MULK (Anubhav Sinha, 2018, India) – Us and Them

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The final shot of Mulk is an unexpected one, a freeze frame of a young Muslim boy leaping in the air. He is wearing a white topi cap and the No 7 shirt of Dhoni, an icon of Indian cricket. There is a pluralism at work, the co-existence of multiple identities, that seems under threat right now in India. This parting shot is from the perspective of Danish Javed (Rajat Kapoor), a self-hating Muslim and Head of an anti-terrorist unit. As we are shown in the opening, Danish executes with impunity a young Muslim man, a religious extremist, who has bombed and murdered a bus full of innocent people. Although Danish acts out of a similarly extremist view that brands all Muslims as terrorists, his murderous actions also enact both a genocidal impulse that point to past and present examples of ethnic cleansing that have become wrapped up in a dangerous bombast of neo-nationalism. The casting of Rishi Kapoor in the main lead of Murad Ali Mohammed, the Muslim patriarch, is what certainly raises the mainstream significance of this work, delivering in my estimation his best performance in years and one that he embodies with a surprising elaboration.

Any film that presents Muslims as a problem is problematic. Director Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk goes about posing an endless array of questions to do with the present day social and political position of the Muslim community including citizenship, the nation state, radicalisation and marginalisation, all of which are presented in seemingly simplistic ways. However, Mulk is a mainstream film so there are limitations both aesthetically and ideologically what the film can say about Muslims in India. Why, one may ask, when Muslims are represented in contemporary Indian cinema, are they rarely ever depicted as normal citizens? To be sure, the othering of the Muslim is perhaps to be expected. But Mulk wants to do something different though which is to deconstruct, critique and interrogate the very process that leads to the framing of the Muslim as the Other.

On the other hand, I don’t think Sinha handles such a critique with finesse. Thus, much of the film plays out in the confines of the courtroom, blighted by the trope of the Hindi melodrama that could have been avoided given what was as a stake ideologically. In one respect, the milieu of the courtroom, a symbol of civil rule and justice makes perfect sense considering the significance of communalism, co-existence and terrorism are in a perpetual process of negotiation and contestation amongst the various religious and political factions. Moreover, Sinha takes a sledgehammer to the important political dialogue he is trying to develop. However, to be fair, a sledgehammer is probably what the Left needs right now to be heard amongst the conformist din and neo-fascist propaganda. Indeed, the recourse to signposting moments of political weight comes across as heavy-handed. Nonetheless, Sinha didn’t have to make this film and his cultural intervention at a time when dissent is increasingly dangerous should be applauded in trying to reimagine relations between Hindus and Muslims.

The 2006 Sachar Committee Report on the status of Indian Muslims points to Muslims living in India as one of the poorest and deprived communities along with the Dalit underclass. Much of this has been made significantly worse ever since the ascendancy of the BJP and popularisation of Hindutva in the 1990s that has sought to demonise Muslims as the enemy, labelled as a proxy for Pakistan. In the past, Indian Parallel Cinema sought to intervene culturally with films like Garam Hawa, Mammo and Naseem, exploring the lives of Muslims with a political complexity. Contemporary Indian cinema, talking here about both independent and mainstream films have skirted around the political questions yet have codified Muslims in specific ways that play into wider cultural imaginings. Moreover, Mulk fails to map the broader economic paradigm of deprivation and poverty faced by Muslims who have become ghettoised and live in slums while also facing the problem of high unemployment. Instead, we are given a Muslim family that is arguably middle class, and that skews the reality of an important socio-economic dimension; neoliberalism masking over a narrative about class that is rarely ever discussed by filmmakers in Indian cinema.

One could reason the systemic lynching of Muslims and Dalits that have increased under Modi’s reign is the story that should have framed the narrative. However, the worrying deportment of Hindu nationalism finds rabid expression in the character of Santosh (Ashutosh Rana), the prosecuting lawyer, who behaves with a hyperbolic zeal and which is amplified by the anti-national sentiments directed against the Muslim family. This is initially hinted at in the opening when a young Hindu boy tells his father to stop consorting with the Muslim family who he brands as traitors. Interestingly, the fanaticism of Santosh becomes equated with that of Shahid, the Muslim terrorist but I would argue this is problematized because we never really see the extremist actions of Hindu fundamentalism – such crimes remain concealed and perhaps cannot be broached in the face of censorship.

Albeit the film explores the semantics of terrorism as a category appropriated for political rhetoric and how the term can come to mark an entire community, the script still falls back on dealing with Muslims through the prism of religion and expressly religious fundamentalism. Indeed, there is no normal Indian Muslim male in the entire film except for the secularist patriarch. Even when Aftab (Aarti’s husband) arrives towards the end of the film, his silence is troubling to say the least. The same goes for the Muslim women. If this is a comment on the relative powerlessness of Muslims in India today, then Aarti’s (Taapsee Pannu as the defending lawyer) dissenting voice, becomes altogether courageous, emerging from an integrationist Indian identity, a celebration of religious co-existence but one that also harbours a precious secularist refrain.

IN WHICH ANNIE GIVES IT THOSE ONES (1989, India, Dir. Pradip Krishen)

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Annie is the nickname of Anand Grover, a laidback and idealistic student training to be an architect and who also happens to have a chicken living in his dorm that lays eggs. This is one of many idiosyncratic characters that we encounter. In which Annie gives it those ones, contender for the quirkiest film title ever conceived, has taken on a mythical status amongst Parallel Cinema aficionados, a cult film from the late 1980s partially funded by Doordarshan. Legend has it the film only survives on existing video copies circulating through subterranean channels, allusiveness that adds to the mystique and cult status, along with SRK’s first screen role as a stoner.

Set in the 1970s and with a script by Arundhati Roy and who also stars in the film, it was the second of only two feature length collaborations between Roy and director Pradip Krishen. Roy’s script is very personal, a semi autobiographical take on the counter culture experiences of her time at the School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi, a benign institution symbolised in the character of Yamdoot Bilmoria (the brilliant Roshan Seth), a Head of Department who is lofty and disingenuous towards his students, and a remnant of colonial power and pretentious etiquettes. Adopting an episodic structure, the rapport amongst the students is wonderfully brought to life with Roy and Krishen choosing to present the dorms as an extended hippy commune with pot smoking loafers who embrace the joys of youthful cynicism, sticking up two fingers at the establishment.

Roy takes up the role of Radha, a young trainee architect who has the most scathing political voice, attempting to critique the ideological usage of space in urban planning and what this heralds for the citizen. But Yamdoot effectively censures Radha. Later when Radha gets the chance to polemicize as part of the final exam, Yamdoot and his panel of all male professors are more interested in the dinner menu than affording her the chance to speak her mind. An underlining theme that steadily gains momentum is the farcical nature of civil and government institutions that largely promote conformity and discourage dissent but it is exactly this speaking out against the prevailing powers that be which has made Roy such a significant political activist and voice in India.

Punctuated with covers of The Beatles, an eclectic ensemble cast and end titles that seem to recall American Graffiti (1973), this is a cult film that occupies the similarly eccentric comedic terrain of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983). Together, they make the perfect double bill.

DAASI (1988, Dir. B. Narsing Rao, India) [Telugu]

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The story of Daasi takes place in 1925 colonial India when the region of Telengana was under the rule of the Nizam. The powerful and vicious landlord who reigns over the small village is Jayasimha Rao (Bhoopal Reddy). One of the significant aspects of Parallel Cinema was the resistance it brought to dominant narratives, disrupting traditional gender paradigms that had become established over time; carving out new spaces for women and female subaltern agency that Indian cinema had not seen before. Films like Maya Darpan (1972), Ankur (1973), Umbartha (1981) and Daasi (1988) constitute a kind of unconscious resistance that was working collectively to redress the gender disparity, although much of this has to be approached cautiously considering many of the films were directed by men and therefore one could argue these films tend to replicate a dominant point of view they are supposedly trying to disrupt.

Nonetheless, Telugu director B. Narsing Rao’s story about female enslavement feels like the flipside of Benegal’s Ankur since it takes an altogether oppositional aesthetic approach to the archetypal Parallel Cinema theme of feudalism, opting for a measured and sparse approach that is effectively a character study of Daasi (Archana), an impoverished, lower caste woman sold into bondage for twenty rupees when she was a young girl. Daasi is confined to the mansion and sexually exploited by the landlord. Rao seems particularly interested in exhibiting the drudgery of Daasi’s daily chores and which steadily take on a ritualised status. Apurba Kishore Bir’s camerawork that glides across the courtyard of the mansion not only extenuates the claustrophobia and imprisonment experienced by Daasi but also illuminates the spaces of the mansion with a wonderful texture through the shards of light, unusual reflections and doorways.

The terrifying scream that rings out at the end, that of Daasi who is being forced to abort the child of the landlord, is marked by emptiness and pain that seems to become swallowed up by history, remaining suppressed in the past, a scream that we would rather not confront. It is a scream of exploitation, bondage and the beleaguered masses that relates the inequities of power that Parallel Cinema was able to articulate consistently in many films. Released in 1988, Daasi won five national film awards and is considered to be one of Rao’s best films.

SIR (Dir. Rohena Gera, 2018, India-France)

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Set in contemporary Mumbai Sir is a sharply crafted romantic melodrama, full of warmth, about a benign architect, Ashwin (Vivek Gomber) and a migrant servant, Ratna (Tillotama Shome). The script is sharply written and brings to life the complexities of Ratna and Ashwin who are are bound by class and caste. Although they are two people from opposite ends of the social spectrum, the emotional connection that is forged becomes a tentative bond and gradually emerges as a painful longing that reaches a memorable conclusion. The narrative unfolds from the perspective of Ratna and for much of the film remains with her character, which is significant because a romantic melodrama of this type could easily have capitulated to a male point of view. The script is wonderfully underplayed and Tillotama Shome in superb form brings to life the nuances of Ratna, a widow who works in the city to support her family back home and has aspirations of becoming a tailor. Writer and director Rohena Gera treats Sir as an urban fairytale and thankfully channels much of the emotional interplay through subtle gestures and precise framing. If marketed with vigour and picked up internationally Sir has the potential to crossover and reach the critical and commercial heights of a recent Hindie breakout like The Lunchbox.