his unassuming filmmaking dipped with nativity. His style is in stark contrast with many realistic films of modern Kerala which has only a realistic approach and not a realistic story. But unlike Sudani, the cinematography, editing and almost every department in Halal Love Story reeks of an artifice. The frames are tarnished by an over sophisticated colour grading. The acting of leads grapples between method and mechanical. The charming nativity of Zakariya’s debut is here caricatured as dishonest cliches – i’m talking about the stretch that creates chaos amid the movie making. There is excessive use of colours yellow, green and red without much of a purpose. And many more clichés, which includes the cameo appearances of Soubin and Parvathy.
But there are few brilliant bits in the film. In one of the scenes of the movie within the movie, a female officer hesitates when a party worker nudges her to do corruption. There is a photo of Ambedkar placed in the background, but the mise-en-scene of this scene is very interesting because the movie-within-the-movie neglects that Ambedkar photo and shoots the scene from a diverse angle. But Zakariya shoots the scene using a trolly so that we’ll get a clear picture of Amedkar’s picture not being included in the filming. This simple scene gives a brilliant perspective of how Ambedkar was deliberately kept away from the public sphere and popular culture for a long time. Perhaps it would indeed be for the first time a Malayalam film is asserting Ambedkar in a frame.
To conclude, apart from the beautiful opening minutes, nothing quite works in favour of Zakariya’s new film. The meta-movie is unraveled as a marriage drama but the drama after a point gets monotonous and the meta-movie format looks nothing but a gimmick used to employ a cliché story of a wife securing her marriage and the filmmaker securing his Islamic faith.