Halal Love Story, Zakariya’s second movie after the much-loved Sudani from Nigeria, opens in a library in a small town in Malappuram. An ancient TV set displays images of the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, a voice-over gravely narrates the events, detailing the US’s neo-imperialism and its dark grim history, even as the camera pans the shelves filled with Iranian films, walls stuck with flyers, news magazines and other paraphernalia, clearly hinting at the politics of cinema. The scene sets up the story ahead, which consistently circles around the religious, moral, and social intricacies of the Muslim community and their feeling of alienation, which, though often is coated in humour, at times seems deliberately partisan. The film (co-written by Zakariya and Muhsin Parari) is set in a similar milieu and ethos as Sudani from Nigeria. While Malappuram’s local football clubs gave colour and life to the first movie, Halal Love Story explores the region’s home video cinema culture, which paved the way for many talented filmmakers to enter Malayalam cinema.
When the elderly Raheem suggests that a local organisation produces a crowdfunded telefilm for a cable channel on Eid, his idea is met with approval but also has to meet a set of restrictions. Thoufeek (a superbly nuanced Sharaf U Dheen), an orator, writer and scholar who screens “meaningful films” (think Children of Heaven) in schools, is called in to manage the venture. Thoufeek is also a pious Muslim, which is the trait that primarily helps him bag the coveted job. When he suggests Siraj (an excellent Jojo George), who is an associate director in mainstream movies, as the director, the club members are cynical—“Is he mainstream enough for this job?” That is when Thoufeek points out that not only does Siraj not offer Namaz, he also drinks and smokes, which makes him legit mainstream. There are sly references to how it’s often Hindu directors who are counted as part of the ‘mainstream’ in Malayalam cinema. The scenes with the club members reconciling their cinematic ambitions with religious rules are a hoot—when they visit a bar to meet Siraj, a hassled Raheem wonders ‘what if I die here?’ When Thoufeek titles the film Moonamathum Umma, the director’s assistant is pleased—“Oh, a romantic film?”—only to be told that it is a tale around Prophet Muhammed.
Sharif (Indrajith, who seems a little lost), who does street plays and considers himself a competent actor, is waiting for an opportunity to enter the big screen. When the organisation insists on roping in only their own members to act in the film, Sharif gets a chance, provided his wife Suhara (a superb Grace Antony) agrees to act opposite him on screen. The writing flounders when the makers deliberately attempt to insert political points—the portion surrounding Sharif playing George Bush in a street play and Thoufeek’s reaction to him, for instance And one felt an excessive slant towards underlying the religious subtext in the narrative, going overboard with spiritual greetings and mores.
The narrative takes its own sweet time to unfold and picks up once the meta film starts rolling. For Siraj, who is used to professional actors in cinematic settings, directing non-actors in a narrative that is creatively stifling is unfamiliar terrain. His personal life adds to the celluloid stereotype of a film director—divorced, irresponsible, short-tempered and alcoholic. The writing sometimes feels a little artificial, like in the scene where Raheem and Thoufeeq approach Siraj’s wife to withdraw a police complaint she has filed and her reaction to that. Also, the scene where Sharif is selected by the acting coach as an afterthought was also a badly executed one.
There is a hilarious stretch around a sound recordist (Soubin Shahir in a cameo) who is straining to keep the sets sync soundproof. On the first day of the shoot, Sharif realises that the real deal is nothing like what he envisaged about acting, while Suhara is awkward, prompting an exasperated Siraj to call in an acting coach.
The coach (Parvathy Thiruvothu, who seems like she is playing herself) helps them shed their inhibitions. But unfortunately these scenes come across as shallow, especially Suhara’s confession and her subsequent conflict with Sharif, though the ensuing thawing that occurs in their relationship was more conclusive. The conversation around hugging between the couple was a nice touch. As the actors learn more about the craft, their relationship also undergoes an evolution.
Halal Love Story, at heart, is a simple film, like Sudani From Nigeria, and has a beautifully novel theme, but it takes itself too seriously, and ends up biting more than it can chew.
Halal Love Story is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.