Synopsis – One family member tries to help her own family which are trapped in a dark controversy.
My Take – We all know about the political climate of India currently, right? While there are other religions in India, thanks to the strength of the Muslim population, added to the fact that our dangerous neighboring country is an Islamic state, and the long and bloodied history that began with the Babur led Mughal invasion centuries ago, the Hindu-Muslim animosity has always been the center for politicians to use the common man’s beliefs to spew venom for their own cause. Yes, it’s true that looking at the geopolitical environment around the current world, Muslims have become the face of terrorism thanks to the global media, as a result of which today every man with a beard and a white cap is looked at with suspicion, which has led to nothing but stereotypes and prejudices, especially in a country like India.
Here, director Anubhav Sinha addresses this phenomenon that not only haunts a community, but also polarizes our nation, by using a 140-minute film to take a timely stab at Islamophobia through the study of a family in Varanasi that loses one of its sons in a terrorist attack. While director Sinha, who also wrote this film, gained acclaim for his commercial affairs like Tum Bin, Dus, and the notorious Ra One, he never showed any obvious inclination of political awareness, and here, despite being trolled for being a Muslim sympathizer, he surprises us with a finely made film, that is also a nuanced yet crowd pleasing attempt at fitting in a lot of thoughts about the Muslim community’s place in Indian society.
Sure, it relies on crowd-pleasing elements, but the film also offers a powerful social commentary, that works as the need of the moment. Backed by the terrific performances of Rishi Kapoor and Taapsee Pannu, the film makes a compelling statement that a man’s religion should not be his identity, but his actions and his proclivity.
Set in Varanasi, the story follows an ordinary Muslim family, who live in harmony in the Hindu-dominated locality. Headed by Murad Ali Mohammed (Rishi Kapoor), a reputed advocate, who also runs a small shop that sells homeopathy medicines and spends most of his time with his Hindu pals. While him and his younger brother, Bilal (Manoj Pahwa), have their differences, along with their wives (Neena Gupta and Prachi Shah) and kids they still live happily under one roof. However one morning their world comes apart as an investigation of a terror attack in Allahabad leads authorities to their doorstep.
Confirming the news that Murad’s nephew and Bilal’s son, Shahid (Prateik Babbar), was one of the perpetrators, who carried out the bombing after having come under the sway of an Islamist radical, and ended up being killed in an operation led by anti-terrorist squad officer Danish Javed (Rajat Kapoor). But the nightmare doesn’t stop there as the family is accused of supporting terrorism and an ailing Bilaal is arrested for assisting his son for planning the attack that killed 10 people. But as Murad Ali begins to defend his brother in court, he too is forced to seek legal help himself after the public prosecutor Santosh Yadav (Ashutosh Rana) levels serious allegations against him too, leaving Aarti Mohammed (Taapsee Pannu), Murad’s Hindu daughter-in-law, to fight the case on his behalf and clear their family’s name.
While the first half is a family drama, the second is populated by intense courtroom scenes. Though it avoids making any powerful statements, there are some fine moments here when the film shows the bonding of Murad’s family and how their lives turn for the worse after Shahid’s indictment. The buildup is really good in these portions. The second half is admittedly more powerful thanks to the courtroom sequences, and the dialogues, are hard-hitting, intriguing and entertaining. The film is an effort to highlight the mentality that is creating communal differences in the Indian society. The film aims to give out the message that not every Muslim is a terrorist. The film lays out the story in an effective manner and is sure to make a positive impact on the audience. In terms of battling perception, a parallel can be drawn between this film and Anirudha Roy Choudhary‘s 2016 legal drama Pink. Here, director Sinha has taken more than a leaf out of the film, given that his film is set in a template nigh identical to Pink. What Pink was for feminism, this one is for terrorism. If Pink spoke of the challenges faced by single women in India day in and day out, this one addresses the casual religious intolerance faced by Muslims in a country mostly populated by the Hindus.
To be honest, there is nothing subtle about the point’s director Sinha wants to make about the growing prejudice among many along religious lines. He also leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind that this story unfolds in present day India, with the subtle digs at demonetization and when Murad Ali talks about how he chose his country over his religion during the Partition of India, you are left wondering how long people will have to keep saying it to prove that they are Indian. This is not just a film about a terror attack and a family facing trial, but it exposes the many preconceived notions we have been carrying on for decades. In the climax, Aarti questions the people watching the court proceedings, “Did you ask yourself why you were laughing when Santosh repeatedly mocked Murad Ali Mohammed with his insensitive comments?”
This question that critiques the public’s herd mentality is met with complete silence in court. Aarti’s closing argument about how the definition of terrorism doesn’t use the word “religion” anywhere, and that terrorism can take various forms will hopefully be an eye-opener. Here, director Sinha also touches upon the basic weaknesses of the community, with subtle hints at polygamy, excessive children and a lack of priority that results in their under-education, but in a compassionate way that clearly tells those subscribing to them that these as detrimental to THEIR interests.
A trenchant remark by Shahid’s Muslim friend (Anshul Jain) that even their Hindu friends have not got jobs despite higher marks in the qualifying examinations speaks volumes for all aspects – methinks there is even a clever jibe here at the quota for scheduled and backward castes and tribes. A broader definition of terrorism is also discussed, like the intra-religious aspects of casteism and assorted evils. Humor is also used, like when a staunch vegetarian is tempted to snack on Murad’s delicious korma, and even to underscore the fact that Bilal and Murad live together in one house with their affectionate families but do not speak to each other.
The context behind their quarrel is again relevant to the theme, and Bilal’s heart condition is again connected cleverly with the story’s development. Sure, the film is on shaky ground when it is trying to investigate the roots of terrorism linked to religious beliefs and the larger political context that is responsible for the growing marginalization of numerous Muslims. Yet, there is much to marvel at in what director Sinha sets out to explore, and what he is able to get away with, as his film stands at the opposite end of the average terrorism thriller, which nearly always features wild-eyed and bearded Muslim men toting assault weapons. In its own way, the film turns the spotlight on the very real problem of scare-mongering that is playing out beyond the screen and in far more monstrous proportions on the national stage.
In a little scene in the second half, Murad calls back on a conversation with Shahid where they discuss the unwanted need to have a blockade for a darga ritual. When he remembers Shahid’s dissent in that conversation, Murad realizes that he should have kept an eye on the boy. There is another little scene where, while Shahid claims he killed people for his religion and people, Bilal admits to the court that the boy had never properly learnt the Quran (thus was easily manipulated). That’s the thing I appreciate about this film, while the film insists that a family or a religion cannot be placed in the same basket as the wrongdoer, it also doesn’t absolve them of their callousness of not keeping a closer eye on potential wrongdoers.
Despite the tendency of films of this genre to do so, the film never shows one side as innocent and other the victim. The film understates the fact that there are bad eggs in every religion, but one should not color an entire community for the actions of a few. With this film, director Anubhav Sinha delivers his finest work yet, away from the superhero shenanigans of Ra One or the melodramatic romance of Tum Bin, director Sinha returns to good form with what could be one of 2018’s better efforts.
Of course none of this would have worked if the performances were as par excellence. As always, Rishi Kapoor turns in yet another solid performance. Here, the senior Kapoor makes Murad’s emotional journey from confusion to disbelief to hurt to anger to resolve palpable. Tempted by the potential to make every scene of his loud, he manages to strike a balance between dogged determination and frailty. Without a doubt, Taapsee Pannu is one of the finest actresses we have working today, as here she once again delivers a perfectly balanced performance. Ashutosh Rana owns the character of Santosh right down to the smarmy smile, even though he sometimes tips towards the over dramatic. Manoj Pahwa and Rajat Kapoor are also fabulous; the former’s bumbling Bilal and the latter’s dour SSP Danish capture the two extremes of perceived Indian Muslim stereotypes. Kumud Mishra, Prateik Babbar, Neena Gupta, Ashrut Jain and Prachi Shah are also impressive in their respective roles. On the whole, ‘Mulk’ is a timely political thriller that is bold, hard-hitting and topical.
Directed – Anubhav Sinha
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 140 minutes