These three recent south Indian releases, belonging to different genres, engage with ideas on faith and religious values.

Collage of actors Indrajith from Halal Love Story Nayanthara from Mookuthi Amman and Fahadh Faasil from Trance
Flix Film commentary Monday, November 30, 2020 - 16:39

Netflix series A Suitable Boy recently ran into trouble for showing a Muslim man and a Hindu woman kissing in a temple. Apart from the expected outrage on social media from right wing handles, an FIR was also filed against officials of the Over the Top (OTT) platform. The representation of religion on screen has periodically run into controversy with religious groups and the government, as in the case of films like Mani Ratnam's Bombay, Rahul Dholakia's Parzania, Kamal Haasan's Vishwaroopam, Rajkumar Hirani's PK or more recently Raju Murugan's Gypsy. In the current political climate, such outrage and censorship have become the norm, with a communal angle given to characters, scenes and subjects even if the film ostensibly does not deal with religion or communalism.

In such a scenario, it's interesting to take a look at three recent releases from the south which each critiqued a major religion — Trance (Malayalam), Halal Love Story (Malayalam) and Mookuthi Amman (Tamil). While the first was a theatrical release in February 2020, the other two films were released on OTT platforms due to the coronavirus pandemic.

It's also relevant to note that the criticism of the religion came from within the respective communities. Trance, which takes on Christian miracle workers, was written by Vincent Vadakkan; Halal Love Story, which is set in a community where a conservative Islamic organisation has great influence, was directed by Zakariya who co-wrote the film with Muhsin Parari; Mookuthi Amman, which exposes the corruption of Hindu godmen, was written by RJ Balaji who co-directed the film with NJ Saravanan.

The genre of each of these films is different. Trance is a psychological drama, Halal Love Story is a comedy with elements of satire and Mookuthi Amman falls under the 'saamy padam' category, perhaps unique to Indian cinema. Their approach, too, varies. Here's how:

Trance: Directed by Anwar Rasheed and written by Vincent Vadakkan, Trance opened to great expectations thanks to its stellar cast. The film had Fahadh Faasil, Nazriya, Soubin, Dileesh Pothan, Gautham Menon, Chemban Vinod, Vinayakan, Sreenath Bhasi and others. However, it was met with a mixed response from the audience. The film is based on the Marxist idea that religion, as a construct of society, is the opium of the people, and this is reiterated numerous times within the ambit of Christianity.

Fahadh plays Viju, a motivational speaker who is recruited to become a miracle working pastor called JC. But, thanks to the cocktail of drugs and the sudden power that goes to his head, he develops mental health issues and comes to believe that he is Jesus Christ himself.

Watch: Song from Trance

The film not only exposes how 'miracles' are accomplished through trickery, it also reveals the very real consequences it can have on guileless believers. Thomas (Vinayakan), who is an ardent follower of JC, is convinced that the pastor can cure his daughter's illness and denies her the medicine that she desperately needs. But, the faith healing does not work and the child dies. A disillusioned Thomas kills Solomon and Isaac, the two men who are the behind-the-scenes kingpins of the scam.

Trance also had several parallels with Biblical characters, overturning traditional notions about them in modern setups. These, however, were less obvious in the narrative. The second half of the film, which largely focuses on JC's internal journey and his psychedelic visions, was criticised by many as being overlong and repetitive. That said, the film also received praise for its bold approach and apart from a few rumbles from pentecost groups in Kerala, it did not lead to any major controversy. In fact, there were more objections to its take on mental health rather than religion, due to some dialogues on how psychiatric pills are harmful and the film's overall premise that equates religion to a mental illness.

Halal Love Story: Directed by Zakariya Mohammed of Sudani from Nigeria fame, who co-wrote the film with Muhsin Parari, Halal Love Story is about the cultural wing of a conservative Islamic organisation (which calls itself 'progressive) that sets out to make a film in line with their beliefs and principles. The organisation is closely modelled on the Jamaat e Islami and examines the clash between conservative and progressive values, what it means to live by religious principles, and who decides what is art and how it should be made.

Muhsin has, in the past, spoken about the representation of the Muslim community on screen, taking objection to the stereotypes and common assumptions about the Muslim way of life. In Halal, a real life husband and wife (Indrajith Sukumaran and Grace Antony) are persuaded to play an on screen couple by the organisation to ensure that the film they're making is wholly halal (within the moral limits prescribed by Islam). Director Siraj (Joju George) who is hired to make this film becomes increasingly frustrated with the rules and conditions, but the team finds a way, eventually, to accommodate everyone's point of view along the way.

Unlike Trance, Halal Love Story does not reject religion or even the conservatives within it. What it tries to do is create a dialogue between agnostics and those who hold on to conservative values. Through the structuring of the scenes, the gentle humour and the ending (which shows a conservative man allowing the TV to play on mute as the family offers prayers, a loosening from his earlier stance), the film takes quite a few potshots at the overly religious. However, it also raises questions on artistic hegemony and representation, which are largely defined by the progressives.

Watch: Trailer of Halal Love Story

The film's politics, though, did not appeal to several progressive and rationalist voices who alleged that the narrative was ambiguous, and that it was a sly attempt to make conservative values mainstream. The makers were also criticised for characterising such religions organisations in kindly light while their influence, on ground, is much more lethal.

If it was clear in Trance who the good and bad guys are, Halal Love Story takes a more empathetic approach and does not designate anyone as hero or villain. On the surface, it's a simple film about a village making a film. But it also manages to ask complex questions on religious values and how we can co-exist with people who ideologically differ from us — questions that many are grappling with in an increasingly polarised world.

Mookuthi Amman: RJ Balaji and NJ Saravanan's film has Nayanthara playing Amman, the goddess, revealing herself to a family. The film is not particularly original, borrowing heavily from films such as OMG: Oh My God which have lampooned godmen in the past. However, in the 'Amman' genre, which has typically had wronged women wreaking revenge through the goddess, it offers some novelty.

RJ Balaji plays Engels Ramasamy — the name is a mix of revolutionary socialist Friedrich Engels and anti-caste rationalist EV Ramasamy or Periyar — a reporter who, despite his name, is a believer himself. Engels, with the help of Amman, takes on Bhagavathi Baba (Ajay Ghosh), who is modelled on godmen such as Sri Sri Ravishankar, Jaggi Vasudev and Nithyananda. Several dialogues in the film make references to real life incidents involving such babas. However, although the film has a Hindu godman as the villain, it stops well short of questioning religion or religious institutions. In fact, the central message is that god exists but that it is only the middlemen who must be eliminated. To 'balance' things even more, there is also a scene where a rationalist/Periyarist is depicted as a hypocrite for accepting other religions but rejecting Hindu gods, with no mention whatsoever about caste society and why leaders like Ambedkar and Periyar advocated a rejection of Hinduism for oppressed castes to be empowered.

Although the idea itself is clever, using a 'saamy padam' to question godmen, RJ Balaji plays it way too safe for the material to rise above meme jokes and really get his audience thinking. Why do believers flock to godmen? If middlemen are to be eliminated, would that include priests in temples? The film isn't interested in engaging with such questions but instead has a simplistic, black and white approach with an easy fall guy.

Watch: Trailer of Mookuthi Amman

There is a reference to Christians and conversion, but it's unclear what the film wants to say about it. Engels's youngest sister, who studies in the same convent that he went to, decides she wants to become a Christian. When the upset brother questions a nun, the latter tells him that nobody had forced it upon his sibling. Later, the same sister is saved by Amman along with the rest of the family — does this imply that she discovers her 'real god' and gives up on trying to convert? Like much else, the film leaves this too on the surface.

It is possible that the makers were wary of sparking outrage, considering Amman is being played by Nayanthara, a Syrian Christian woman, and had decided to keep the material as inoffensive as possible. However, this also begs the question — why embark on such a project if you can't take the plunge?

Trance and Halal Love Story are available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video while Mookuthi Amman is streaming on Disney+Hotstar.

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