Can you embrace somebody without actually throwing your arms around the person? This dilemma, one of many tackled by a religious-minded film crew keen on ensuring a scripture-friendly shoot, also describes writer-director Zakariya’s balancing act in Halal Love Story.

Zakariya earned his place as one of Malayalam cinema’s brightest young talents with his smash debut Sudani From Nigeria in 2018. A comedy about a Malappuram resident’s heroic attempts to send a stranded Nigerian footballer home, the film was packed with hilarious scenes, memorable characters and feel-good fuzziness.

Versions of the characters in Sudani From Nigeria have wandered into Halal Love Story, as have its Muslim setting, observational humour and abiding faith in humanity. In the Amazon Prime Video original film, creases emerge only to be ironed out, frowns give way to smiles, and rebellion is tempered by conformity. Everybody goes home with a big grin and a glow in the heart.

The screenplay, by Zakariya and Muhsin Parari, pokes gentle fun at the observant without undermining their religious beliefs. Raheem (Nazer Karutheni), the leading light of the local branch of the Jamiathu Ikhwan Al-Wathan organisation, wants to make a faith-based movie, of the kind that Christian groups regularly roll out in the United States. Don’t people like us who want clean films deserve them, a character asks. Rahim agrees, and recruits screenwriter Taufeeq (Sharafudheen) to put together a crew to shoot a telefilm on a spiritually uplifting theme.

The intrepid duo persuade aspiring filmmaker Siraj (Joju George) to helm the production even though Siraj is a non-believer who smokes and drinks alcohol – one among compromises made for what they see as a noble purpose.

Since this is a “halal” (permissible) project that won’t engage in any “haram” (forbidden) activities, the religious organisation’s members are cast in various roles, including a married couple as the lead pair. Shereef (Indrajith Sukumaran) is thrilled about making his acting debut, but his initially reluctant wife Suhra (Grace Anthony) turns out to be the real talent. Advised to read Konstantin Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares, Suhra goes full method on her husband, causing tensions between the couple.

Bismillah, Halal Love Story (2020).

Siraj too finds it difficult to keep his messy personal life out of the shoot. The writer Taufeeq plays peacemaker to ensure that the film is completed.

Much of the humour comes from the film being made within the film. Soubin Shahir, the brilliant actor from Sudani From Nigeria and Kumbalangi Nights, has a hilarious cameo as a sound recordist who shuts down the village in his quest for the perfect take. Housewives cannot wash their linen and people are frozen mid-step as soon as Shahir’s Azad bellows “Silence!”

Parvathy Thiruvothu also makes a cameo as a trainer who sharpens the actors’ rudimentary skills and unwittingly unleashes Suhra’s inner Meryl Streep.

The acting across the board is top-notch, with special props for Grace Anthony as Suhra. Zakariya gave female characters room to grow and flourish in Sudani From Nigeria. In Halal Story too, Anthony is among the most prominent characters, finding her own balance between domesticity and self-expression in a perfectly clean and socially endorsed set-up.

Viewers looking for a full-blown satire on righteous do-gooders will find that they have clicked on the wrong movie. Zakariya is too fond of his characters to do anything more than poke them gently in the ribs. The Jamiathu Ikhwan Al-Wathan members protest against American imperialism and abjure Coca-Cola, but the worst thing that can be said about them is that they are earnest. What is halal and haram is a grey area, but our intentions are good, says a member of the flock – yet another line of dialogue that speaks for the filmmakers’ intentions.

The movie amiably ambles along for 106 minutes, revelling in its dedicated cast and clever set-up and providing hugs without the hugging. It feels good alright, but the lack of a solid and tight embrace is equally palpable.

Halal Love Story (2020).