MUMBAI—Hindu and Muslim: These are words that do not define just diverse religions that co-exist in India. Their connotations, for our politicians, are like a permanent lottery – or to mix metaphors, like a potent machine-gun they can use to divide people and feather their own nests. True, there are other religions in India, and the politician-spewed venom affects them as well, but thanks to the strength of the Muslim population, added to the fact that our treacherous neighboring country is an Islamic state, and the long and bloodied history that began with the Moghul invasion centuries ago, the Hindu-Muslim animosity has always been cooked on a slow fire to be served steaming hot whenever needed.
Showing the basic story of a family (obviously Muslim) being targeted because of one rotten apple, writer-director Anubhav Sinha uses some clever modules to strike home with the maximum effect. He sets the film in the holy city of Benaras, arguably the top Hindu pilgrimage place in the country (incidentally, it is Sinha’s hometown and his knowledge of its ethos must be in-depth).
Sinha shows the casual camaraderie between the Muslim family and the neighboring Hindus, including a paan-wallah, with a small temple right outside that family’s home. He shows the prosecuting attorney Santosh Anand (Ashutosh Rana) to be a rabid Muslim hater and baiter and yet a staunch patriot. The anti-terrorist squad cop Danish Javed (Rajat Kapoor) is, on the other hand, a Muslim who does not like his religion’s name to be tainted by bad elements and prefers to kill terrorists rather than capturing them.
Sinha’s ace is the daughter-in-law of the family, Aarti (yes, she is a Hindu, AND she has not changed her religion) Mohammed (Taapsee Pannu), who is treated and accepted as one of their own, and who defends her father-in-law Murad Ali Mohammed (Rishi Kapoor) and his brother and main accused Bilal Mohammed (Manoj Pahwa) in court. Sinha takes liberal license here – the lady is London-based, so can she practice law here? …But that’s a trifle.
At every point, there is a clever device used by Sinha in what must be his first totally cerebral script after “Tum Bin” (2001) and “Dus” (2007), and of a higher level than in those movies. When the troubles begin, Aarti has come to India to tell her in-laws that she may be breaking up with their London-based son (Indraneil Sengupta) because he is insisting that their future child’s religion be decided before conception.
The rotten apple is obviously Shahid Mohammed (Pratiek Smit Babbar), who is misled by fanatics into becoming a terrorist and being a part of an explosion that kills 16 Indians – his definition of the three Muslims also killed is downright repugnant and very hard-hitting, given our times.
His death opens up a terrible aftermath for his innocent joint family, and his father Bilal is arrested and tried for treason. Defending him is Aarti, and when her father-in-law Murad is also named as a co-accused when he is already a part of the defense attorney team, she becomes his counsel too.
To be honest, Sinha does play to the gallery in quite a few junctures, like with the judge (Kumud Mishra) being quite a character, but the climax, that illustrates how hollow is the prosecution’s so-called “case” and the final address of the defense and the overlong judgment do address our consciences in a hard-hitting way.
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.
The more you reflect upon the film, the more we realize that a huge amount of thought and time has been invested by Sinha on this film’s story and script. The characters are fleshed out uber-lovingly yet thoughtfully. As a powerful social film, the film tells us why and what is wrong with India. And it shows unconditionally that terrorism can never be excused.
The performances are the bulwark of this film. Rishi Kapoor as Murad Ali Mohammed is brilliant yet again. As always, his expressions are incredible—watch him when he knocks on Bilal’s friend (Ehsaan Khan)’s house at night, or when he steps out of his house and in a glance, comprehends the change in feelings towards him from his neighbors. Taapsee is effortless, and excellent in her final speech in court, but here and there, she seems to falter a wee bit in the trial sequences at some junctures.
The supporting artistes are uniformly very good, especially Ashutosh Rana, Prachi Shah Paandya as Bilal’s wife, the young actress who plays their daughter, and Neena Gupta, who towers despite relatively few scenes. Kumud Mishra is phenomenal as the judge. Rajat Kapoor is adequate, but Prateik is a natural, and the true-blue towering performance comes from Manoj Pahwa, in an image-shattering role as Bila. This always underrated actor is, in one concise word, magnificent.
Mangesh Dhakde’s background score enhances Sinha’s deft direction, and high marks are due also to Ewan Mulligan’s fantastic cinematography and Ballu Saluja’s in-sync-with-the-film’s editing that lingers over the right things and is still efficient. At no point in the 2.27 hours narration does the film drag.
The biggest relief in the film, however, has nothing to do with the story, which actually means a double relief! Yes, we are talking about the now-reprehensibly ubiquitous Punjabi-heavy song, which is thrust in whether relevant or not! Shakeel Azmi’s lyrics are good, but along with the tunes, they suffer from the same disease that afflicts film music today—the songs sound nice within the film, but we cannot remember any after they are over!
“Mulk” is a sensitively told sensitizing film that should strike the right note in people with the right sensibilities. In its own way, it is no less patriotic than a “Pad-Man,” “Raazi,” “Raid” or “Parmanu.”