There’s much for Fikri Jermadi to unpack from the disappointment and incredulity that is seen in ‘Ayat-Ayat Cinta 2’.
‘Ayat-Ayat Cinta 2’ is a popular film, one that has been well-received in both Malaysia and Indonesia. I am also incredibly tempted to describe it as a stupid film, one which contradicts much of itself and those it apparently represents. After the film’s synopsis, these remaining paragraphs will be filled with spoilers, and given the ultra-critical perspective I am bringing to the table here, if you haven’t seen the film or if you wish to maintain a happy idea about it, please stop reading now.
As this film begins, the story continues from the first. Fahri (Fedi Nuril) is no longer the bright-eyed, idealistic student i n Egypt, but a grown man, lecturing at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. However, he is without his wife Aisha, who went missing many months ago on a volunteer effort in Palestine. Israeli bombing of the area led many to believe she is dead, a notion Fahri does not agree with. As such, he continues to live and serve his community the way Aisha would have wanted him to. Along the way, he is aided by Hulusi (Pandji Pragiwaksono), a Turkish man indebted to Fahri, and Misbah (Arie Untung), his recently-arrived friend in the city.
Not everyone likes him. Early in the film, Fahri sees his neighbour, Keira (Chelsea Islan), by the roadside, and offers her a lift home. This is in spite of Keira’s spite of him, seeing the Muslim Fahri as representative of the terrorists who killed her father in a terror attack. This is mirrored in Keira’s younger brother, Jason (Cole Gribble), while Catarina (Dewi Irawan), a Jewish senior citizen living on the same street, shares a similar enough viewpoint to believe Fahri was taking advantage of an intoxicated Brenda (Nur Fazura).
Then again, not everyone hates him, either. In fact, it appears that any woman with a working set of ovaries oscillating around him in the university is positively smitten by him. This includes Lynda (Millane Fernandez), the student from a class Fahri was a substitute teacher for, and Layla (Melayu Nicole Hall), a worker at a minimart Fahri owns (in addition to his rising academic star, our protagonist is also a budding entrepreneur in his own right). Both would express their interest through food made and baked for him. Sabina (Dewi Sandra), a veiled Muslim woman down on her luck, would also be of some culinary assistance, once Fahri decides to help her by taking her in as his domestic assistant.
None would come close to Hulya (Tatjana Saphira) and her tempe (and no, I am not speaking euphemistically, either). She is Aisha’s cousin, visiting Edinburgh with view to studying there, and rapidly ingratiates herself into Fahri’s social circles. However, despite the less-than-subtle suggestions by others, Fahri himself is still in love with Aisha, whom he believe to be alive. This is where the conflict arises, Fahri’s straight-laced character refusing to give in on this temp(e)tation island. Often, such tension is worked through a character’s flaw, but Fahri’s strength, an unstinting loyalty to a character whose very lack (in more ways than one) dominates the film, is his weakness, as we are led down this garden path of ‘will he, won’t he’ with Hulya.
Going beyond such romantic notions, I also mentioned how Fahri is seen by some (or many) as a representation of (the worst of) Islam. Beyond Jason and Keira, there were others who feel much of the same, ranging mildly from the aforementioned Catarina (who would change her mind soon enough) and some students briefly heckling him in class, to unnamed forces that would eventually force his transfer from the University of Edinburgh. Thus, perhaps there is a need for Fahri be that very Superman, going above and beyond the call of duty to all the members of his community. In that regard, the film does much to strip away a lot of the characteristics associated with this caricature, treating Fahri as a complex character in his own right.
It is a downright shame, therefore, that the film itself treats others with that very same broad stroke of reductionist and discriminatory brush. When the film opens in Palestine, with Israeli bombs raining down on the city, I tensed up a little bit. Such visual signifiers are usually signs of a very clear process of demonisation, and in the Islamic context (and, perhaps to be even more precise, in the Indonesian and Malaysian context), there are few boogeymen bigger than the Israeli Jew. I wondered how the filmmakers would treat this community, and by and large, I was disappointed not to be disappointed. Catarina aside, her son Baruch (Bront Palarae), a former Israeli soldier, is an absolute shitbag, kicking his mother out after having sold her house to pay for his gambling debts. Another example of this can be seen is Catarina’s fall in front of her synagogue. Fahri rushes to her assistance, but is pushed back by other Jewish men, who say they don’t need help from his kind. Allied with other evidence in the film, there emerges a very inconsistent picture, one so desperate for a paper victory over an other it will resort to desperate and desperately shallow caricatures to do so.
As an aside, I wondered how Malaysian audiences would take to Bront Palarae’s portrayal of a Jew in the film. Prior to its release, the media have trumpeted his involvement in a number of international (primarily Indonesian) films. Yet many moons ago, I remember a similar number of people being upset by Shah Rukh Khan (a Muslim) portraying Asoka (a non-Muslim character) in the eponymous Hindu epic. In more recent history, Israel’s activities have provoked such anger in Malaysia that even likes on social media can lead to greater castigation in the community. A brief search online has not really revealed much vitriol in that regard, and I want be believe that Malaysians are now more mature and aware with regards to the links between films, filmmaking and ideologies.
Perhaps it is because Baruch affirms much of the hegemonic stereotype of the Israeli Jew, seeing in kicking his own mother out of the house. In swoops our Superman, rescuing Catarina not only by offering her shelter, but also by purchasing the house Baruch had decided to sell. Now I begin to truly question Fahri’s level of affluence. Yes, he is a businessman with a growing number of minimarts at his disposal. Yes, he is teaching at a reputable university. Yet that does not, to my mind, explain the level of wealth showcased by his sometimes extravagant behaviour: maintaining a relatively big house of his own, retaining the services of a number of people working for him (including Hulusi), and now purchasing a house for Catarina.
This would extend to not only secretly paying for Keira’s violin lessons to be conducted by a renowned practitioner, he would also essentially ‘purchase’ her online. Fahri would discover how Keira intends to ‘sell herself’ herself for financial purposes. This came about because her father’s death had left family a little hard up on cash, so Fahri would pay people to ‘buy’ her online and treat her just harsh enough, so that she would be scarred by the episode and not resort to such activities in the future. The italics in that sentence is mine, highlighting not just another incredulity in this film, but also an inconsistency with Fahri’s behaviour and image thus far; while I understand his intention, doesn’t this actually border on some form of psychopathy? Isn’t this level of involvement in his neighbours’ lives more akin to Big Brother playing God, as opposed to a big brother in fear of one?
There is much that is nonsensical in this film, a notion compounded further by Baruch challenging him to a debate with his friend at the university. Fahri agrees, only on the condition that it is one that is scientific and knowledge-based in nature, as he disagrees with debates that seeks success by stirring emotions. Naturally, Fahri would emerge victorious in this academic debate precisely by that very pulling of heart strings, as Catarina wears hers on her sleeve by declaring loudly, “Fahri is my guardian angel!”
It was a very poor debate (when has a debate consisted only of a few lines between the actual debators?) on a number of different levels, but the biggest academic crime committed here is a deliberate misrepresentation of Samuel Huntington’s ideas. Huntington’s thesis, that the world has moved beyond the age of ideology to one that is predicated on conflict manifesting itself from cultural difference, is not without its controversy and criticism. Yet, even without necessarily agreeing with him, having read that concept for my own personal, professional and academic purposes, I would disagree with the idea that Huntington himself sought to divide the world with that very idea, as Fahri has grossly misrepresented here. Huntington’s view is primarily formed based on the world the way he sees it, rather than the way he wants it to be. Fahri, as an academic at the University of Edinburgh (and in the field of philology, no less), should have known far better.
What is likelier to have happened is that the scriptwriters, Alim Sudio and Ifan Ismail, probably did a brief Google search on “concepts which positioned Islam as the bad guy”, and, having come across Huntington’s idea (which did identify Islamic extremism as a key element of consideration, and which has been used by others as a form of justification), perhaps almost literally judged the book by its cover. Once again, this is an example of the film caricaturing others who caricature them. It is immature, amateurish and absolutely piss poor, betraying a lack of critical thinking, actual knowledge and common sense, making me comfortable in saying that in terms of film logic, ‘Ayat-Ayat Cinta 2’ is far worse than any I’ve ever made.
Neither am I done, ladies and gentlemen. Fahri has won the debate. He has shifted a lot of the opinion of his own community. His bosses at the university does not believe in claims of his links to Islamic terrorism. Yet they still decide to transfer him to the University of Oxford. I was confused by this. Was he being rid of because he is a Muslim? If so, why was he transferred to Oxford? Is it a promotion? Is it a miscarry of justice? If so, why did Fahri, who was so keen on fighting injustice on almost every front for practically everyone (who speaks at least some Indonesian in Scotland) he comes across in the film… is so meek in accepting it, even refusing the help of Hulya and others? If he is instead happy at being moved to Oxford (and, as an academic, who wouldn’t be!), why does he not seem all that satisfied or happy about it?
Another bone of contention I have is the film’s representation and treatment of women. This can be seen near the start of the film, in which between Fahri and a random college student (Nino Fernandez) engage in a predictably shallow tete-a-tete about how Islam apparently treats women. Putting aside a failure to include the cultural involvement in the manifestation of religious practices, Fahri’s point (as aided by Hulya) of how Islam respects women is then contradicted by his own insistence on Hulya (whom he has married by now) wearing the hijab, even when she is visibly hesitant to do so. This scene says “Islam respects you, but I don’t”, yet there are other scenes which contradict this statement and treatment of women as well. Many of them appear to be relatively well-educated, emancipated through a degree of financial power and are mature enough to be aware of what they think their purposes in life may be, yet all practically melt in the presence of Fahri. Hulya, Linda, Layla, and even Keira, would all betray subconscious patriarchal subjugations, suggesting that they are incomplete without a man (and Fahri, to be precise) as the husband in their life.
In particular, Keira and her virtuoso violin playing skills would bring her success on a television talent show. During the interview after her performance, and still oblivious to Fahri’s involvement, she speaks of a guardian angel (echoes of Catarina here) who paid for her violin lessons. She then declares that if the person is a woman, they would be sisters forever. “If it is a man,” she promises on national television, “I would marry him.” Whatever happened to the humble ‘thank you’? That question hangs in the air as, guided by her violin tutor, Keira would meet Fahri and Hulya in Oxford … and ask Fahri to take her as his wife, in front of his actual wife who is pregnant with their child! “Please don’t make me break my promise,” she cries, begging him as she is practically on her knees, all the while holding Hulya’s hands. What is wrong with this picture? And, if we are to use the term ‘picture’ in the same way many would describe films early in history, what is wrong with this picture? ‘Ayat-Ayat Cinta 2’ is a very confusing film, simply because it is so confused to begin with. This is a sequel released nine years after the original, yet it seems like nobody had spent time to actually proofread or fact check the script for simple common sense.
Thankfully, the two that escaped the same fate is Brenda and Sabina. Brenda is a somewhat minor character, underdeveloped primarily because hers is not a particularly important one, with the exception of elucidating further Hulya’s own insecurities. Accidentally bumping into Brenda leaving Fahri’s house early one morning, Hulya initially wanted to leave before eventually being soothed by Brenda’s proclamation. “I’m not your competition,” she says wisely. “It is his past that you have to deal with.”
That brings us to Sabina, the veiled domestic help who would be a great help indeed, especially in helping Sabina to become a good wife for Fahri by teaching her about how he likes things to be done… because she is none other than Aisha, Fahri’s long-lost wife who had come back and not revealed herself in the hope that her husband, who was still madly in love with her and would refuse the attention of others because he believed she is still alive, would move on and marry someone else who happens to be her cousin! There is a scene, in which Aisha runs back to the house during Fahri’s wedding to Hulya, and she looks on at the pictures of Fahri and her on the wall, and takes out her violin that she would once play so eloquently, all while dramatic music on the soundtrack envelopes. Yet I was laughing out loud in the cinema, simply because all that was so completely unnecessary had Aisha revealed herself to Fahri a lot earlier.
A meek justification was offered, in the scene as Catarina (still living with Fahri at this point) would discover Aisha’s identity (and agree to keep it a secret). Having been captured in Palestine by Israeli soldiers (one of whom is Baruch!), she was threatened with rape, and decided to disfigure her face and physically violate herself to the extent that even that shitbag Baruch would not force himself on her. Yet in spite of all this, she managed to make it all the way back to Scotland (not exactly next door to the Middle East), get home, and… deceive her husband, who has demonstrated time and again the purity of his love for her (not only in this film, but also in the previous one), having never judged her based on physical appearance and apparent imperfections. I laugh, therefore, because she herself had selfishly lied to him (there must be something in Islam about this, right?), yet now, in playing the violin, carries an air of “What have I done?” Pathetic.
The discovery of her identity, however, is not the final twist. That comes from the secret agreement between Hulya and Aisha. After being stabbed by a villain from the first film, Hulya’s condition is critical (though thankfully the baby is fine), and they work out a deal: if she dies, Aisha gets her face. You read that right: it is ‘Face/Off’ come to life. Once again, I cackle with laughter, and this time I was not the only one. I am reminded of ‘Heart’, another Indonesian film with a similar ending, and this one is no less ridiculous. I am not sure how this fits with Islam (perhaps there is a fatwa somewhere allowing for people’s faces to be transferred to another this), but ‘Ayat-Ayat Cinta 2’ has now veered far off its path of being a sequel to the catalyst of Islamic cinema in the region, becoming a parody of itself showing more of science fiction than signs of religion.
It is a pity, for the first film, in spite of its imperfections I had laid out here, is one that had captured the hearts of many. Yet, though its sequel may do the same by virtue of its popularity, I fear it has lost its mind in losing the minds of others. This is a film that speaks of Islam respecting women, yet represents many of its own as little more than unthinking romantic fodder for its male protagonist. It seems like it has a more global perspective, but it betrays a mentality more tribal than anything else. A big part of it is set in seats of academia, yet it deliberately, damagingly and dimwittedly misrepresents ideas from it. It advocates for a more critical reading beyond stereotypes, yet it relies precisely on stereotyping others for its own cheap thrills.
In short, it’s an Honest Trailer waiting to happen.
We reviewed the first film here.
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