JAKARTA (Reuters) - An Indonesian film seeking to shatter religious stereotypes and show the compassionate face of Islam has become one of the biggest blockbuster hits in the world's most populous Muslim nation.
More than three million people, including President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and top government officials, have flocked to cinemas to watch Ayat Ayat Cinta (Verses of Love), an Islamic romance released in the middle of January.
The movie deals with a host of sensitive issues such as Islam's treatment of women and multiple marriages through the story of Fahri Abdullah Shiddiq, an Indonesian graduate student at Egypt's Al-Azhar University, and his struggle to deal with life's problems through Islamic teachings.
Film-maker Hanung Bramantyo, 33, who has won two Citra awards, Indonesia's equivalent of the Oscars, says his mission is to present Islam as a tolerant and peaceful religion.
"I wanted to tell a story about Islam from a universal point of view," Bramantyo told Reuters at his modest office tucked in a narrow South Jakarta street.
"I want to tell my audience that there are people who are hip, fashionable and capable of socializing but at the same time do things in an Islamic way," he said.
"I believe Islam is compassionate. Some people say to struggle for Islam means doing something great, but for me a love story can also carry Islamic messages."
Yudhoyono, who watched the film at an upmarket cinema with his family and 80 foreign ambassadors and diplomats, said the film was inspiring.
"I had to wipe my tears several times. It drives home the message," Yudhoyono said after watching the film.
Yudhoyono's spokesman called the film an "antithesis" to a video accusing the Koran of inciting violence, made by Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders and released on the Internet last week.
Wilders' film "Fitna" (an Arabic term sometimes translated as "strife") intersperses images of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and Islamist bombings with quotations from the Koran, Islam's holy book.
Ayat Ayat Cinta, based on a best-selling novel by Indonesian novelist Habiburrahman El Shirazy, is a break from the usual crop of horror and teen films in Indonesia, where the film industry has seen a massive resurgence in recent years.
It also taps into the growing popularity of Islamic cultural products such as music, films and books since the 1998 fall of former President Suharto, who in his 32-year authoritarian rule repressed some strands of Islam.
Ayat Ayat Cinta, set in Egypt but shot in Central Java and India, is regarded as the most successful film combining Islam and popular culture so far.
"I think we should be grateful because the success of Ayat Ayat Cinta shows that to be profitable, a film doesn't have to contain sex and ghosts," Ade Armando, a communications expert said on an Internet discussion forum.
Some viewers, however, have criticized the film because they believe it promotes polygamy, which is not uncommon in Indonesia itself but is frowned upon by many, especially in the educated urban elite.
Ayat Ayat Cinta is the story of the handsome and intelligent protagonist, Fahri, who has to choose a wife from four different and attractive women who fall in love with him.
He eventually marries Aisha, a veiled Turkish-German student, but soon their life is shattered as he is jailed after falsely being accused of rape and facing death by hanging.
Maria, a Coptic-Christian Egyptian, is the only one who can
prove Fahri's innocence, but she is dying of a broken heart after learning of his marriage.
Aisha begs him to take Maria as a second wife so he can revive her from a coma and testify in his favor.
Bramantyo, who has eight silver-screen films under his belts, says he plans is to make an extended version of Ayat Ayat Cinta for the international market.
"Muslims don't just talk about heaven and hell, or about life in the hereafter, but they can also talk about love, about falling in love at the first sight," he said.
Editing by Sugita Katyal