A movie drawing record numbers of Indonesians is not a Hollywood blockbuster, but a local love story that is tapping national religious pride in the world’s most populous Muslim nation.
For many, “Verses of Love” offers a remedy to Islam’s battered image following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, with the handsome, young protagonist trying to remain true to his faith as he watches his seemingly idyllic life crash down around him.
Despite his troubles, he manages to pass on gentle lessons about tolerance, corruption, women’s rights and interfaith relations.
“Nowadays many people associate Islam with terrorism and its tendency toward violence and war,” said Hanung Bramantyo, the 32-year-old director who has several other pop-religion projects in the pipeline. “I wanted to show Islam in a positive way. It is based on love, patience and sacrifice.”
The movie — which drew 2.9 million viewers in the first three weeks — follows the path of Fahri Abdullah Shiddiq, who goes to Egypt to study the Quran at the prestigious Al-Azhar University.
After enthusiastically taking part in his lessons, the 27-year-old struggles to choose a wife among four beautiful and distinctly different women. He eventually settles on the veiled, dark-eyed Aisha, who before long is pregnant.
Their picture-perfect life, however, is turned upside down after Fahri is falsely accused of rape, imprisoned and threatened with death by hanging. The only person who can prove his innocence is Maria, a close friend who is literally dying of a broken heart after learning about his marriage.
Desperate to save her husband, Aisha begs him to take Maria, a Coptic-Christian, as a second wife. He does so reluctantly and then struggles to be fair to both loves in practicing polygamy — which is accepted in Indonesia but remains hugely controversial.
“I hope this movie will help teach Muslims more about our faith and especially about the treatment of women,” said Ine Sudrajat, a 42-year-old housewife after leaving the packed theater at a plush shopping mall in central Jakarta with five friends.
Nina Triana, a 29-year-old accountant who went to the movie with her boyfriend, agreed.
“I liked it,” she said, heading to a nearby prayer room as crowds rushed past her. “It shows Islam is peaceful and teaches us to help each other, regardless of faith.”
“Ayat-ayat Cinta,” as the film is titled in Indonesian, is one of the first here to intertwine religion and popular culture on the big screen. Its release comes as many in the secular, democratic country of 235 million are longing for a spiritual revival after decades of dictatorship. The late President Suharto suppressed the dominant faith during his 32-year rule, which collapsed amid massive street protests in 1998.