The Riz test, inspired from the Bechdel test and Riz Ahmed’s 2017 speech in the House of Commons on diversity on screen, talks about five criteria to measure how Muslims are portrayed in cinema and on TV.
If the film/show stars at least one character who is identifiably Muslim (by ethnicity, language or clothing) then is the character:
1) Talking about, the victim of, or the perpetrator of terrorism?
2) Presented as irrationally angry
3) Presented as superstitious, culturally backward or anti-modern?
4) Presented as a threat to a western way of life?
5) If the character is male, is he presented as misogynistic? Or if female, is she presented as oppressed by her male counterparts?
If the answer for any of the above is yes, then the film/ TV show fails the test. It is not that nobody in the Muslim community would answer to the description above – just that it becomes a tiring and damaging stereotype when members from the community are shown this way consistently and no other representations are made.
There are plenty of examples of Malayalam films, especially from the ‘80s and ‘90s, which will fail the Riz test. For instance, Amina Tailors (1991) directed by Sajan, reinforces every Muslim stereotype — uneducated, roguish, oppressed women and misogynistic men. Amina is an illiterate who learns to read and write for her lover, without her father’s knowledge, while the mother is a mute witness to the father’s boorish, misogynistic behaviour.
Even in recent times, there have been films like the Murali Gopy scripted Tiyaan (2017) which is strewn with celluloid Muslim stereotypes - the kohl-eyed hooligans who rape and kill are supposedly Pakistan-born bad Muslims, and the namaaz reading, good Muslims walk in the backdrop of Arabic chants.
But that said, the representation of Muslims on screen has certainly improved of late. Here’s a look at the films which pass the Riz test:
KL10 Patthu: The first film which went against every single feature of the checklist in the Riz test has to be the Muhsin Parari directed and written KL10 Patthu (2015), set in the backdrop of Malappuram, a place that has never got its due in the movies.
If TV Chandran’s Paadam Onnu: Oru Vilaapam depicted the regressive reality of how Muslim girls forced into early marriages are left in the lurch once pregnant, others showcased the youth who indulged in bigotry and treason. Even the recently released Amazon Prime web series Family Man had a Malayali antagonist, Moosa, who hails from Kasaragod and joins the ISIS after his family gets slaughtered in a riot.
But in his debut film, Muhsin debunks every stereotype associated with the district and creates a democratic, fun space. Be it having a progressive, independent fun-loving heroine who wears a hijab without fuss, men who plan their days around food and football to an adorable Jinn, with kohl-lined eyes, as the narrator. There are lovely undertones of Sufism, in music, architecture and poetry. It’s a smartly written film that digs deeper into the socio-political milieu of the region, where conversations flow freely, friendships are legendary and people are warm and frothy, along with precisely retaining their dialect and portraying their culture authentically.
Sudani from Nigeria: In their next film, Sudani from Nigeria (2018), Muhsin and Zakariya — who made his directorial debut with the film — achieve the same honesty and integrity in depicting the life of Malappuram residents. The narrative follows Majeed, a Sevens football team manager, and his friendship with an immigrant Nigerian player, who finds himself at the manager’s home being lovingly tended to by his mother following a broken leg.
Considering the landscape, culture and people were always misrepresented, the makers pull all the stops to bring it all back to perspective. Be it their passion for football and food, their ability to open their hearts and homes to a stranger and their quirky sense of humour, naivety and taking pride in their nativity. While there are women who happily thrive in the conditioned patriarchal space, there are also the young, financially independent sort who refuse to settle for a partner who aren’t as qualified as them.
C/O Saira Banu: Manju Warrier plays Saira, a postwoman wearing a head scarf in the 2017 film C/O Saira Banu — but nowhere in the narrative does the religion or gender have a say in her character arc.
The only reminder would be when she talks about getting beaten up by her father when she was in school for removing her hijab to save a pair of kittens from getting soaked in the rain.
Take Off: In the 2017 film Take Off, based on the real life story of nine Malayali nurses who were held hostage by terrorists in Iraq, Parvathy plays Sameera, a Muslim nurse who gets a posting in Iraq. Sameera, who hails from a lower-middle class family, gets married into an affluent, conservative Muslim family where women are expected to take care of the home and children. When she decides to pursue nursing to help her father pay off the loans, the husband and his family don’t take it well, resulting in a divorce.
Sameera is one of the most realistically sketched Muslim female characters in Malayalam cinema — all her battles are fought staying within the system. Even in her husband’s home, it’s not shown as an outright rebellion, but a matter of standing up for herself. She is trying to fit into all the roles as best as she can — be it nurse, wife, mother, daughter or daughter-in-law.
Parava: The Soubin Shahir directed 2017 film Parava is a beautifully framed film in the backdrop of a milieu he comes from, Mattanchery, and its people’s passion for pigeon racing. It’s a tribute to a subculture and milieu and their ordinary lives where religion never comes in the way of the narrative.
Virus: In Aashiq Abu’s 2019 film Virus, a medical thriller inspired by the Nipah outbreak in North Kerala, the Muslim community is carefully drawn out; there is a lovely, spontaneous romance between a young doctor Abid Rehman and his sweetheart Dr Sara Yakub, and they also hint at the stereotypical demonising that the community has to endure when the lover of the first person who contracts the virus is questioned about his whereabouts.
Films like Big B, Anwar and Annayum Rasoolum also have characters who don’t fall into Muslim stereotypes. Big B’s main leads are named with an eye on communal harmony — Bilal (Muslim), Eddy (Christian), Murugan and Bijo (Hindus) are orphans adopted by a good Samaritan Mary teacher. And none of the characters are pigeon-holed because of their religion.
There are small, unconventional and organic depictions in other films too. In Aami, one of the stories in the anthology 5 Sundarikal, Fahadh Faasil is a rich Muslim who plays interesting mind games with his wife over the phone during a long journey.
Neelakasham Pachakadal Chuvanna Bhoomi has Dulquer Salmaan belonging to a conservative Muslim family in North Kerala who’s on a journey to find his lover. It also shows his traditional household where the mother is anxious about the son marrying someone outside the community.
The 2017 romance Mayaanadhi about two star-crossed lovers has a subplot with a Muslim man who controls his sister's life. However, the sister is a rising star in cinema, a role seldom given to a Muslim woman on screen.
CS Venkiteswaran, film academician and author, sums it up thus: “That’s why I say that one of the significant developments in Malayalam cinema in this decade has been the phenomenal presence of Muslims in the industry, be it in direction, cinematography or other technical aspects which in turn has helped in creating a more sensitive and productive narrative for the Muslims on screen.”