The politics of racial hatred lingers in the rhetoric of a number of recent Indian films but it is often a subtext which comes and goes, failing to resonate such as in the overrated, faux Gully Boy, a deeply problematic work about Muslims in India today that wretchedly glances over the questions of representation in favour of condescending memoranda. In Arun Karthick’s Nasir, it is not rhetoric but something more substantial, pressing and unsettling in the trajectory the narrative takes. We are in Coimbatore, a Muslim ghetto, in Tamil Nadu. Nasir, a salesman who works at a local textile store, is played by Valavane Koumarane (a Franco-Indian theatre actor) who impresses in the lead role, projecting a composure that is measured in his benevolent social interactions. It would be wrong to argue a fatalism permeates the reticent mood of this gutsy work because it is a kind of political fatalism far removed from the genre context of noir. In fact, it is a fatalism nurtured by those around Nasir who in their both causal and explicit racism towards Muslims is part of a wider amplification of hate instigated and fuelled by the motley ways in which Hindutva has colonised popular discourse with an insipid brand of nationalism. Moreover, the film seems to ask to what degree have the so called ordinary citizens of India helped to instrumentalize communal bigotry through the distorted haze of social media. Dissent, a dangerous concept in Modi’s India, is re-imagined in the figure of Nasir, a Muslim who exists on the margins but grasps and practices the separation between religion and work. There is no fanaticism at work in the Muslim; that appears to be a problem inherently associated with an invisible mob, deliberately non descriptive whereby the suggestion that communalism can cut right through society becomes altogether terrifying.
The film opens with the Azaan (the Muslim call to prayer), an aural expression of Islam and the Muslimness of the ghettoized milieu, over the image of Nasir lying down. This unassuming opening is one of the most defiant and provocative political moments in contemporary Indian cinema in recent memory. But what exactly is being said here? Considering the extent to which the Azaan has been pithily derided and castigated in the public eye by Hindutva including personalities such as Sonu Nigam, the choice arrangement of the Azaan at the beginning of the film is of course a celebratory embrace of a faded secularism, remarking co-existence should and has always been an accepted part of Indian cultural life. Muslims do belong. However, as soon as Nasir and his wife Fatima go shopping in the markets, over the loudspeakers we hear a familiar political rhetoric of Muslims posing a danger to the values of India: ‘Today, danger advances on our motherland. Invaders, migrants, traitors and rebels seek to corner Tamilnadu and destroy it!’, comes the metaphorical refrain, a coded denouncement of Muslims as historically treacherous. If the othering of the Muslims as the enemy, denied a sense of belonging and citizenship, clashes with the aural symbolism of the opening Azaan, this is also the first instance in the film where racial hatred is not something going on beneath the surface or being discussed in secret amongst a few bigoted filled people, but is aired publicly since this is the new norm.
In terms of film style, the semi-observational approach coupled with an open frame is a welcoming sight, that mirrors Chaityanne’s award winning Court from a few years back. Both of these counter hegemonic works understand how politics can be communicated through quiet, uneventful and ordinary glimpses into life as it is. The everyday struggle Nasir faces is summed up quite brilliantly in the sequence in the dress shop where he overhears a co-worker openly encouraging an upcoming Hindu festival to march through a nearby Muslim area. Nasir, paralysed in the centre of the frame, is forced to listen to the rhetoric of religious intolerance. As Karthick notes in an interview, the use of the 4:3 ratio in which the film is shot, boxes in Nasir. Nasir feel anxious, never quite believing communal mob law could happen to him, finding a solace in his faith, although the film is careful never to categorise him as indiscriminately devoted to Islam.
The anxiety of continually being labelled as the other seems perpetual but it is faith that instils a tolerance in Nasir. In a sequence in a mosque, Nasir’s devotion is magnified in the rituals of Wudu and later prayer, the rhythmical combination of abstract shots amounts to something sublimely transcendental. De-centring the popular and damaging image of the threatening Muslim male is one that the film succeeds in achieving on a number of levels and that seems unheard of Indian cinema. Most films which depict the lives of Muslims often overlook or fail to address the wider socio-economic context of unemployment, deprivation and poverty faced by Muslims in India today. Nasir’s menial job as a salesman, the relatively poor housing conditions, and the lack of medical treatment for his ailing mother are interconnected in the oppression of Muslims in many facets of life in India.
Since events unfold over a day, creating a sense of impending doom, Nasir’s abundant social interactions amount to someone who never stops moving; consumed by the sheer pressures of daily life Nasir barely has time to think or get angry. One sequence towards the end finds Nasir on a mini excursion to an elite boy’s hostel to return blazers, trying his best to make some extra money, coming face to face with an economic and caste privilege that remains ingrained in the cultural fabric. Nasir won the NETPAC award at Rotterdam earlier this year and what director Arun Karthick has crafted with this second film is a virtuoso slice of neo-realism; augmenting the superfluous with an overriding, prescient ideological agenda that never feels strained. Karthick spent two years in the Muslim neighbourhood of Coimbatore, immersing himself in the milieu, unlocking palpable urban spaces, an invaluable detail that is reflected in the authentic feel for on location shooting. Where the film draws its greatest power is in the horrifying ending, one that resonated and left me moved to tears. At stake is not only the persecutory anti-Muslim mob violence that has taken hold of the paranoid subconscious but the erosion of religious tolerance and co-existence. In terms of political cinema, the final shot is nothing short of a miracle.