One Woman Against the Ummah
“A follower of the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) asked him, “who should I respect the most in life”? The Prophet said : “Your Mother”. “Then who?”, the follower repeated the question. The Prophet answered, “Your Mother”. “Then who?”, the question was repeated again. The Prophet answered, “Your Mother”. After the fourth time, the Prophet then answered, “Your Father”.
Alif is one of the most striking stories I’ve come across. Following the ‘New Generation’ trend in Malayalam Cinema, Alif deviates from the mainstream Malayalam cinematic trope of hypermasculine, larger-than-life ‘heroes’. Alif is a simple story about ordinary, down-to-earth characters. Similarly to recent films like English Vinglish and How Old R U, the plot for Alif resolves around an asthma-affected , economically-disadvantaged, Muslim mother of two who embarks on the journey of self-discovery that enable her to be pillar of strength for her family.
Our protagonist is Fatima, portrayed by Lena. She is a relatively poor woman who lives in a meager wooden hut with her mother, Aatta, her grandmother, Ummakunju, along with her two children, Sainu and Ali. The family, which include four generations of women, belong to the Mappila Muslim community, the descendants of Arabian merchants and converted South Indian natives inhabiting the northern districts of modern-day Kerala.
Aatta, portrayed by Zeenath, is the sole breadwinner of the household. Her means of income includes serving as a housekeeper to the more affluent families in their village. Fatima, constantly burdened with asthma, has her world shaken when her unloving husband, Abu, portrayed by Irshad, announced his intentions to divorce her and leave the family. When Abu recites the term ‘Talak’, customary in Islam for divorce proceedings, you could clearly witness Fatima’s heart sinking while the rest of the family put on brave faces despite anticipating the dreadful future.
Afterwards, there is an announcement for a sermon being delivered that night by a well-known Muslim scholar on the subject of family life. The recently-divorced Fatima attends the lecture, joining members from her local mosque. The Muslim scholar emphasizes the importance of female submission and stresses that it is the duty of every wife to unconditionally submit to her husband.
Fathima, uncharacteristically for her at this point in the film, stands up and openly criticizes the Muslim scholar, chiding him for twisting the Qu’ran and Sharia in order to indulge his own misogynistic inclination. She laments that these regressive attitudes enabled her husband to divorce her and leave the family. Fatima tearfully calls for reform, stating that change is crucial not only for Muslims, but also Christians and Hindus as well.
Unfortunately, the Muslim scholar admonishes her, leading the mosque commitee to banish her and her family. Ostracized by the villagers, Fatima is forced to overcome the many hardships that await. How she gathers the boldness and fortitude that gives a ray of hope in such a distressing situation forms the rest of the story.
Although this film, directed by Muhammed Koya, is aimed specifically towards Mappila Muslims, the underlying feminist themes could equally be applicable to Christians and Hindus. As poignantly and bluntly stated in the film, women are often the first victims of religious fanaticism.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul of Tarsus claims that, in an ideal Christian household, husbands are the heads of wives. For centuries, women were not allowed to preach in a church. Even today, the Roman Catholic Church does not permit women into the priesthood. While Pope Francis is currently looking into whether women can serve as deacons, many conservative Catholics continue to be aggressively opposed to the very idea of a women serving at the altar. My own mother shakes her head when seeing young girls serving as altar servers with their male counterparts. Surprisingly, her rationale is menstruation.
I rest my case.
In the realm of male chauvinism, these four generations of women assert themselves boldly and gracefully. For example, when the school instructor expels young Ali because of his mother’s ‘scandalous’ reputation, Aatta insists that she has the knowledge and ability to teach her grandson all he needs to learns about his Islamic faith.
In their humble dwelling, a portrait of an elderly man in traditional Islamic attire hangs from the wall. This man is Kuhammu Saihib, the late patriarch of this courageous clan. A revolutionary activist during the 1940s and 1950s, Saihib instills in his children and grandchildren a set of principles advocating progressivism and open-mindedness in a land severely lacking in both.
Fatima, when sunk in the depths of depression, is visited by a apparition of a smiling, compassionate Saihib. From beyond the grave, Saihib recalls the tale of Mohammed’s wife, an intelligent and brave women who questioned her husband on why the Qu’ranic verses gave preference to men. He gives his granddaughter his full blessing and complete encouragement, assuring Fatima that she is on the right side of the brewing controversy.
In my opinion, Ali is the most captivating character. He embodies the innocence of an angel yet, paradoxically, displays a mischievous streak that rivals Bart Simpson! As the youngest main character, Ali doesn’t fully understand the ramifications of his family’s ‘dishonor’. In fact, he’s barely aware of the concepts of ‘dishonor’ and ‘excommunication’. When he visits his friend, Mehru, to watch television with her, Ali is kicked out by Mehru’s mother. While the young girl disappointingly watches her friend leave, Ali wanders to through the village, distraught and confused. And it doesn’t help that he happens to see his estranged father, who is now clearly in a relationship with another women. When Ali returns to his home, he remains silent as he sits with his grandmother. Yet the look on Ali’s face is enough to break anyone’s heart.
Despite being snubbed by the majority of the village, the family, nevertheless, is shown an adundance of empathy from a few good men. The character of Chandran, portrayed by the regrettably late Kalabhavan Mani, is quite noteworthy. He is one of the few non-Muslims in the Mappila-dominated village. Chandran is an avowed communist, who articulates his ideology to Ali as simply dedicating one’s life to the upliftment of the poor and downtrodden. My own grandfather, who passed away in 2012, used to explain his leftist views in the same way. And while I wouldn’t identify as a communist, similar to Ali, I dream of diving into social activism and
addressing the strenuous burdens the poor have to endure.
While the mosque committee resolves to banish Fatima and her fa
mily, there is one dissenting member: Hajiyar. Portrayed by Joy Mathew, Hajiyar is one of the few staunch defenders of Fatima and her family. He condemns the narrow-minded attitudes of his colleagues and, in a futile attempt, encourages them to be sympathetic to the plight of women.
This film is not a major ‘hit’. The director is unknown amateur. The actors are relatively unknown to the majority of Malayali moviegoers. However, I don’t think I could have picked a better cast. All the actors plays their roles perfectly. Nilambur Ayesha’s role of Ummakunju is nothing more than poetic justice. A veteran actress of yesteryear films, Ayesha was one of first Muslim women to pursue a career in music and cinema, while being censured by her fellow Muslims. She paved the way for other aspiring actresses in her community, including Zeenath.
The dialogues were realistic and heartfelt. The interactions between the various characters felt authentic. I wish I could say the same for most Indian films. The cinematography the mesmerizing, particularly the ending scene when Fatima and daughter walk through an spellbinding array of paddy fields and vegetation overlooked by palm trees and a clear blue sky, inspiring the motto of Kerala, ‘God’s Own Country’.
The portrayal of the Mappila community seemed fairly accurate. The soundtrack provided a genuine representation of Mappila folk music, a nostalgic rhythm where Arabian and Malabar tunes intertwine. The dialect used in the film was fairly fascinating. It is a varient of Malayalam laced with Arabic, Persian, Urdu and even Tamil loan words.
There weren’t too many flaws with the film. However, I think the editing and post production could have been enhanced to give the film a more professional look. I also think that the Sainu’s character was too passive for a film espousing woman’s empowerment. Also it would add at least thirty minutes to an already two-hour movie, I think it would benefit the audience if the film took a glimpse into Sainu’s life and her role as a teenage Muslim girl trending the line between her traditional Muslim upbringing and the liberal globalized world of modern India.
In closing, definitely watch this film! It may not be a hit like the vastly overrated ‘Premem’ (oh yea, I’ll be ready to read those angry emails) but I think it’s one of the best film of 2015. However, I must warn you. The story is very heartbreaking. In fact, one of the main characters untimely passes away ( I will not reveal who it is). So make sure you have a box of tissues nearby.