Verisimilitude, People! – Ayat-ayat Cinta

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Five years late to the party, I know.

I have been made very aware of the film ‘Ayat-ayat Cinta’, directed by Hanung Bramantyo. It is a film largely credited with kick starting the entire wave of Islamic films that permeated this region, originating primarily from Indonesia. I had thought of the reception at that time to have as much to do with the dearth of films dealing with such topics and targeted at such an audience as it does with the potential quality of the film itself. I had even used one of the songs in a short film I accidentally directed, though I hasten to add that it was at the behest of the film’s producers. Anyways, it was only for a few ticks right at the end, as the credits were rolling.

Still, late to the party. I know. Better than never, though…right?

‘Ayat-ayat Cinta’ follows the story of Fahri (Fedi Nuril), a bright student who is not the most privileged when it comes to socio-economic power, so the fact that he is enrolled at Al-Azhar University in Egypt says something about his character. The same can be said about the fact that he is at the virtual epicenter of a tug of war between not two, not three, but four lovely women who all have more than just a little something for Fahri.

Ninja meeting.
Ninja meeting.

Nurul (Melanie Putria) seems to be the prime candidate on the outside: young, female (duh), Muslim, and (for those interested in such connections) the daughter of a well-known Indonesian cleric. It seems like a match made in heaven, except that this is one match Fahri choose not to strike. He might have struck it with Maria (Carissa Putri), who is a neighbour of Fahri’s. She helps him a lot in many ways, not just with his life and education, but also with his diet, giving him food every so often by lowering a basket outside the window from her unit above his. Trouble is, she is not a Muslim, and it doesn’t help that he apparently does not have any such feelings for her, so this appears to be a dead end as well.

She is, however, instrumental in Fahri’s relationship with Noura (Zaskia Adya Mecca). I may have tricked you there a bit with the word ‘relationship’, for while there is friendship, Fahri again does nothing to deliberately expand upon or return her subtle affections (by this point, I wonder if you’re wondering whether this dude is interested in women at all). At one point, she was being abused by someone else, so Fahri and Maria helps to save her, but things take a turn for the worse later on, for Fahri is then accused of taking advantage of Noura in this situation. In actuality, Noura was cared for by Maria, but she is unable to testify on Fahri’s behalf because…she is comatose. Why? In one word: Aisha (Rianti Cartwright).

Full ninja.
Full ninja.

Fahri meets this German-Turkish student (this is important, and we’ll get back to it later) on a train ride, and even though he saw little of her except for her eyes (she was completely covered), he is smitten as the showbiz kitten Smeeta, and they almost immediately got married to each other by way of taaruf, a kind of instant Islamic dating (like, really instant), if you will. Fahri’s marriage to Aisha causes a lot of consternation amongst many of the other girls, to the point of driving some them to hysteria at times. Nurul, for example, goes completely batshit mental at this, and Maria did not deal with this well either. She eventually fell into a coma due to a condition that was exacerbated by news of Fahri’s marriage. They needed to wake her up in order to get her to testify on Fahri’s behalf, but nothing seems to work, except for one final option: Fahri himself being by her side, and trying to physically wake her.

But wait! He can’t do that, because according to very specific Islamic laws, a man is not allowed to get in physical contact with a member of the opposite sex who is not a family member. So what are they to do? Can Maria, who is not Muslim to begin with, be allowed to marry Fahri in order to secure his release from prison? Can Aisha, who has invested a lot in this marriage as well, both in terms of the heart as well as finances, deal with all this?

No ninja.
No ninja.

This created the sort of conflict that great stories are built on. ‘Ayat-ayat Cinta’, based on the novel written by El Shirazy Habiburrahman, is precisely the kind of film can be considered Islamic, simply because the story looks what could happen in a situation that is almost exclusive to Islam in relation to other major religions of the world.

This is important, because I have often asked people what makes a film Islamic to them. Many answer along the veins of ‘it has strong positive values’, ‘it reflects our culture’, and ‘the characters are clearly religious’, amongst many others, suggests that the concept is not one that has been critically thought through by many people. Truth be told, similar values can also be found in films explicitly Christian, for example. It need not necessarily preach the virtues of the religion per se, but I do think a deeper exploration of some facets of the potential conflict that can be sourced to the belief itself should be considered as an important criterium. This film deals with an aspect of a specific religion, and I think that means it’s quite alright to be categorised as such. This is interesting, because what is the definitive answer to the conundrum above? If it happens in real life, what would you do?

It may well depend on how much like Fahri you are. The characterisation in this film is strong and clear, with a very specific quality (or set of qualities) attached to each character. However, it is how they have been portrayed in relation to Fahri that has helped to define them further, as well as Fahri himself. He is the contextual alpha male for all these women, and their reaction is a testament to the quality of his character in terms of virtue, integrity, kindness and compassion, amongst others. A scene earlier in the film, when he stood up to an abrasive man in a train, suggests that he is not one who will stand idly by when push comes to shove. In short, men like him are in short supply. It goes a little over the top, though; my wife and I watched this film, and we somewhat laughed at the notion that he is the only one with such qualities around, especially when we place him within the context of the Indonesian population and diaspora (note: there’s a lot of them).

Pretty ninja.
Pretty ninja.

But there you go. Within the context of the film, it works fairly well. A protagonist’s character development is often touted as the key to unlocking the key stages of a story, but here, it is the change in others around the protagonist that drives the story. It is character development all the same, but it does not come from the one we are supposed to identify with the most. To be more specific, Fahri’s character is enhanced rather than truly and drastically changed. That can be good, too.

It’s not all perfect, though. The film tells of Indonesian students and citizens who partake in activities outside of Indonesia. In this case, while the filming was apparently done in India, the story was believably set in Egypt up to a point. The majority of the characters are Indonesians who mingle largely amongst themselves, which, from my experience, is not entirely unbelievable. However, what I find incredibly difficult to deal with is the language used by those who are not Indonesian. Aisha, for example, is someone who is portrayed as a German-Turkish student who has a deep interest in the Indonesian language and culture, and can therefore speak it. Fine. I can accept that. What about Maria? She is described as a Coptic Christian, a specific branch of Christianity more limited to the Middle East, suggesting that she is not particularly Indonesian in origin. She spends a lot of time with Fahri and friends, and in that very specific understanding, I can stretch the cloak of believability just enough to say that she speaks Indonesian, too. I could be wrong, but let’s go with that for now.

Crying ninja.
Crying ninja.

What about the police officers who come to arrest Fahri, though? These are supposed to be Egyptian officers. Are they that well-versed in Indonesian? And how likely is the possibility of the judge who presides over the case speaking Indonesian as well? The prisoner who Fahri happens to be incarcerated with? Out of all the jails in all the stations in all the cities of all the governorates of Egypt…he happens to be stuck with a dude who can not only speak Indonesian, but also philosophise to the point where Fahri himself, an educated young man who is no idiot, would listen. This is where my interest in the film became more distracted, and I ended up laughing out loud at parts I’m not supposed to laugh at. My wife herself admitted at not truly realising this until I pointed it out, but that is also indicative, in a way, of a kind of willingness to want this film to be something beyond what it is. This is when a film is more than just a film; rather, it becomes a method with which you can affirm aspects of your own identity.

There is no clear right or wrong here, but for me, adherence to a sense of verisimilitude is important, especially in a film that is supposedly grounded in real life, and a blatant disregard of that, whatever your market and creative considerations may be, should be backed up with very strong reasons. This basically means that if you’re going to set your film in a certain reality, you should really try to respect this that forms the background for your audience to suspend their disbelief. For my part, I couldn’t really think of a reason or an issue that couldn’t be overcome by as strong a director as Hanung or as well-financed a production team such as the Punjabis. This sticks out like a sore thumb, and while it probably wouldn’t rankle with anyone specifically, I believe that this is something that should be considered. One person I had a brief discussion about this with suggested the viability of the Indonesian language in Egypt; this can probably be stuck under the label ‘other languages’, which make up less than half a percentile of the languages used in Egypt. There’s your statistic, if you really, really want to believe it.

Praying non-ninja.
Praying non-ninja.

Beyond that, a minor suggestion I would make would be to reorder the film slightly. It felt like the opening act that establishes the story took such a long time to get to the true conflict of the film. Then again, it is a very complex situation, one that requires a proper set up before we can sink our teeth into the meat. The more interesting part, however, was the final act.

After the judgment was passed on Fahri’s case, it felt like the natural ending for the story and the film, complete with the shot of a bird floating somewhat effortlessly over a lake. Story-wise, it would have made for a beautiful ending, but the filmmakers decided to create another act dealing with the fallout from the marriage(s) of Fahri, Aisha and Maria. It was admirable, and I admit that it helps to tie up some loose ends, but this is probably where a sequel, where we get more space and time to truly explore the issues thrown up by this situation, might be a more satisfying option for all.

Ultimately, though, the greatest arbiter as to whether the film is successful or not lies with the audience. In giving their support to this film, the audience members, both within and without Indonesia, have voted with their feet and vetoed a lot of ideas that goes against their understanding of not only the film, but the story portrayed in it as well. I can’t entirely disagree with that, because while I have my own reservations about some aspects of the stories and the way they are told, it was a film I ultimately enjoyed very much, and think is worthy of further analysis beyond this review.

That, however, like so many other things, would depend on your view. You can see this film as a celebration of love that triumphs above all within the unique set of circumstances portrayed, or you can see it as one in which a major plot point involves a woman who was converted and married off to a man without her even being conscious enough to truly know about it.

You decide.

Fikri likes saying ninja.

Featured image credit: Lets Graph

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