Saturday Features

An illusion of harmony

  • Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk is a moving, timely examination of the persistence of prejudice against Muslims…but though it speaks specifically of India’s experiences with communal tensions, it’s a phenomenon we know that transcends borders

Aug 18, 2018-

Coming from a writer-director whose previous credits had been limited to middling action/romcom fare—including the ineffective Shah Rukh Khan-as-superhero flick Ra.One from 2011—the new drama Mulk is a pleasant surprise, bearing little similarity to Anubhav Sinha’s earlier efforts. Mulk is a moving, timely examination of the dogged persistence of prejudice against Muslims in India. Though it speaks specifically of India’s experiences of growing communal tensions and intolerance towards minorities in recent times, it’s a phenomenon that we know transcends that country’s borders—we’re seeing versions of it at home, elsewhere in the region, all over the world, really. And while the film isn’t always especially subtle in its approach to the subject, frequently verging on preachy, it also thankfully never goes over the edge and so stays believable throughout—for which it owes a major debt to a fantastic group of actors, including Taapsee Pannu, Manoj Pahwa, and Rishi Kapoor, who breathe life and love into their characters.

Advocate Murad Ali Mohammed (Kapoor) is something of a fixture in this corner of Varanasi, where his family has lived for generations. Although his son has been at him to move to the UK for a change of pace and scenery, Murad refuses to uproot himself for practicality’s sake—this is where he grew up, where he raised his own children, where he has friends, Hindu and Muslim alike, whom he hits up for some early morning tea and chitchat, and plies with his special korma, on the regular. This is home.

But that seemingly harmonious idyll is about to be shattered: Murad’s nephew Shahid (Prateik Babbar) has been recruited by a terrorist group and is eventually incited into a terrible deed from which there is no return. It’s a nightmare that comes to engulf the entire family, who find themselves under suspicion of aiding and abetting the young man in his heinous quest, and are soon hounded by the law, vilified by the media and ostracised in society. When neighbours and friends he had known and welcomed into his home all his life turn their backs on him—so very quick to believe the worst—Murad realises just how fragile these bonds had been all along, how the seeds of mistrust might have always been there, waiting to burst at the slightest provocation. 

Much of the remainder of the film unfolds in the courtroom, where time and again, Murad and his family must reiterate and insist that their religion, the lengths of their beards or burqas, has nothing to do with their loyalties to the nation—“How is one supposed to prove love?” he asks desperately at one point. They are pitted against a ruthless prosecutor (played by Ashutosh Rana) who is out to convince the gallery that violence and terrorism—rather than criminal aberrations—are actually inherent elements of the Muslim belief system. Shahid’s case, then, he argues, is not anomalous, and can’t be considered in isolation—it’s symptomatic of what he believes is the broader, deeply unpatriotic bent of an entire community.

Mulk is a bold choice for a filmmaker—this sort of thing, after all, can be a real minefield to navigate, especially at a time when controversies and calls for censorship can break out willy-nilly over the most minute details of a film. Of course, Sinha has been very strategic in his approach, determined not to give offense—not directly anyway—to any group in particular; even though there are scattered references to fake Whatsapp stories, communal fear-mongering as an election strategy, and glimpses of saffron mobs, who or what is never explicitly stated. But we know.

The film does tend to hammer in its points a bit too vigorously on occasions. Rana’s character, reeking of over-simplification, epitomises this: although the actor certainly appears to be having a ball of a time playing the sneering courtroom jester, and though it is entertaining watching him chomp up all the scenery in sight, is too one-dimensional, a caricature more than anything.

But this is not always the case: Mulk does well, for instance, in detailing the daily goings-on and interactions in Murad’s household—a few stray Muslim stereotypes not withstanding—and establishing the affection that runs through this family. Thereby making their eventual trials and humiliation all the more painful to witness. The initial camaraderie out-of-doors is just as charmingly depicted, but Sinha laces these scenes with sly hints at potential faultlines under the happy surface: One where a Hindu neighbour at one of the Mohammeds’ shindigs turns down the offer of snacks from another guest, saying, “We don’t eat their food,” is especially telling, for example.

Another example of fine writing in Mulk is the character of Murad’s brother Bilal, played by Pahwa, who creates a touching portrait of a devastated, guilt-ridden father torn between mourning his son and proving his own innocence. Even though the veteran Kapoor is the grimacing heart of this story, it is Pahwa who steals the show. And close on his heels is Pannu; in her first return to the court after 2016’s Pink—except this time, on the other side of the stand—the actress serves up a slow burner of a performance as Shahid’s sister-in-law, a Hindu who, as an advocate herself, is tasked with defending Murad’s family in the case. Pannu communicates to great effect the sheer weight of responsibility placed on her shoulders, and her status as both outsider and insider.

Yes, Mulk could’ve benefitted from a touch of subtlety, including in that relentless, wall-to-wall score by Mangesh Dhakde. But the message it’s peddling, about the dangers of conflating religion and terrorism, and the underlying appeal for more compassion and empathy—to live and let live—is so important in these times that even when the film is at its most lecture-y, you can’t help but be roused.


Director: Anubhav Sinha

Actors: Rishi Kapoor, Taapsee Pannu,

Prateik Babbar, Manoj Pahwa

Genre: Drama

Published: 18-08-2018 08:25

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