How ‘Halal Love Story’ breaks lazy assumptions on Islamic culture by liberals

By Anu Karippal

Halal Love Story is a film directed by Zakariya Mohammed and co-written with Muhsin Parari, where two art enthusiasts of a local Muslim organisation in Kerala, India set out to make a movie within the moral boundaries of Islam. I must confess that I am not a Muslim. I am a Christian by birth. A Christian writing about Islamic culture might probably be looked at as partial, unfair and limited. Nevertheless, I have been following the over-appreciation of Western modernity and the casting of Muslim women in poor countries as those in need of upliftment.

Anthropologist Lila Abu Lughod has laid this out elegantly in her book Do Muslim Women Need Saving. The moment we see women in a hijab, we imagine them as the oppressed section of society, unaware of the workings of the world or themselves. They need to be saved and empowered from the shackles of a hijab. This thought has been popularised not particularly by the natives who live in Kerala, but by the urban elite who identify women who choose not to wear hijab as a mark of modernity, and the women who wear a hijab as oppressed. This ‘Muslim-women-in-need-of-saving’ image is not limited to the urban Indian mindset, but is prevalent in the non-Muslim world and urban Muslim geographies. 

Such thought processes are so prevalent that often we do not realise the violence we commit in such easy, liberal assumptions. The need to save Muslim women is so urgent that one wants to save them even before listening to what they want and what their clothing means to them. The high morality assumed towards saving has blinded many from understanding the complexity of the idea of choice and the different ways of living. In the process of establishing such liberal assumptions, one fails to do justice to the embedded meanings of lifeways that are not within the logic of liberal paradigm. Such an irony, for the liberal thought that was supposed to be open and broad minded to become so narrow minded and constraining in its journey. 

It is such lazy liberal assumptions that the Malayalam film Halal Love Story breaks. The movie is an inception; it is a movie within a movie. But it’s not as complicated as the sci-fi movie Inception. Rather, it’s a scenario chipped off from real life. The movie doesn’t evolve from a beginning to an end story. There is no wide spectrum of human emotions that the movie will evoke in you. Yet, the movie is filled with moments of realisation and gentle smiles.

In the film, the scriptwriter Thoufeeq (Sharaf U Dheen) and Raheem Sahib (Nazer Karutheny), both members of the local Muslim organisation hire a renowned crew to make a movie embedded in their village. Thoufeeq is an ardently religious man with a deep sense of morality, a morality that has its foundations in Islamic upbringing. To abide by the laws of Islam, they decide to have a real-life couple act as a couple in their movie, Shareef (Indrajith) and Suhra (Grace Antony), to which the director, Siraj, (Joju George) agrees reluctantly. As the shooting progresses, it unravels the wrongness of our easy liberal assumptions of Muslims, of the nitty-gritties of Muslim marital relationship and of the deep moralities within a Muslim organisation.

As the movie is shot, a personal tension emerges between Shareef and Suhra. The couple decides to talk it out. As opposed to the popular view of husband commanding and wife obeying in a Muslim household, we see how intimate and unbounded by power the bedroom conversations of this couple are. They are open, understanding, respectful and the most liberal it can get. What is right and wrong is mutually discussed and negotiated among Suhra and Shareef. 

I have a Muslim friend Shahana from Thalassery (a town in Kerala) who continues to wear her hijab in Bengaluru as it’s an important mark of her identity, just like how I keep a rosary with me always. She is one of the most forward-thinking people I have met. Her liberalism is not rooted in an external appearance of freedom such as hijab but a deep-rooted understanding of her life, desires, agency and political visions. While many Muslim women are forced to wear a hijab, there are many who choose to wear it too. If we were to judge Shahana by her hijab that she is oppressed, it would be a very violent thing to do. 

When I was discussing the movie with Shahana, she explained to me how there is a popular perception that art and Muslim don’t fit well, that the religious Muslims cannot be artists. That is where Halal Love Story creates the most magical moment. Towards the end of the shooting, there is a scene where the husband and wife meet after a long time and they look at each other with longing. Siraj wants the couple to hug but writer Thoufeeq is adamant that the display of close physical intimacy will hurt the sentiments of his people. 

To this, Siraj says that this is art and this is how art is. Thoufeeq responds, “Is it necessary that art has to be unidirectional, that it has to follow one single path? Isn’t there a room for imagination at all?” And he further makes an insightful remark, “Can’t we Muslims too make a movie that is within our ethics and morality, of our meanings of permissible and forbidden? Don’t we have a right to enjoy that?” At that moment, the cameraman intervenes and negotiates between the two worlds of the director and Thoufeeq. As the last scene is shot, the couple hugs, but the shot is cut right before the couple hugs, leaving everyone happy.

The film teaches us many things. To question our lazy assumptions about freedom and agency, to rethink our impressions of Muslims and Muslim women, in particular. That is not to state that all Muslims are progressive and that bigotry and religious fundamentalism don’t exist among them. Nor is it claiming that all Muslim women are free. The movie suggests that the ideas of freedom and agency are far more complicated and cannot be reduced to a religious identity or clothing. There is potential for good or bad in every religion, but the religious fundamentalists in Islam should not stop us from understanding and accepting Muslims and the life they chose to live, whether it is within the foundation of religion or not.

It’s also humbling to see the language of Thoufeeq and Raheem Sahib. They are convinced in their philosophy which is rooted in their everyday life. One cannot sense an arrogance of knowledge that we increasingly see in progressive thinkers. But at the same time, the film also brings in Siraj, the outlier’s, point of view. It shows that different perceptions can learn to comfortably live together if we can listen to each other before we make our assumptions. The movie allows a re-imagination and co-existence of local moralities, of a modernity that is not clouded by the Western liberal thought, but embedded in the local.

And there is no better anthropology than a well detailed, sensitive film. 

A different format of the same piece was originally published in the Newsminute news blog in India.

Anu Karippal is a first year MA candidate in Anthropology and Sociology.

Photo License: “Jaipur, India, Capital of Rajasthan” by Ninara is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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