In a deeply conservative town inhabited by Muslims in Kerala, a local man who considers himself a progressive decides to produce a film, prodded by a street theatre actor with big-screen aspirations and grand illusions about his talent. They rope in a young writer who is charming enough to convince the community leadership that cinema is not haram, not forbidden, immoral and unethical as per Islamic codes. And so they set about making a movie with severe strictures to ensure that it qualifies as halal (acceptable, moral and ethical) and would entertain the audience without shocking them.
Halal Love Story stays with this group during the entire process of gaining community support, hiring a director, raising funds, casting and shooting. It is the sort of cinematic enterprise to describe which the term "slice of life" was coined. Although the cast is filled with big names from the Malayalam film industry, what transpires on screen throughout the narrative feels like an unscripted reality populated with real people whose real lives have been captured on cameras that happen to have been lying around.
Writer-director Zakariya, who justifiably attained huge popularity with his charming debut film, Sudani From Nigeria, carries forward his affinity for naturalism into his sophomore venture. Despite the star line-up of actors here " some of the best and most respected in Mollywood " and the use of songs in the background, his tone of realism does not relent for a single second and not a moment feels fake, exaggerated, strained or contrived.
Like Sudani From Nigeria, Halal Love Story too has been written by Muhsin Parari and Zakariya himself (Ashif Kakkodi gets a credit as co-writer).
The film derives its humour from the quaint conservatism of the small Muslim community it portrays, but its satire never descends into condescension.
Equally important, it does not romanticise or condone the conservatism either " it is what it is and is being told like it is, that is all. Unlike Sudani From Nigeria, which " lovely though it was " chose to ignore the inherent racism in Indian society in its bid for positivity, Halal Love Story is more comprehensive and in that sense, more frank.
Traditionalism is neither funny nor sweet, but it can certainly have absurd, amusing consequences. We see that in the bizarre hurdles that the filmmakers in Halal Love Story encounter. How, for instance, do you cast actors for a husband-wife saga if the potential viewer would frown upon two individuals who are strangers to each other acting married for a film? The producer and scriptwriter find a solution, with unintended results for their artistes.
The simplicity and realism in Halal Love Story's screenplay is backed by the acting, by Arun Rama Varma's sound design, Anees Nadodi's art direction and Ajay Menon's cinematography that shifts smoothly from sweeping magnificent shots of the Kerala countryside in the opening scenes to a greater closeness with the setting and characters as it progresses.
It is noteworthy that though the team of Halal Love Story is helmed and dominated by men, it shows a significant interest in and understanding of women that was evident in Sudani From Nigeria too. It takes a while to get to women though. At first, like most Malayalam films, the narrative is filled out by men: the street artiste Shereef (Indrajith Sukumaran), the producer Raheem (Nazer Karutheni), the writer Thoufeeq (Sharafudheen) and their chosen director Siraj (Joju George). Once it zeroes in on Shereef's wife Suhra (Grace Antony) though, her interior journey through the journey of their project gets pride of place in the most unexpected way.
This is a top-notch cast, and it is a measure of their charisma, the sensitivity and nuance in their performances and Zakariya's sure-footed direction, that Halal Love Story does not lag when it gets diverted from its central theme " namely, the halal-ness of the film-within-the-film " and becomes more about the primary characters in that project and the hitches in shooting a low-budget film, before returning to the premise in the climax. Make no mistake about this: those hitches are hilarious in their preposterousness. But as they get stretched, they mark a shift in focus for too long.
Halal Love Story is not without its imperfections then. For one, once the novelty of the premise has been established, the film takes time to settle down. The other slip in the writing is the way it gives us a glimpse of what might be jealousy in an important character at one point, but fails to expand on that. And if that was not jealousy, then how come it was not, considering that such an emotion is highly probable in those circumstances?
Grace Antony, who was so good as Babymol's elder sister and Shammi's wife Simi in Kumbalangi Nights, cements her position among Mollywood's finest with her thoughtful performance in Halal Love Story that rests heavily on her shoulders.
Indrajith Sukumaran's is the role that could have been overdone, yet he is measured even in his depiction of Shereef's over-acting and stops short of caricaturing the man.
Sharafudheen is both lovable and funny as the shy, old-fashioned young man. And Joju George is brilliant, especially in an encounter with his wife's family when a comment directed at him hurts his feelings and it appears as if his face is on the verge of crumbling but does not.
The smashing main cast is complemented by an array of gifted known and unknown artistes in tiny roles. Parvathy Thiruvothu as the major star of the lot totally inhabits the persona of the individual she plays with a subtlety that explains why she was necessary in that part. Soubin Shahir as the sound professional working with Siraj is a hoot. And Mammukoya lends heft to a scene that is perhaps a minute in length or less.
In fact that small passage is one of my favourites in the film. It illustrates the attention that has been paid to every element of the social milieu in which it is set and the quality of the dialogue writing. When Thoufeeq solicits funds from the businessman Abu played by Mammukoya, he says: "It is business owners like you that we are depending on." Abu is indulgent but does not let that pass " he asks when they developed an affinity for muthalaalikal (business owners/capitalists): isn't it their goal to destroy capitalism? Raheemsaab pipes up with an explanation: "Muthalaali alla, muthalaaliththam (the destruction of capitalism, not the capitalist/business owner)." Thoufeeq adds with endearing diffidence: "Capitalism means, America. Capitalist means, Abukka." The tinge of hypocrisy in their actions there is unmistakable yet understated.
Zakariya employs a simple storytelling style to paint a layered community portrait in Halal Love Story. Quite appropriately, the film opens with Raheemsaab watching a video of 9/11, an act of extreme violence by terrorists in the name of Islam that fuelled Islamophobia worldwide. Animosity towards Muslims in India dates back much further than 2001. Halal Love Story is a much-needed antidote to that hate. It paints a credible portrait of a community that is as flawed as any other in this country, ensuring that by the end of the narrative, everyone from Suhra to Thoufeeq is "one of us" and not "the other".
Halal Love Story is streaming on Amazon Prime Video India.