Caliphate review: Women take centre stage in this gripping terrorism, espionage drama

Wilhelm Behrman’s terrorism drama is an eye opener for the vulnerable Muslims who succumb easily to terror propaganda

Rating: 3.5 / 5

Web series [Swedish] – Netflix

Creator: Wilhelm Behrman

Caliphate [2020]

By Mayur Lookhar

“Why does he [Allah] turn his back on me? I pray, and I pray but he just turns his back on me,” a teary Husam [Amed Bozan] tells his wife Pervin [Gizem Erdogan].  The Islamic State terrorist has been picked for a suicide attack, but he wants to live.  Husam’s emotional breakdown occurs in the final episode of Caliphate [2020], but you wonder, how many terrorists experience such thoughts before they embark on a suicidal mission?

The man is now reluctant but that perhaps wasn’t the case when thousands like Husam left their home country to pursue their misplaced faith in ideologies of terror organisations like the Islamic State. The radical indoctrination fools many in buying into the non-existent theories of jannat [heaven], ‘will-of-God’.  Husam and Pervin, perhaps second generation migrants [through asylum] from Sweden left their simple lives in pursuit of jannat, but only to realize they’ve walked into hell at ISIS bastion Raqqa, Syria.

Netflix and competitors are currently gripped by terror. But the Swedish web series Caliphate [Kalifat in Arabic] is no cliched terrorism, espionage drama.  Creator Wilhelm Behrman draws our attention to the indoctrination of vulnerable Muslims by terror groups.   What separates Caliphate [2020] from the rest? Here is an unconventional drama where it is the women who take centre stage.  

Gizem Erdogan

All that lead protagonist Pervin wants is to get back to Sweden with her little child. Her only ray of hope is Fatima [Aliette Opheim], a rogue Swedish cop of Bosnian origin.  Then we have the third generation Muslim youth from Sweden – Chechnya origin Kerima [Amanda Sohrabi] and the siblings Sulle [Nora Rios] and Lisha [Yussra El Abdouni].  Often it is perceived that the poor Muslims are ripe for indoctrination, but Caliphate [2020] reminds us that the urban Muslim, too, is equally vulnerable to religious propaganda. 

We are increasingly living in a world where it’s not difficult to sow seeds of hatred, enmity between communities. Behrman’s evil here is no mad Mullah, but a classy, soft-spoken English speaking man.  Ibrahim Haddat a.k.a Ibbe [Lancelot Ncube] operates under the name of George working in a Christian social group in Sweden.  Ibbe uses racism against Muslims in Western countries to corrupt the minds of Sulle, Lisha and Kerima.

Westerners, Israelis, and now Indians too, are busting terror asses in films/series but they are often criticized for spreading Islamophobia.  But here is a Swedish language web series where it is no Christian, Jew striking down on the radical Islamists, but the principal character in position of authority are Muslims. – Fatima and her dubious boss Nadir [Arvin Kananian] who surprisingly heads the Security Service.  (Sweden’s social, leftist coalition government wouldn’t complain though)

The onus of busting the terror module lies in the hands Fatima but it’s not done through your usual slam bang action.  Having been sidelined by her own, Fatima has a grave task to not only foil the terror attacks, but also ensure Pervin and her child’s safe return to Sweden.   Be it Fatima, Dolores [Monica Albornoz] – George’s colleague at the charity, or Pervin, it’s the women who lead the charge.  The lone help for Fatima comes from Calle [Albin Grenholm]. Calle though is happy to take the back seat. 

One of the most defining moments of Caliphate is when two girls are saved in the nick of time and sent back home to Sweden.  Often in such a scenario, the men in authority would normally be tough against erring gullible youth. The two girls, too, feel that they would be treated harshly by the Christian Swedish cops.  It is here that Caliphate wins praise for not preaching sense but pleading the ignorant young minds to shun evil ideologies. It’s also reflection of Sweden’s tolerant, pluralist culture.

Yussra El Abdouni, Nora Rios (C) , Amanda Sohrabi

 While many refugees, asylum seekers escape the brutality, injustice in their home country but it’s no bed of roses when they seek refuge in Western countries. The cultural clash carries a risk of alienation, racism.  

Sulle and Lisha’s parents are an interesting case. They’ve adapted to the Western culture and shunned regressive Wahhabist ideologies.  Suleiman [Simon Mezher] is stunned and livid to see his daughter Sulle wearing a hijab.  Wearing a hijab is a personal choice, but that’s not how he had raised his daughters.  His attempts to force his daughter to toe the line only alienates him from them. It’s the mother Tuba [Ala Riani] who gently tells the girls to shun the regressive practices]. “That was written thousands of years ago, you don’t have to do it now ,” a concerned Tuba tells her daughter (Sulle) who called her parents kafir [infidel]. Very subtly Behrman tells Muslims to not treat every word in the Quran as the word of Allah.

An unconventional terror, espionage drama where the women are at the forefront of the action. The action though doesn’t involve too many guns.  Feminists could cry hoarse over cinema reserving action genre for men. We’ve had the super women, feisty female combatants, but women don’t need to ape men to take a stand against terror or crime. Compassion, sacrifice is more powerful than blazing guns or super powers.  Behrman’s women protagonists use the humane qualities in carrying their tasks. Even Sulle and Lisha are lured into Islamic State trap for they show compassion towards oppressed Muslims.  While Pervin, Fatima, Dolores use it constructively, the impressionable young minds use it for their own self destruction.

Caliphate sends the message of humanity above faith.  It’s driven by competent acts, led by the brilliant Gizem Erdogen.  Fear often gives strength to a person to absorb the pain and fight to wriggle oneself out of a tricky situation. Erdogan is natural at carrying the worried look throughout.  Your reviewer  is exposed to all this talent for first time and  each of them are very impressive. Young Nora Rios, Amanda Sohrabi and Yussra El Abdouni give power packed performances.

Amed Bozan in Caliphate [2020]

The women lead the charge, but the male cast lends great support. Amed Bozan is almost child-like in his fears.  In an early episode, Husam is shivering after hearing the sound of the incoming drone attack, pleading his unmoved colleagues to run and escape.  Often one would perceive terrorists to be cold men who swear by the false propaganda.  Husam perhaps beats that image and his panic stricken face is a reminder to all impressionable youth that joining terror groups is no heaven but a hell.

Aliette Opheim

For much of its eight episodes, it’s the women running the show but the bizarre events in the end leaves one character insignificant. While logic is thrown to explain the unexpected twist, but it robs the woman of her glory. Honestly, feminists would find it a bit sexist, but creatively too, this twist does some damage to Caliphate. The fear factor surrounding the impending terror attacks is crushed in a matter of few minutes.  

Though noble in its intent, a Caliphate will give ammunition to those who are not comfortable with granting asylum to Muslim immigrants/refugees.  Even they [refugees] would hope that the West doesn’t stereotype them.

Netflix has its share of terror dramas, which were increasingly becoming monotonous. A Caliphate is another terror, espionage drama, but it helps Netflix to break free from its set template. Hard hitting, gripping but it offers a viewer a refreshing experience.  Here are women at the forefront in a terrorism drama, but they are not emulating the super men with guns, but with compassion and sacrifice.  Any caliphate that suppresses human freedom is no caliphate at all. There is no jannat, but only hell for such oppressors.  Wilhelm Behrman’s Caliphate is an sincere appeal to the impressionable Muslim youth to shun the evil call of terrorism.

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