SHOMA A. CHATTERJI | 9 AUGUST, 2018
Mulk: Be Entertained Folks and Don’t Bother About The ‘Agenda’
A letter to Cinebuffs from a film critic
For those who have watched and already passed judgement on Anubhan Sinha’s Mulk and for those who may watch the film later, I have some important things to point out to all of you.
Why must a film that appears to have a powerful socio-political message be read into for the message, how it has been interpreted and why, and read and presented – can't we just react to it as a film per se?
Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk is an excellent film in itself, and for all you know he might not have had any “agenda” when he began making it. The film, in addition to being a socio-political statement, is first and foremost a work of art aimed at the huge cauldron of a marketplace called “Indian Cinema”, where it is being shown in multiplexes in exchange for a pricey ticket.
The socio-political message is for film scholars, film studies practitioners and film critics, not for the lay audience like you and me. Mehboob’s Mother India was one of the biggest commercial hits of the 20th century because the audience loved it as a film, with a lot of melodrama, the presentation of Nargis in a different image, the endless song numbers and the sentimental twists and turns including a molestation/ rape, infant deaths, dacoity, kidnapping and so on.
Today, it is the subject of serious study by feminist film scholars and researchers in Indian political cinema. The same applies to Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin. Today, the discussions and research are focused on the displacement, migration and urban-rural divide the film reflects. But when it was first released, the readings were very different.
Let us take a closer look at Mulk. According to the Rekhta.org dictionary the meaning of the Hindi-Urdu word “mulk” is country, realm, or dominion. The prejudice among the audience, assuming that a majority belongs to the Hindu majority, begins with this title. There were no issues with the film Swadesh, remember? Or Chak De Indiaeither? Or, Mera Desh?
The four basic functions of a mainstream film – and Mulk is a mainstream film – are to entertain, inform, educate and bring about social change.
Mulk offers a “different” kind of mass entertainment. It has one of the biggest stars in the Hindi mainstream, Rishi Kapoor. It offers Taapsee Pannu whose rise to fame via Pink has already established her powerful presence in the courtroom drama. It also has Manoj Pehwa, an outstanding actor wasted in meaningless commercials, and resurrects the multi-talented Neena Gupta in a lead role.
It also waves a flag to the less utilised Prateek Babbar and Rajat Kapoor, who plays an entirely out-of-the-box Muslim police chief prejudiced against his own community. The slow mutations in his character enriched by his honesty and corrupted by his prejudice come across with moving credibility.
Do not forget the wonderful portraiture by Ashutosh Rana of a public prosecutor who does not bother to demonstrate his bias against Muslims, and does it with a lot of ridicule, disguised as tongue-in-cheek fun, with the entire courtroom joining in shaming Muslims for their many children, several marriages and low level of education.
Rana does it with punch and sobers down in the end when Aarti (played by Taapsee Pannu) begins blasting the very man she is defending to prove his innocence! What more can one ask for, tell me?
If the acting is this good, why should we break our heads over “agenda”?
The film has songs, a family dance number, a family feast where everyone gathers in an environment of joy and bonhomie, with one special number towards the end of the film that has a patriotic flavour.
There are two deaths – one of a young man who becomes a terrorist by chance and remains one by choice. Much later, in court, the police officer admits it was an encounter that would never have happened had his decision not been coloured by his prejudice and his desperation to belong to the “mainstream”. The other death – of the terrorist's father – is also due to the continuous police interrogation of a man who already suffered a heart problem, and that completes the circle of Life and Death.
Anubhav Sinha has gone on to admit that his decision to cast Hindu actors in each and every Muslim character in the film was a conscious one. He says if he had chosen a Muslim actor, the honesty would have stood to question. But is it also not a very intelligent commercial gimmick?
However, this “gimmick” is very neatly undercut by outstanding performances from the lead actors, led by Rishi Kapoor in a character he has never done before. His performance raises him as an actor to the next level of excellence, his portrait enhanced by the brilliant light play of the cinematography.
The sweet and syrupy “romance” between the maulana and his wife, the older Tabassum, reminds one of B.R. Chopra’s famous Waqt song, while the maulana, a culinary expert in Mughlai cuisine, adds that bit of non-patriarchal mileage to the film. As does his daughter-in-law Aarti by being a practising but progressive Hindu.
Are these two compatible – “practising” and “progressive”? I think all of us are a bit of both, and every Indian has these contradictory identities woven into the same individual.
So, my dear Cinebuffs, forget about “agendas” and “whitewashing”. If Sanju is such a great crowdpuller across the country despite being open propaganda to whitewash a Bolllywood actor, why not add Mulk to your must-watch list?Believe me, it's really a great film, only if you watch it as a film per se.