“Terrorism is a criminal activity, not a communal activity,” these words uttered by a seemingly frustrated Taapsee Pannu in an advocate gown defending her in-laws, stay with you long after you have left the cinema hall watching Mulk.
Set in the pilgrim city of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, Mulk is an angry film that brings to the silver screen critical issues of Islamophobia, terrorism and custodial torture.
It chronicles the struggles of a Muslim family to reclaim their honour after losing their son to terrorism.
Though it starts off as a story about a minority family living in harmony with neighbours of all religions, the film takes a dramatic turn when the Mohammad family under its patriarch Murad Ali Mohammad, (played by Rishi Kapoor), also a retired advocate, realises that their son, Shahid, (played by Prateik Smit Babbar) was involved in a terrorist attack in Allahabad.
What follows is a courtroom drama, where the responsibility of defending the family, after Shahid’s act of terrorism falls onto the shoulders of their Hindu daughter-in-law, Taapsee Pannu. She fights tooth-and-nail against a shrewd and rather manipulative prosecutor Santosh Anand played by Ashutosh Rana, who tries to prove that the entire family schemed to get Shahid involved in the radical group.
The major struggle the plot highlights in dramatic detail is how the family bears the brunt of one youth’s act. And the kind of generalisation a community is subjected to after that.
What once seemed like a haven for the Mohammad family during the 1993 riots, turns into a war ground after people pelt stones at their home in the middle of the night, write offensive graffiti ordering them to ‘return to Pakistan’ and brand them ‘terrorists’.
The arguments in the court are an eye-opener to the prejudice that exists among us, as viewers. The audience in the court and their reactions to the snide jabs Santosh Anand makes at the Mohammad family using slurs and reiterating stereotypes associated with the community, make you think of your reaction to similar everyday happenings.
Every character in the film has a struggle of his own, in addition to their fight against being branded as terrorists.
There is Arti, the quintessential modern bahu who is fighting with her husband Aftab because she doesn’t want to have kids too soon and is at loggerheads when it comes to deciding the religion their future kids will follow. In a particular scene, she emphasises the armchair liberalism of inter-caste marriages where she says, “Jab shaadi hui thi, tab Insan se hui thi, mazhab se nahi. Toh ab mazhab par jhagda kyun?”
And there is Bilal, who is overshadowed by his brother, who refuses to speak to him until the trial begins. Manoj Pahwa’s acting during the custodial interrogation scenes, where he is made to repeat, ‘He is the father of a terrorist’, is heart-wrenching. It also sheds light on the mental torture in police custody in cases like these, which is often swept under the rug.
There is constant political commentary that relates the events of the film to real-life instances. Whether it was the treatment of 26/11 terrorist Ajmal Kasab or the prejudiced investigation that happens in cases like these. The court verdict in the film hardly matters because the judgment leaves the audience in the film as well in the theatre to introspect.
The subject is important, and it makes you realise, how every time a terrorist attack leaves us devastated about the innocent civilians and their families affected by the attack. But in the process, we don’t spare a thought about the family of the accused and the mental trauma they go through, despite having no involvement or idea about the events.
The film is not glitzy and glamorous. But it talks about very important social issues.
Anubhav Sinha’s story and direction do a good job of highlighting the ‘us vs them’ mentality. And the fact that we need to tell people in the year 2018 that ‘not all persons from a minority are terrorists’.
It questions the very definition of terrorism, which according to the Oxford dictionary is ‘the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims’. Arti throws the floor open to ask the audience– shouldn’t communal riots and atrocities against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes be considered ‘terrorism’ then?
It reminds you that ‘Partition is not created through borders. It is created through minds.’ And that is a very impactful message to drive home.
Mulk isn’t just a film that gained importance because of its gripping plot, thought-provoking narration, intense screenplay or laudable dialogues. It is important because it dares to break the fourth mental wall and makes the audience uncomfortable, who is otherwise in a theatre to escape the harsh realities of life.
And films that ask uncomfortable questions are the need of the hour. Sadly, these gems are difficult to find in modern-day Hindi cinema which relies on matrix action and item numbers to get the numbers, rather than the story and its presentation on-screen.
Whether it is the portrayal of Kabir Khan in Chak De India or Murad Ali in Mulk – it is indeed interesting to see filmmakers break away from the stereotypical characterisation of Muslims – which for the longest time has predominantly been – a community stricken by poverty, resistant to change and intolerable to inter-caste marriages.
Films like Mulk and Chak De India help the everyday audience open a new perspective on the community. And that is precisely the reason we need more films like these.
And so if you ask me- Is Mulk a brilliant film? I am not sure. But it is an important film. You won’t be wasting 140 minutes of your life when watching it.