Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Kayf Alhal, the first made-about-Saudi-Arabia feature film, shot in Dubai

Kayf Alhal had its world premiere at the 8th Osian's Cinefan Festival of Asian Cinema, now underway at Siri Fort in New Delhi. It was shown on the evening of July 17. It also marked the opening of the Arabesque section, which has now become a regular feature of the film festival. This festival has emerged as the only one in the Indian capital after the India International Film Festival has been shifted to its permanent venue in Goa.

Kayf Alhal has been directed by a Canada-based Palestinian director, Izidore K Musallam, and it has been roduced by the Saudi Arab magnate, Walid bin Talal, who has invested money in the US enertainment industry, including Disney.

This is not a film festival movie as such. It is not an auteur affair. Musallam has pointed out that he believed in keeping the film simple. In many ways, this was a good decision. He has been able to achieve much more than he would have if he had attempted a sophisticated cinematic essay like the Makhmalbafs of Iran.

Kayf Alhal has a deceptively straightforwward theme -- the marriage of Sahar, who has just completed her graduation. Her father is a businessman, who loves his daughter very much. Her brother, Khaled, who is under the influence of Waddah, a primary school religious teacher, plays the perfect puritanical foil to his easy going family. He is worried that his sister is going astray because she is holding a party -- of course, only for girls -- on the occasion of her graduation. Then there is the jovial grandfather, and Khaled's cousin, Sultan, who has artistic ambitions, and he is busy making a film. This is the most subtle ploy of the film. The narration is framed by this film project. Grandfather and Sultan enjoy rare camaraderie. Picasso and Coppola form reference points in their banter.

Meanwhile, Sahar's mother is keen that her daughter be married off. The indulgent father -- the father-daughter relationship is one of the endearing aspects of the story -- insists that it can only happen with Sahar's consent. While Sultan's brush with Sahar hanging by a thin rope outside her window -- Romeo-Juliet? -- is the prelude to their quiet love, Sahar's father's business associates too come up with marriage offers for Sahar. One of them wants his Billy Bunter-look-alike son to be married to Sahar. Another business associate, who has two wives and whose son is in college in the United States, wants to marry Sahar himself. And then there is the joker of the pack of suitors -- the teacher and fervid pruitan, Waddah himself. He asks Khaled to speak to his father about marriage with Sahar. Khaled for all his religious fury hesitates to broach the issue. When he does with his mother, she says quite firmly that she wants her daughter to be married to a businessman like her father and not to a pennyless primary school teacher.

There are other nice details portrayed in the film. The girls are forced to go to the malls to whle away their time, and that is also the place where the boys can hope to see them and flirt with them within the strict conservative mores. The Fiipino servant is shown in the household of Sahar, which is a little social detail. And so is the Filipino steward in the restaurant at the mall. Then the family gets away for a few days for a holiday to Dubai, where Sahar, her mother and little sister can breath a little freely as they take a walk along the Corniche.

While treading carefully with regard to the conservative sensibilities of Saudi society, the film manages to make fun of the religious teacher and his puritanism, the irrepressible wit and humour of the oridnary and very-much-worldly Arabs, who do want to enjoy the pleasures of life without necessarly being irreligious. Anyone who has seen the beautiful melodramatic films made in Egypt in the 1960s can see that the Arab funny bone is both prominent and strong.

The director is also able to show that the moral police is just follwing the silly imperatives of the preachers, and that they are not zealotsa themselves. In a bold move, there is a scene where Shara drives her father to the hospital after he collpases, and she is not even wearing her hijab. The moral police van intercepts her, and she tells them about the emergency. They then escrot the car to the hospital, and help the patient into the hospital. It is a small gesture but it conveys a lot. It shows that rules are not followed in a mad way in Saudi Arabia, and that people are normal and sane as anywhere else.

This is indeed the great point about the film. It shows that ordinary people are simple folk. They are neither plotting revolutions, nor are they zombies. They are subverting the puritanical framework in harmless ways.

There are some obvious flaws in the cinematic narration. We are shown a newspaper office where only the receptionist, the editor and the star reporter are shown. But the strong points of the film are the simple storyline, and plausible characterisation.

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