By Poulomi Das
Anubhav Sinha’s pleasantly hard-hitting Mulk doesn’t stray far from what is unfolding in the country at the moment. Just like in the film, an entire community has been othered and demonised. Muslims are repeatedly asked to prove their loyalty — a test that is automatically beyond their reach in a country that’s already decided that their religion excludes patriotism.
In Anubhav Sinha’s pleasantly hard-hitting Mulk, Tapsee Pannu stands on the other side of the witness stand she was in PINK. In this courtroom drama, she’s the diffident yet feisty Aarti Mohammed, the lawyer defending the honour of her family, put on trial because of their religion.
Set in Varanasi, the film’s first hour revolves around a progressive and cosmopolitan neighbourhood where families of different religions cohabit peacefully — the kind of locality where you spot a mosque and a wall painted with a picture of Lord Shiva. Inter-faith marriages aren’t frowned upon and Murad Ali Mohammed’s (Rishi Kapoor), own daughter-in-law, Aarti, is Hindu.
Early on in the film, the superannuated lawyer celebrates his 65th birthday and invites the whole neighbourhood. It’s a celebration where, on one hand, staunch vegetarians slyly sample the Mutton Korma on offer and on the other, a woman refuses to eat food at the home of the Muslim family. Quite like our secular country, faultlines in this neighbourhood soon become pronounced, proving that harmony was always a temporary facade.
The othering of this Muslim family begins when Murad’s nephew, Shahid (Prateik Babbar) is identified as one of the terrorists behind a bomb blast and gets killed in a police encounter. The family, unaware of his sudden turn as a jihadist conspirator, refuses to claim his body. But it’s this tragedy that births their seemingly never-ending nightmare. Shahid’s father, Bilal (an excellent Manoj Pahwa) is accused of abetting his son and promptly jailed.
It’s a quietly powerful stand for the film to take, for it doesn’t stray far from what is unfolding in the country at the moment.
His brother, Murad, comes out of retirement to defend him. But, even he doesn’t escape the wrath of the public prosecutor Santos Anand (Ashutosh Rana) who’s convinced that the entire family should be convicted, and is soon accused of the crime. Murad is also asked — in no uncertain terms — to prove his patriotism, and by extension, his citizenship to India, the country they’ve been living in since 1927. In steps the good daughter-in-law.
The second hour of the film dives deep into the theatrics of a courtroom drama. The very neighbours who’ve lived next to Murad his whole life stand divided and his ancestral house is subjected to the misplaced anger of a stone-throwing mob, who also scribble the words “Pakistani” and “Terrorists” on their walls. The courtroom echoes this discord: Anand displays his bigotry openly in his arguments, making the worst assumptions about Muslims as he goes along. He routinely reminds the judge that the bomb blasts killed several “Hindu”stanis and indulges in abject hate-mongering. Not unlike some of our leaders today. He keeps reiterating that Muslims are illiterate, have large families, and end up as extremists. The underlying sentiment to all his accusations is the same: Muslims can’t ever be loyal to India. Even when Aarti objects to his prejudiced stand about Muslims, citing it as irrelevant, he is quick to remind her that it is the only relevant thing in the case.
It’s a quietly powerful stand for the film to take, for it doesn’t stray far from what is unfolding in the country at the moment. Just like in the film, an entire community has been othered and demonised. They’re repeatedly asked to prove their loyalty to the country — a test that is automatically beyond their reach in a country that’s already decided that their religion excludes patriotism. At one point in the film, Murad even goes as far as asking Aarti, “Pyaar saabit kaise kiya jaata hai?” (How do I prove my love for India?). It feels less like a question and more like the collective voice of a community about to resign to their fate: of being lynched for allegedly smuggling cows. Of being potentially branded as “Bangladeshis”. Of being attacked for sporting beards and being forced to shave it off. And of being raped and murdered, as punishment for their perceived foreignness.
For just like Anand, even our country has come to believe that terrorism is committed by a religion and not by individuals irrespective of their faith. And as Mulk shows, it’s not even an us vs them debate anymore: In the film, Danish Javed, an Anti-Terrorism Squad cop turns out to be equally Islamophobic.
Mulk raises pertinent, timely questions and goads us to look into the mirror and acknowledge our collective descent into everyday bigotry.
Poulomi Das is an author at Arre.
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