A New Language of Theistic Aesthetics: After the ‘Halal Love Story’

By Abdul Rahman O M

HALAL Love Story is out on Amazon Prime for the whole world to watch. A Non-Malayali might need subtitles to watch the movie. But whatever this is, be it a Malayali or the non-Malayali speakers, many filmophiles could not comprehend subtle points of discussions and creative ideas the film tries to engage. While many argued that the film is poorly written to resolve the disdainful representation of Muslim stories in Kerala, other critics doubt the strength of the contentions placed by the director. Across social media platforms and film enthusiasts, a popular notion was that the movie is over-radiating Muslim-ness. In this background, this essay will be a humble attempt to engage with such skeptic criticism of the Halal Love Story.

Muslim representation in the creative and technical side of the movie continues to be meager in India except for a few legendary actors in the mainstream Indian movie productions. The public consciousness hardly knew any real Muslim-written stories about their community. Hence, the already heavily stereotyped, the less-talked-about Muslim was a total stranger to an average movie watcher across Kerala. As a Malayali, I wonder what sense the movie will make for the North Indian and international audience who might be expecting another classic in the line of Sudani from Nigeria. Remaining narratives in films about Muslims have always falsely tried to homogenize Muslims into a single category.

While watching Halal Love Story, I recalled the old telefilms I had watched back in my childhood. These telefilms were produced by a handful of film enthusiasts who were practicing Muslims too, like ‘Parethan Thirichu Varunnu’ directed by Salam Kodiyathur. These telemovies in Malayalam never caught the attention of the mainstream. The audience for these small-scale productions is always confined to the Malabari Muslim households. Many of these were about migrant workers in the Muslim families in Malabar who returned home ‘rich’. Their personal conflicts within the family and society and domestic conflicts where women suffered the most, innocent, and rude Muslim mothers manipulating their sons against sisters-in-law appeared in many of these movies. There were both: bold and naïve; educated and uneducated Muslim men and women. Some movies spent time with the interesting personas of the villages, many with a good amount of humor, wit, and odd characteristics and mannerisms. These movies produced by members of some Muslim organizations were funded by the director himself or some expatriates. A major feature of all these movies was that they showed the Muslim society in Northern Malabar realistically. I wondered if they are rightly showing the Muslim women in my house as well. 24/7, the Muslim women in the telefilms wore dupattas on their head, while my mom wore it around her head only if some strange man comes to visit the house: a new guest, postman, or likewise.

On the other hand, Halal Love Story, more than a film, is a movie about these telefilms and their producers who tried to present and mark themselves in the medium of movie. They displayed more restrain while showing the domestic space and women that might be coming from religious ideas that ask to be conscious always.

Halal Love Story, as it title goes, asserts that the medium of film, considered as a haram mode of art by many in the community, hitherto is a myth. Rejecting the haram and halal binaries, they have developed a beautiful universe of possibilities of creative self-assertion in the middle ground. The act of taking part in a film is an artistic and theistic devotion for S Salam Kodiyathur’s character who plays the aspiring actor. Although he is rejected from the cast, he has no complaints. He is disappointed but not totally unhappy. The movie’s plot of two cadres working for a telefilm challenging the skeptic dull establishment confines of the organisation, might not be as universally appealing as Sudani. But the significance of this locally-oriented plot where (a movie within a movie to make a small home cinema) lies in the bold attempt of a small religious minority in the Southern tip of a nation to film their own stories using their own modes of aesthetics to the mainstream.

Needless to say, the liberal world might find it hard to come to terms with this strange location of a story in a beautiful village in Malabar, set in the early 2000s, displaying everyday Muslim life in detail. Unlike the diehard football fanfare in the Malappuram youth as showcased in Sudani from Nigeria, HLS is talking about the practicing Muslim men trying to produce a movie on their life with their own aesthetics and religious morality.

As for the creative teams of the telefilm, they are inspired not from the local films but from the internationally acclaimed Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso and Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven. Their priorities are hence to speak in a different aesthetics of visual language radiant with elements of daily life Muslim symbols and rituals. In other words, they don’t cater to the present mode of aesthetics in the film as well. A small example is sheer visibility to the religious practices with no explanations and subtitle of meanings provided to act as a mediating translator.

Who are we to deny the element of faith of the artists in their product of art? Why should they hide their religio-ethical preferences and most importantly, why should the audience bother or deny this personal freedom to the artists? Are we also manufacturing a kind of fear about the Other, marginalized in the socio-political reality, typecasting their own aesthetics as restricted by morality?

Zakariya and his team had aimed to develop a different aesthetics of creative culture within the movie world that could be more inclusive and accommodative. The liberal critics habituated to stereotype the Muslim aesthetics of Muslim daily life might find the location of culture, setting, and the semantic vocabulary with constant dhikrs, recurring images of routine-prayers hard to digest.

A common question raised in many reviews about the movie was if there is any Muslim organisation in India with members engaging in political issues like the Coca-colaisation. Performing street dramas in response to socio-political development to making telefilms? Yes, but you didn’t know, says the movie. The movie stresses the fact that a strong community of Muslims politically conscious, educated, well-read, creatively active existed and were existing in the Southern Indian state.

For the liberal lens of perception, who see the Kerala Muslim community with dogmatic presumptions, this is the time to remove such strong prejudices. As they are sharing stories of love and life with their own aesthetics, the audience must sit in peace, listen, and think.

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