Murad Ali Mohammed (Rishi Kapoor) is almost as old as India itself. Seven decades ago, five years before he was born, his family decided to stay in India at the time of Partition. Growing up in Varanasi, Murad, an advocate, has built a small support system for himself, comprising his family and friends who practice different faiths. He invites his Hindu friends for parties, stops at their shops and drinks chai, shares jokes with them and laughs.
But that changes when his nephew, Shahid (Prateik Babbar), an accused in a bomb blast, is shot by the police. Shahid was indeed a terrorist – of that there’s no doubt – and his family, disgusted by his transgression, even refuses to accept his dead body. What’s worse, Murad’s brother, Bilal (Manoj Pahwa), is accused of abetting his son. He’s first jailed and then presented in court. Soon, Murad is accused of the same crime; he must prove his patriotism for the country. If he cannot, then the state will hunt him down and make an example out of him.
Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk is centred on a man trying to save his home – both literally and metaphorically. The first concern is immediate: soon after the incident, local thugs pelt stones at his 90-year-old ancestral house, painting its outside walls with the messages “terrorist” and “go back to Pakistan”. The metaphorical worry is about a larger house, his own country, which is now telling him a different story about his origins and intentions.
As is evident from the premise, Mulk is informed by contemporary politics, dominated by the Hindu Right, which considers Muslims outsiders in this country. Bollywood, with a few notable exceptions, has been historically indifferent to politics, and on the rare occasions when it’s not, it largely does a shoddy job of expressing concern, presenting characters, stories and themes in a banal, predictable fashion.
Directed by Sinha (whose previous films include such forgettable fares as Cash, Ra.One, and Tum Bin 2), Mulk, at least going by its trailer, looked like an awkward marriage: progressive politics meeting on-the-nose filmmaking. Its first ten minutes, in fact, confirm such fears. The film opens to Shahid and his cousin discussing the plight of Muslims in this country. The next scene is of Murad offering namaz in a mosque. It then cuts to him walking towards his home, crossing a wall that is painted with a picture of Lord Shiva and a trident, with a big “Om Namah Shivay” written on it.
You know where this is going – that this would be one of those films where, contrary to its disclaimer, the characters represent their religions, where their lives are primarily lensed through pathos and victimhood. This approach, another form of the Madonna-Whore complex, is as reductive and harmful as one marked with prejudice, because to cast people in categories – to either just revere or deride them – is to deny them their humanity. Mulk seems to be aware of this, because it switches its gaze quickly. It no longer sees its characters as followers of a religion but as people – people with flaws and wants and whims, with complexities and contradictions.
It is also significant that a major portion of Mulk is set inside a courtroom – a unique arena that assembles the society’s conscience keepers, representatives of the state and citizens – allowing Sinha to explore the different thematic strands, while telling a compelling story. One of the film’s main concerns, for instance, is the casual, but unrelenting, Islamophobia. Santosh Anand (Ashutosh Rana), the prosecution lawyer, presents his arguments cloaked in insults, which are further masked by humour – “Muslims have large families”, “they’re mostly illiterate”, “they’re inclined to become Jihadis”.
And with every mordant barb, the courtroom audience titters. If Santosh is the bigoted version of an ordinary Indian, then the judge, Harish Madhok (Kumud Mishra), is its confused, opaque face: someone who is assessing his own prejudices and getting caught by them despite best intentions. Even though a fair judge, Harish at times sanctions Santosh’s bigotry; in one scene, he addresses Bilal’s daughter-in-law, Aarti (Taapsee Pannu), as “Mohammed Aarti” instead of “Aarti Mohammed”. Mulk’s ingenuity lies in shifting perspectives – at one moment, the film is looking at its characters, and the next at you, the audience.
But Mulk also charters unexpected territories, raising questions about the meanings of family. Shahid was a terrorist, yet his relatives didn’t have a clue, prompting us to wonder the difference between the familial and the personal. The bigger family here is, of course, the state itself. Right from an early scene, where Shahid’s body is dragged by cops in full view of public, to the sequence where a cop refuses to register Murad’s complaint about his house getting vandalised, Mulk compels us to consider an uncomfortable question: What if the state itself is bigoted?
A film like Mulk could have easily become a screed of sorts – it activism drowning out its filmmaking. But it is smart enough to not take sides, humane enough to understand that people are, well, people – some virtuous, some rotten, some indifferent. Murad is placed, more than once, in a tricky situation: of having to choose between his religion and his country. At a local mosque, he’s invited to Shahid’s commemoration, a suggestion that revolts him; his nephew advises him to flee Varanasi. Kapoor displays impressive poise, imbuing his role with anger, frustration and humour. The rest of the ensemble, comprising credible performers such as Pahwa, Pannu and Rana, adeptly compliment Kapoor. Sinha doesn’t let the thematic strains overwhelm his storytelling; as a result, the film is dramatically potent, while continuing to explore troubling questions.
The film practices what it preaches, refusing to divide its characters on the lines of “us versus them”. Not all Muslims and Hindus are neatly demarcated. A relative of Murad’s refuses to help him; an Anti Terrorism Squad officer, Danish Javed (Rajat Kapoor), is more Islamophobic than the rabid patrons of a local temple.
Mulk, however, also suffers from a unique predicament. Since the case involving Bilal and Murad stands on a shaky ground, with more speculations than evidence, the courtroom scenes are often a collection of glib verbal volleys, diminishing the film’s bite. Much in Mulk reminds you of Pink. The two films are centred on pervasive social malaise; they derive powerful moments from courtroom sequences; they share an actor (Pannu) pivotal to both films. In fact, one scene in Mulk, where Aarti is interrogating Murad about his faith, has distinct echoes of a scene in Pink, where Amitabh Bachchan grills Pannu to make a larger point about choice and freedom. But Mulk is a more nuanced film in comparison, probing, questioning and highlighting the bigotry that has been normalised to dangerous levels.
The biggest triumph of Mulk, though, is its definition of terrorism – a word that still resists universal consensus. “The unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims” is terrorism, the film tells us, attempting to pin it down as a function of human barbarity, and not of faith. Going by that definition, Aarti asks us to think about the “atrocities against untouchables and Adivasis”. What is that if not terrorism? This is a brave, pertinent comment in a country like ours, where Dalits and Adivasis are still struggling for basic rights, where Muslims are lynched for storing or eating or transporting beef – or for no reason at all (what ‘crime’ can an eight-year-old commit?) – and, instead of being seen as blots on national consciousness, their murderers and rapists are draped in tricolours, garlanded by a union minister, and supported by lawyers and civilians.
If you open yourself to Mulk, it will remind you of a prejudiced relative friend, or acquaintance. But if the film does not remind you of anyone, if you do not know anyone who hates a Muslim – either actively or casually – then do take a moment to consider this: you simply do not know enough people in this country. At one point, Murad asks Aarti, “Pyaar saabitkaisekiyajaata hai (How do I prove my love for this country)?” He pauses and answers the question with another question: “Pyaar karke hi na (By expressing my love)?” Mulk need not have answered that. As a country, we need to find our own answers.
Published in arrangement with The Wire