February 5, 2013 By K Shabin Muhammed

Does the Big Screen Miss the Prophet?

big screenLove and respect for the Prophet is part of the faith of Islam. There are so many representations of the Prophet in art and literature that it takes a voluminous space to chronicle them all. Resistance to the musical and literary representations from the Muslim orthodoxy has never been as vociferous as it has been to the visual representations. Though Jesus Christ has been essayed on screen many times- Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of the Christ and Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ are two remarkable examples-we can number the times the cinematograph got going on Prophet Muhammad. However, there are worthy exceptions to the rule. This is a retrospect as well as prospect about the cinematic portrayal of Prophet Muhammad.

In 1976, Moustapha Akkad made the Message, artistically brilliant and true portrayal of the Prophet. In the film Akkad could skillfully sidestep the cinematographic techniques of his era. Nowhere in the film does the Prophet appear; nor do we hear him speak for that matter. Though the film did not ruffle the feathers of Muslim orthodoxy, the Muslim World League of Mecca, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait strongly objected it. Al Azhar in Egypt supported the film, which was later financed by Libya and Morocco. Muammar Gadhafi provided a huge financial aid for the film. Ace Hollywood actors Anthony Quinn and Irene Papas essayed the role of Prophet’s uncle Hamza and Hind respectively. The whole tale of a reckless, anarchic Arabian society being reformed by the Prophet’s message is narrated in the film from the perspective of Hamza. The major battles are so elegantly portrayed in the film that one does not see the bloodshed during the battles and the significance of the events in the life of Prophet Muhammad. The cinematography of Said Baker and Jack Hildyard was also noted.

Moustapha Akkad is more famous in the Hollywood for the Halloween series that he produced after making Lion of the Desert, a biopic on acclaimed Libyan warrior Omar Mukhtar than the Message. However, the Message is believed by a majority of Muslims to be an accurate portrayal of their faith. However, certain section of the orthodoxy was violent in their attitude towards him. Akkad was killed in a bomb explosion orchestrated by the al-Qaeda at a hotel in Jordan in 2005. It was the end of a great artist who took up the challenge to bring the Prophet on screen.

In 2002, three years before Akkad was killed, the Prophet appeared again on the screen. Muhammad: The Last prophet (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vx_q7CeoUiM) is an animation movie directed by Richard Rich under the banner of Badar International Corporation. Brought out in the US, the film was widely celebrated as a novel take on the life of the Prophet. The film aimed to introduce the life of the Prophet and Islam. The style and narration of film was based on the ones of The Message. The prophet in the film is the point of view of the camera. The film dodged controversy by brilliantly exploiting the potentials of animation cinematography.

In the very same year, the US saw the production of Muhammad: The Legacy of a Prophet (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kYl3QJDts7Y), a documentary made by Michael Schwarz, Alex Kronemer and Michael Wolfe. The film, which it took three years to be made, passes through the life of the Prophet and the history of Islam. The focus of the film is the influence that the life of the Prophet exerts on the life of the people in the whole world. The documentary features Syed Hussein Nasr, Karen Armstrong, Muhammad Zakariya, Michael Wolfe etc. The documentary could introduce the Prophet to the west and create awareness about the history of Islam.

Barrie M. Osborne, who produced the celebrated Hollywood flicks, has once declared that he would make a movie on the Prophet. People came out in support as well as in protest against the movie. In his article in Guardian, Shahed Amanullah, editor-in-chief of www.altmuslim.com, expressed his doubt if a commercial film director could recreate a classic like the Message and opined that he could otherwise focus on personalities like Ibn Battutta, Jalauddin Rumi and Mulla Nasrudheen if he really meant spreading the message of Islam.

Moustapha Akkad did not think of remaking the Message in tune with the revolutionary changes in the filmmaking technology. He was rather interested in adding to the visual chronicle on Islam with films on the Crusades and Saladin. He was in the final stage of finishing the script, when he was killed. That Akkad did not wish to remake the movie was confirmed by Oscar Zoghbi, who has worked with Akkad.

Now all eyes have turned to Majid Majidi, the ace Iranian filmmaker known for Children of Heaven. Majidi has once declared that he was going to make a film on the childhood of Prophet Muhammad.  Majidi broke the news about his new film after receiving Ibn Arabi medal in Murcia, Spain. The film will be produced as of next July in Persian, Arabic and English. The main locations will be Iran and a few north African countries. Mohammad Mehdi Heidarian is producer. A decade ago, he was deputy minister of culture and Islamic guidance for cinema and this will be his first experience in production. Majidi has worked three years on the screenplay in cooperation with Kambozia Partovi. In November 2012, Majidi reportedly requested permission from the government of India to shoot the film in Rajasthan. Sources have reportedly said that on account of the sensitivity of the subject, Majidi may not be granted permission.

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