A rabbi lived in a tiny room with no stools to sit on & a desk

that served as a bed at night. Anybody who came to visit,

had to sit on the ground or stand to talk. A visitor said,

‘Rabbi, where is your furniture?’ The rabbi said, ‘Where is

yours?’ The visitor replied, ‘I am only passing through.’

The rabbi replied, ‘So am I.’

The above story came to mind when I saw the last scene in the film Redha by Tunku Mona Riza. But, unfortunately, I cannot reveal what the scene is about as it would be a major spoiler! So go & see this great movie to catch what it is. It is a scene with a powerful ‘message’ that is extremely relevant to all of us, no matter what religion or creed we may belong to.

It is said that the word Islam means nothing less than the ‘true and complete surrender to the manifest will of the Divine Creator of us all’. ‘Redha’ is an Arabic word that can be translated as acceptance or surrender. To the ordinary Muslim, this means accepting & surrendering oneself to God’s decrees. However, for the Sufis (& other mystics), the first step on the path to self-realisation is to go beyond surrendering oneself to His decrees. It is surrendering oneself - only to Him. The short story of the rabbi is an Illustration of this form of acceptance of the nature of things by someone who has been ordained with - the Understanding - the kind that mystics of all religions try to attain to in their search for meaning in their lives. The true mystic listens to the voice of the Self within that unveils & not to the voice of the Ego that besmirches.

More than 2,500 years ago, the philosopher Aristotle opined that stories ‘are all about how men should live their lives.’ And throughout the centuries, every community in the world has had its own stories to tell. Good stories – then & now – always had something profound to impart. And most of the time, it was aimed at telling men to look deeper & discover within themselves, their (true & one) purpose in life. This is articulated in Iranian & Japanese films, albeit very obliquely. This is because the main intent of the filmmaker is to tell a story that entertains, not to teach. Iranian films are not like Hollywood films that are made with the intention to make money. Instead, it is to contribute positively to society & in this, can be seen the echoes of Aristotle’s words. One of the remarkable films that I have seen where the discovery of the inner self is being imparted is in Majid Majidi’s The Song of Sparrows (2009). The milieu of this film, like that of Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953), is the city. But while Ozu speaks of the city bringing about the degeneration of human values, Sparrows shows that spiritual realization can also be found in the city. Majidi raises the kind of questions visually that a Sufi master would pose orally to a student who is on the path to self-realisation.  

In Sparrows, a hard-working father, Kareem, does everything possible for the welfare of his family. The loss of an ostrich at his working place results in him being fired from his job. A trip to the city to get a hearing aid for his daughter results in him discovering unexpected ways of making money. He, however, does not forget his religious obligations & performs the noon prayer outside the gate of a rich man. The rich man, about to leave his house in his car, is nonplussed & waits for him to finish his prayers. Not only that, he goes back to the house, returns with a glass of water & places it near the praying man with respect. (Perhaps, in his mind, Kareem could be a saint who has manifested himself.) In this scene, Majidi provides a signifier – that Kareem is not your ordinary man (even though he doesn’t know it himself. In Arabic, ‘kareem’ means generous or noble). Kareem has been chosen for self-discovery. The final scene of the film confirms this. Through editing & in separate shots, it is as if he is looking at the lost ostrich, which performs a strange dance in front of him, almost as if it was paying homage to him. It is as if it is saying to him: “Did you think I was just an ostrich, you silly man?”  

If not for the ostrich disappearing, Kareem would not have been fired; he would not have gone to the city & fallen into a lucrative new line of work. The allure of the city begins to take its hold on Kareem & he starts to lose sight of what matters most. Another important signifier of his destiny for self-disclosure is the sight of the tears of his young son & his friends when the fish they were lovingly carrying, splatter onto the road & then are carried away by the waters of a drain that they fall into.  The words of Jesus come to mind: “Suffer, little children. Forbid them not to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” It points not to children but to adults whose hearts need to be like those of children. Only then can there be a salvation for them. All of Majid Majidi’s films invariably feature children. But that is only the foreground story (the text). For his background story (subtext), Majidi uses dramatic irony by the depiction of children & their innocence & he contrasts them with adults who are estranged from the world of the children. Majidi guides the audience to see children as being pure in heart & single-minded. In the process, he poses a question as to how, when we grow up to be adults, we lose all that innocence & naivete which were already innate in all of us. By facing up to & discovering these things in one’s trials & tribulations, we could live our life a lot easier & especially in today’s chaotic world. At the same time (as for Kareem), it would lead us to attain an understanding of our higher, spiritual state. 

A parallel can be seen in the story, characters & intent of Majidi’s The Song of Sparrows & Tunku Mona’s Redha. In Sparrows, children are totally captivated by their desire to rear fish while the father of one of them is too absorbed with his working life. In Redha, an autistic son is immersed in his own (mental) world while his father is too preoccupied with managing a resort. At the close of the story, both fathers are seen to have been given divine guidance. For such fathers, whose hearts have now come to the level of that of (their) children, the reward will, undoubtedly, be Paradise:  

“Your wealth and your children are only a trial. And Allah – with Him

is a great reward.” (Al-Qur’an, 64:15). 

Redha was inspired by Tunku Mona’s close friend’s child, who has autism. After being introduced to other parents of kids with autism, she went into production on the film. All the scenes are authentic because they are based on true experiences. The story is about Danial (Harith Haziq), a 6-year-old boy with autism & the resulting challenges he faces with his father, Razlan (Nam Ron) who works at an island resort & mother, Alina (Jun Lojong). Involved with them are Alina’s sister, Shasha (Nadiya Nisaa), Mak Jah (Ruminah Sidek), who also works at the resort, Katrina (Susan Lankaster), Alina’s friend from the city & Azim (Remy Ishak), a swimming instructor who comes to holiday at the resort & goes on to play a key role in training Danial.  

Redha will obviously be an inspiration for parents who have autistic children but filmgoers need to look beyond the subject of autism to discover what the story is really about. In the Bible, it is said: “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3-4). Inspirational writer & author, Lailah Gifty Akita says of herself that in deep suffering, “I got to know divinity within my soul.” The key words here are ‘hope’ & ‘divinity’. For Razlan, there was anxiety, tension & desperation at first at the way the world looked upon his son & his affliction. There was hope but he did not see it due to his stifled anger. Mak Jah was gentle with Danial; so was Azim, who instead of enjoying his holiday at the resort, took it upon himself to play with Danial. Even the female cleaner at the petrol station was sympathetic with Alina when Danial wet himself in the office floor. The situation made Alina understand that she was not alone when the cleaner said that she, too, had an autistic child. Shasha became a confidante & helper even though she had her own life to lead. Katrina & her city friends, though apprehensive at first, also became sympathetic & helpful.  And when Razlan makes the momentous decision to go to the city to help Danial cope with his autism, the resort owner offers any help possible. Like Kareem in Sparrows, Razlan has no problems with those around him. And like Kareem, his biggest obstacle was - his attitude. But this failure to come to terms with the problem of Danial – that it had to be confronted; that it should not drag him down – has instead, help him to discover who he really was inside.

This is what the final scene of the film tells us. In this scene, Tunku Mona makes us relook at ourselves. If we were in Razlan’s shoes, how would we have reacted? Living in today’s world is problematic enough, but an autistic son creates more problems as he needs constant supervision. It would be beyond an ordinary person’s capabilities. The film philosopher, Andre Bazin said that the cinema screen was like a window through which we spy upon the lives of others that reflects our own lives. The Indonesian director, Teguh Karya, said that to him, cinema was about putting the audience onto the screen. If any of the characters reflected our own selves, he as a director, would have done his job well. Which character, then, would we identify with among those in Redha? Would it be Razlan - or his wife, Alina? Or would we see ourselves among the negative characters who were upset with Danial’s behavior & thought that he was ‘crazy’? Or would we be among some of the nameless people in the audience at the end of the film who harmonise with Danial in the swimming competition & connect with his problem?

For a film like this with its subject of autism, above average performances from the actors is a sine qua non. And, remarkably, every one of the actors succeed in delivering some of the finest performances I have seen in Malaysian cinema. In particular, there were outstanding performances from two fine, young actors, Harith Haziq (Danial as a child) & Izzyreef (Danial as a teenager). Film is about make-believe but there is no make-believe about their ‘autistic’ acting. They were indeed autistic.  Tunku Mona has shown that she is not just a director but she is also an actors’ director. Her sure hand in all aspects of production is also obvious. Production design, art direction, cinematography, editing & sound all come together effortlessly to create a cinematic work that is of international stature. The resulting gestalt (form) is what makes Redha a satisfying watch.

Tunku Mona’s debut as a feature film director is truly impressive but more than that, she can rest assured that with the story of Redha, she has joined the company of the group of people who are contributing to society by “inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right & forbidding what is wrong (Al-Qur’an, 104:3). As a creative storyteller, she has created an entertaining story for the masses, one that is easy to comprehend. Redha resonates with an archetypal story (family), with archetypal images (the sea as the origin of life) & of unavoidable, modern living (the city). Archetypal stories are about the physical or emotional journeys that we all take in our lives. In the words of the psychologist, Carl Jung: 

“The creative process…..consists in the unconscious activation of an archetypal

image….. By giving it shape, the artist translates it into the language of the present

& so makes it possible for us to find our way back to the deepest springs of life.”

If the audience is able to see this - that in the sacrifices of Razlan & his wife ultimately bring about hope & the realization that life must go on no matter what - then Tunku Mona’s personal sacrifice & years of hard work in realising this film would have been worth it. And in the process, like Kareem & Razlan, she, too, would have discovered herself because she has put all her heart into it. It is something that we should learn from her efforts. In the words of the Buddha: “Your work is to discover your work & then with all your heart give yourself to it.” After all, in this life, we are just passing through (again with reference to the final scene in the film). And in the short time we have in this world, we should strive to be of benefit to family, friends, community & nation - & whoever needs our help, bringing hope & hopefully, divinity. 

We need more filmmakers like Tunku Mona Riza. She is among the new breed of cinematic storytellers who are formulating a new direction for Malaysian cinema, which itself, is slowly coming out of its own ‘autism’.

(POSTSCRIPT: For those who are on the path to self-disclosure, both films will help you to reach what is known as - the Understanding. All Majid Majidi’s films are like a modern version of Jalaludin Rumi’s Mathnavi, becoming entertaining stories but being very cryptic in their meaning. The Song of Sparrows itself is like a Sufi treatise with many indexes scattered throughout the film that offer a guide to comprehend the Self through simple, everyday occurrences. Truly, cinema is spiritual. And Majid Majidi is delivering it to us!).

Written by: Hassan Abd. Muthalib, Film Critics.

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