Film review: ‘Alif’ is a tedious lesson about the need for secular education

Zaigham Imam’s second feature is shoddily directed and poorly acted.

Alif Movie

Zaigham Imam’s Alif is as well-meaning as his debut film. In the Varanasi-set Dozakh In Search of Heaven (2015), the son of a Muslim cleric earns the wrath of his father for participating in a Ram Leela stage production. Imam returns to Varanasi to continue his mission of preaching modernity and tolerance to his community. The reformist-minded Alif emphasises the need for secular education for Muslim children.

A ghetto mentality has pushed Alif (Saud Mansuri), the son of traditional doctor Raza (Danish Hussain), into being educated at a madrasa rather than a regular school. Enlightenment appears in the form of Zahra (Neelima Azim), Raza’s older sister from Pakistan. She insists that Raza enroll Alif in an English-medium school so that he has a shot at becoming a doctor. The meek and submissive Raza does so without questioning the wisdom of pushing a child into a classroom mid-year.

It’s hardly a surprise that Alif is ineffective at school, since he knows little beyond the verses of the Koran. An evil teacher slaps Alif around with impunity, attracting only dismayed looks from the principal rather than a sack order. An expendable sub-plot involves Alif’s cousin, who loses her heart to a kohl-eyed cleric whose entry sequence mistakenly set him up as a rugged version of Salman Khan.

Extremely loud and incredibly broad, Alif stumbles over themes handled far more sensitively by such films as Garm Hava and Mammo. The theatrical acting and inept handling of scenes stretches on for 120 minutes, and the larger issues that the movie tries to tackle fall by the wayside. The Muslim question is more important now than ever before, but Alif is incapable of approaching the debate with nuance or imagination.

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