A film like ‘Mulk’ reminds you of how important a pan-Indian medium like Hindi cinema is to communicating ideas that preserve our social fabric. The aesthetics and business of the movies may fluctuate like nervous numbers in a stock market, but the souls of these films still refuse to succumb to majoritarianism. Being in a minority, even in a minority of one, you can still be right. This is the essence of freedom that film makers still have; to make movies that reflect on how life should be, and not necessarily on how it turns out.
The character of Murad Ali Mohammad (Rishi Kapoor) is that of the ‘good’ Muslim of India. He lives in Varanasi with Hindu neighbours, some of whom are vegetarian, but whom he all hosts generously in community celebrations, and with tempting dishes of their choice. He is graciously indulgent of their occasional lapses into carnivorous behaviour, and is discreet about their giving in to the temptation of the heavenly odours coming from his kitchen, ably managed by his wife, Tabassum (Neena Gupta).
But all this bonhomie and good neighbourly exchange of affection ends when Murad, his brother Bilaal (Manoj Pahwa), and almost the entire extended Mohammad clan fail to notice that Bilaal’s son, Shahid (Prateik Babbar), is under the influence of radical Islam. The young man eventually does the unthinkable and joins a jihadist sleeper cell that detonates a bomb. Very quickly, the whole family is labelled as enemies of the State, most of Murad’s good neighbours turn hostile, and the endless trips to the police station and the courts begin.
With the aid of a prosecutor who has a nasty habit of turning Muslims into stereotypes in order to charge the family with being co-conspirators, and also to elicit applause in the courtroom for his sarcasm on the subject, ‘Mulk’ uses the exact formula that ‘Pink’ used to show how generalisations lead to prejudice and to pre-conceived judgements. The 2016 film spoke of how the outward behaviour of single, working women is often turned into cliches that lead to quick and easy judgements that turn out to be completely wrong. In a courtroom that is supposed to deal with hard evidence and objective information, such populist attitudes could prejudice a jury.
A replica of that argument, with religion replacing gender, is used by Murad’s Hindu born daughter-in-law, Aarti (Taapsee Pannu), who just happens to be the right lawyer in the right family at the right time. It is her finest hour and what emanates is a passionate defence of the idea of inclusiveness, and a rejection of the attempt to divide society into ‘us’ and ‘them’
The film is worth watching for two performances. One is by Manoj Pahwa. He plays a man incarcerated for the sins of his son, as ‘evidence’ gathered by the police show that he knew of Shahid’s terrorist links. He is a man destroyed by circumstance and heart disease. He coughs his way through the court sessions, and gasps his words out so convincingly that you actually start worrying about the actor’s health.
The other is a very clever performance by Kumud Mishra, who plays the judge. He seems to go along with the arguments of the prosecutor, with just the occasional reprimand for his over the top comments, and an amused nod to the courtroom for their applause of his communally charged phrases. But his stance turns out to be a studied pose, and he makes the most stunning judicial observation of them all when he laconically observes that ever since fringe elements have been allowed to go mainstream in the country, prejudice in the courtroom has increased exponentially.
For that statement alone, and the understated way that Mishra delivers it, ‘Mulk’ is worth watching.