Alif movie review: A well-meaning film on an Indian Muslim tragedy, ruined by poor quality
Director: Zaigham Imam
Alif is the story of a Muslim boy torn between tradition and evolution, the cliquishness of his own people and prejudice from the majority community.
The film kicks off in Varanasi where we discover that little Ali's dad had, decades earlier, forced his sister to go to Pakistan, fearing for her safety during the post-Partition riots. Zehra discovers on going there that the evil her family sought to save her from is no less in the new country. Much later when she returns to India as an older woman, she persuades her brother to pull Ali out of a madrasa and send him to a modern school where he will get a modern education.
What follows is an exploration of the brutal politics that kept her away from her motherland all these decades, and Ali's simultaneous struggles against a hate-filled teacher in his new school while his father is reviled by the local Muslim leadership who fear a loss of their hold over the community if others too are inspired to quit madrasas.
The basic storyline has the potential to be turned into a heart-wrenching film. Zehra's anguish, Ali's innocence and trauma, his father's pain — how can a viewer not be moved seeing it all? The story at the heart of the film certainly has emotional heft. It is ruined, however, by inept direction, inadequate writing, jerky editing, amateurish cinematography and pathetic quality all around.
Alif draws its title from the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. The name is an indicator of the film’s goal to promote education among Muslims and to build awareness about Muslims among the larger populace. Sadly, Alif does a disservice to its own aims with its low standards. At one point, for instance, it fails to explain the meaning of a religious pennant that gets confused with a flag of Pakistan at a crucial juncture in the narrative.
The redeeming factors in the film are the guileless conversations between Ali and his close friend played by Mohammad Saud and Ishaan Kaurav who seem to have acting potential that is worthy of being explored. Their sweetness and the poignancy that pervade their child-like chatter elicit smiles and the occasional tear. Neelima Azeem as Ali's aunt is wasted in the film — she tries, but her natural ease before the camera is overshadowed by the unsatisfactory writing. The rest of the cast is a mixed bag that includes some seriously lousy actors.
Alif is proof, if any were needed, that good intentions need good writing, good direction and good production values to be translated into a good film. This is an important story. It just needs to be told in a better film.
Footnote: My rating for this film is a 0.5 star. Do excuse me for the one star showing at the start of this review. Our software does not display anything less than a full star. It is a pity that so many films deserve less.