Zakariya's films are like watching a flower bloom. The transformation is quiet, the changes slow and almost imperceptible. With every minute, your view of what you're seeing alters, making the wait just as rewarding as the result.
In Sudani from Nigeria, his first film, Zakariya made us believe the story is about sevens football; then he made us believe it's a comedy about two cultures coming together due to circumstances; it then became about a son and his troubled relationship with his mother and stepfather. Gently through the humour, surefooted in his storytelling, Zakariya and his team gave us a film that was about many things and yet about the one thing that can heal - love.
Halal Love Story, now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, and which Zakariya has co-written with Muhsin Parari, has the same force behind it. Suitably, it begins with a picture of hate, the 9/11 attack in the US which led to widespread Islamophobia. But Zakariya doesn't take his camera across the globe to document this. His stories are small, his characters are ordinary, his landscapes are familiar.
So, watching the 9/11 footage is Rahim (Nazar Karutheny), a conscientious member of a 'progressive, social' Muslim organisation - they're anti-America and anti-George Bush, they're anti-capitalism but not anti-captitalists, they're artistic but as long as the art is halal. Some of the members decide that just street theatre and protests are not enough to get the point across to the public. They need to do something bigger and what's bigger than cinema?
Thus begins an ambitious film (well, telefilm) project, with a motley set of characters. The film has to be entirely halal ('lawful' according to Islamic laws) and not get into the haram (forbidden) territory, and this proves to be quite a tough task. Joju George as the frustrated Siraj, who ends up directing this halal film, is hilarious in nearly every frame. Joju has played the plain-speaking man in quite a few films and yet, you never tire of his acting. Soubin makes a superb cameo as a production sound mixer, his comic timing impeccable as ever.
But the real star of the story is Suhara, played by the lovely Grace Antony. Indrajith plays Shareef convincingly, her awkward, somewhat pompous husband, and Zakariya gradually draws a portrait of their marriage in front of our eyes. There are no great tragedies, no sudden upheavals. But the conflict is true to life and completely believable. It is told with the eye of a good observer, the camera focusing on shifting expressions and gestures rather than heavy-handed dialogues to convey emotions.
And that is Zakariya's strength, the ability to tell a very human story touching on a number of issues without high drama or a pulsating revolution on screen. There is a moral compass within the film, a right and a wrong, but his characters find their redemption in such an organic way that it makes the viewers empathise with them rather than hating them for their mistakes.
As in Sudani from Nigeria, the women characters shine. Unnimaya Prasad and Parvathy have brief but well-defined roles. They're not merely decorative and add meaning to the narrative.The rest of the supporting cast, like Sharaf U Dheen's Thoufeeq too, have little character arcs, not flat lines, that sparkle.
Mainstream cinema has only had the Good Muslim or the Bad Muslim on offer. The Good Muslim is nationalistic, embraces other religions and doesn't talk back. The Bad Muslim is a terrorist filled with hate. In Zakariya's films though, you see that there are many ways of being Muslim; conservative believers, liberal belivers, atheists, non-conformists and so on. Just as diverse as any other community. The film doesn't make a song and dance about this; it needn't, when the representation revolves around these characters and isn't tokenistic.
The questions that come up in the narrative about religion and religious heads therefore are subtle, sensitively yet assertively raised. Critiquing the unjust status quo is a necessary function of an artist but filmmakers have usually handled religion with kid gloves. Halal Love Story is clever in how it throws its jibes, choosing to create situational comedy out of religious absurdity rather than outright mocking.
I wish there had been more clarity on the telefilm that the crew shoots though. While the story-within-the-story becomes a vehicle for the characters in the actual film to express themselves, what they're making is pretty vague. The scenes that the film crew shoot seem quite random and convenient for the moment. But, that is the only complaint with an otherwise wholesome meal, halal or not.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.
Watch the trailer of Halal Love Story