Context is everything in Zakariya Mohammad’s films. Take Sudani from Nigeria, for instance. A Nigerian footballed player named Sudu finds himself recruited to play in Kerala’s Malappuram district’s local football club. Local religions, languages and cultures blend in creating believable characters who tell us a football love story that has never been told before.
Similarly, in Halal Love Story, the lowkey people of Muslim majority Malappuram district in Kerala wish to make a telefilm that is halal enough for their community to watch. This is right after the 9/11 attacks. The film stands at an intersection of various identities meeting — religious, class-based, ideologist, gendered and conservative. Yet, without ever sentimentalizing or glorifying any particular person or ideology, Halal Love Story stays true to its plot: making a telefilm for its conservative community.
Its fantastic ensemble cast consists of Grace Antony, Indrajith Sukumaran, Sharaf U Dheen, Joju George and Parvathy. The actors are remarkable and make the movie what it is; their chemistry makes for good laughs and tender moments, and they drive the narrative home.
The plot is simple: after the horrific 9/11 attacks, a small Muslim-majority town in rural Kerala faces its ripple effects. The quirky comedy explores the religious and political ideologies of the town; its conservative Muslim rules and anti-capitalist socialist beliefs, and the events that take place in a theatre group that wants to make a movie there.
The fundamental problem is that these are people who belong to a community which is not adequately represented in pop culture, or catered to in the entertainment world. The movie begins with an elderly couple staring at a movie poster being put up outside their home with utter disdain; the poster of a woman posing seductively is simply not ‘halal’ enough for their neighbourhood. One of the town’s members, Shereef, played by Sukumaran, is an actor who wants to do something more than just street theatre. He, along with a village elder Rahim Saheb, approach a young scholar and artist, Thoufeeq (Sharaf u dheen), and ask him to make a film that their community can enjoy. Thoufeeq takes up the offer and requests a film director Siraj, played by Joju George, to make a ‘halal’ story. The only conundrum that arises is Siraj’s inability to understand the reasons behind the desire to make a ‘halal’ film, which he believes will not sell. So he suggests that they make it about the story of a couple.
The only way that Shereef can perform the role now is if his real-life wife, Suhra, plays his other half in the movie. This isn’t the only obstacle; the movie is filled with hilarious moments that either halt shooting temporarily or almost interrupt the whole process altogether — pausing for namaaz, different people from the community upset at their lives being interrupted, the director’s drunken tantrums causing problems, communist co-actors refusing to drink Coke, figuring out what is ‘halal’ or not to be represented in film, and Suhra-Shereef’s marriage strains causing an inability to accurately create the movie. These moments are always tender, never judgmental, quirky and funny and lead the plot forward in subtle dramatic ways. Staying true to indie Malayalam cinema, the characters are deep and rich, the plot is never over-the-top; it is a believable story set in a believable world that is full of simplicity and everyday challenges.
Halal Love Story wins in its characters and their portrayal by fine talent. Grace Antony and Indrajith Sukumaran are a delight to watch onscreen; Shereef’s hurt male pride and Suhra’s steadfastness makes them a fascinating couple to watch. Their marital problems surface when Suhra is praised for her acting chops and Shereef struggles to keep up. Joju George is a fabulously layered and complex Siraj. Siraj isn’t known by his last name, has obvious familial problems, is estranged from his daughter, and needs to make the movie more than anyone else. His problems are understandable and his confusion at the Malappuram townspeople’s conservatism makes for good comedy. Parvathy’s role is brief as the acting coach Haseena, but she is a natural as always, and has strong camera presence. She is able to pull emotions out from Suhra that were otherwise brushed under the carpet.
Zakariya Mohammad created a world that is absolutely dreamlike. The homely rural setting makes for an interesting space with even more interesting characters, each one trying to get by with their lives. Huge political, social and religious international events affect them and the movie that they want to make is a rebellion of sorts. In one scene Thoufeeq asks, just because the people of Malappuram are conservative, does that mean that they don’t deserve entertainment? The town is ridden with the same problems that are seen in most Indian places: sexism, religious conservatism leading to illogical events, elders trying to impose their beliefs on younger people. But nobody is antagonised in Halal Love Story. People are shown as they are: struggling with familiar issues and just trying to make it through the day.
However, the film does tend to drone on. With extended scenes, unnecessary dialogues and stretched out moments, I tend to get bored, skip forward or pause and take long breaks from the movie. For a movie to be successful in the OTT space, it has to be fully engaging and immersive. Which is sometimes lacking in this movie.
Watch Halal Love Story if you want to experience a feel-good movie set in an idyllic space, at a time before social media. It’ll be worth it.