Wednesday, December 03, 2008

What is Muallaf about?

Yasmin Ahmad’s recent movie titled ‘Muallaf’ (Arabic: The Convert). I once heard Yasmin said that there is no scene of conversion in this movie. The reason she said that is because she suspects that the Malaysian censorship board is worried that there are conversion scenes which show Muslims coming out from Islam in the movie. And truly, there isn’t such scene in the movie. So the question is why then this title? Perhaps the characters in the movie give some clues:

A kind but unconvincing Roman Catholic Priest who thinks that everyone, Christians and non-Christians alike, are looking for God in their own way.

A shallow, apathetic, and irreligious college administrator who does not know about theology, philosophy of religion, sociology of religion, and comparative religious studies.

A kiasu, self-seeking, and pathetic Taoist Chinese teacher who talks about Tao Te Ching but enjoy gossips and has the habit of not paying back her debts.

An insecure, desperate, and immature Christian widow who condemned and ever bugging her own son over trivialities.

Her unforgiving and cynical Christian son whose life has changed after being intrigued by the lives of the two Muslim sisters. He starts reading the Qur’an earnestly. He read it not only to himself but starting reading it to a coma patient as well. He starts learning about the Muslim culture and the Islamic faith. He is even open to learn Arabic to further his understanding of the Islam. He became more forgiving, sympathetic, and found some sense of meaning in life.

Then there are the intelligent, loving, gracious, and angelic Muslim sisters who ran away from their brutal father. They were taught about comparative religious studies and Qur’anic interpretations by their late mother who was a lecturer on religion. Hence they are well-versed with the Qur’an and Scriptures of other religions. They even read St. Augustine’s confession. The sisters are like salt and light to everyone around them. Their exemplary and inspiring Muslim lives influenced and transformed the lives of the insecure Christian widow, her cynical son, and even their own arrogant and cruel father.

The son and the two sisters are the protagonists in the movie.

Perhaps now it is clearer why the movie titled ‘Muallaf’?

Another note is that I think the portrayed intimacy between the two sisters is superficial. Overall, the best character probably is the pub-waitress played by Yeo Yann Yann that appears only a short while.

So far, among her movies such as Sepet, Gubra etc, Muallaf marks Yasmin's greatest work in promoting Islam to the modern contemporary audience.


yasmin said...

there is of course the other side to the coin. and that is, that most malays/muslims featured in the film were assholes.

1) the girls' alcoholic, child abusing father
2) the stepmother who was an uncultured tart
3) the bodyguards who were vicious dogs

and that the only consistently nice person in the whole story was the catholic priest.

muallaf is not about religion. it is about family; about parents over-punishing their children; about the children learning to forgive their parents; about making mistakes and being given second chances.

the most enduring quote the little girl mentioned was when she said "corinthian 13" from the back of the car. which points to the one pertinent fact that, in the end, muallaf is about Love.


Sze Zeng said...

Hi kak Yasmin,

Thank you for illuminating further about your work.

I don't see the assholes featured in the film as Muslims because there is no indication that they are practicing Muslims. They are just Muslim by names perhaps. And I dont think (or prefer not to think) real Muslims are like them.

Your emphasis on family, parents' punishment, forgiveness etc are all enhanced by the stories of each characters within the story.

Hence these virtues can only be appreciated if one understands the stories within each characters.

And these stories are the impact their own respective religion has on each characters.

For eg. Brian's mom's condemnation and punishment on Brian can only be understood if a certain catechism being brought into mind. Another eg. would be the sisters' forgiving and compassionate heart. Their motivation and disposition are rooted in their understanding of the religion.

And one of the best scene that I enjoy and love in the movie is the short one where the sisters are discussing different interpretations of sacred texts. And that's also the scene where 'Muallaf' (Sabian) was mentioned.

Thus, I don't see a separation between religion and the virtues portrayed in the story.

I just think that the understanding the religious motivations behind each characters helps one to appreciates the movie better, and hence see the depicted virtues better.

Though your intention is not to make a religious movie, yet the background, struggles, variegated motivations and inspirations of each characters, and the hope at the end of the movie are all religious. Therefore I am easily inclined to see the movie not merely as a story about virtue but also about religion, and how each religion affects virtues & vice versa.

Thank you for bringing this story to us.

yasmin said...

"Those who believe (in the Qur'an) and those who follow the Jewish (Scriptures) and the Christians and the Sabians, in fact anyone who believes in the one God and the Last Day and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve."

~ 2:62

Yes, I too love this.

Nalika said...

Let's not miss out the 'shouting' teacher who beat Ana.

That is also quite prevalent in Malaysia educational system.