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.

NIRMALAYAM / THE OFFERING (1973, India) Directed by M.T. Vasudevan Nair [Malayalam]

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Born in Kerala in 1933, M.T. Vasudevan Nair is one of India’s most prolific literary voices. Nair is also seen as a key figure in the development of Malayalam art cinema, having written over fifty screenplays and directed a number of influential films. Nirmalayam (The Offering), Nair’s directorial debut, was made at a time when the Parallel Cinema movement was entering the final years of the creative first phase (68 – 75).

The story explores the anxieties of a village oracle, a man of faded glories and religious servitude who fails to recognise and accept to what extent his family cope with an abject poverty that he cultivates. Parallel Cinema was often characterised by the ideological capacity to directly critique and deconstruct orthodoxy and which appeared in many guises. In this case, it is religious orthodoxy. Since very few people in the village go to the temple anymore to give offerings, the oracle is forced to beg for food. In one sequence, the oracle, exploiting his status as a religious figure that everyone respects, visits the homes of local people for rice. However, when a women rebuffs the oracle for begging, it is just one of many humiliating scenarios that marks the decline of faith in the village and ridicules his position.

The film opens with a montage of quick edits venerating the image of the Mother Goddess followed by a short sequence in which the oracle performs a ritualised Chenda dance in the temple. Nair imbues the oracle’s extended religiosity as a feverish performance, a true devotee. The ritualised dance is made altogether potent with the iconography of the ceremonial sword wielded by the oracle in a brazen style and that draws blood. But as soon as the ritualised dance is over, we learn about the dearth of offerings and how the people of the village have stopped visiting the temple. The priest who has been appointed to serve at the temple announces he is leaving, arguing a dwindling lack of revenue cannot sustain him a livelihood in the village anymore. Unlike the priest who abandons the temple, the oracle is dead set in his ways, dismissing the warnings of his wife that they are barely surviving. Later, a new priest arrives, an educated young man, who seduces the oracle’s daughter, Ammini, but only to leave abruptly to get married. Appu, the son of the oracle, also leaves the village, completely disillusioned with the family’s impoverished state. Even the feudal landowner who lords over the village pokes fun at the redundancy of religious rituals, ceremonies and processes that can no longer be sustained in the face of modernity.

But what makes Nirmalayam a daring work is the ending, a radical tour de force of expressionist imagery and religious symbolism. Upon discovering his wife has been sleeping with a Muslim shopkeeper from whom he has borrowed some money and which he has no way of paying back, the oracle who is set to perform a ritual dance at a major ceremony in the village unleashes his rage at the Mother Goddess whom he has served with such unswerving dignity. In the closing moments when he is in the temple, the oracle spits blood at the Mother Goddess, a defiant gesture that he also realises will curse and condemn him. But Nair frames this defiant gesture as something instinctive, necessary, and a source of expiation, carrying with it a vehemently anti-religious coda that is inherently radical in the way modernity and change devours all that stands in its path. P. J. Anthony is remarkable in the main lead of the village oracle. Nirmalayam is a rich and subversive work.

THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR (Dir. Ivan Dixon, 1973, US) – ‘You have just played out the American dream…now, we’re gonna turn it into a nightmare’

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The high point of Blaxploitation political radicalism is commonly signposted with Melvin Van Peebles groundbreaking film – ‘Sweetback’. When considering the limitations of Blaxploitation cinema, the seminal nature of Peebles film should in no way exclusively act as the definitive reference point for the radicalism of the era or black cinema. Released in 1973, The Spook who sat by the door falls under the auspice of Blaxploitation but the political reality with which it dealt, that of black militancy and anti establishment ideology, is an aspect that most films avoided in fear of commercial alienation and criticism from the white establishment. The claim that Blaxploitation offered new ways of representing what it meant to be black in America seems like another liberal oversight considering how many of these films perpetuated a fantasy urban image of a black anti-hero. Many of these so called Blaxploitation films did little to further the political cause of the black communities in America as many of the films were financed by the major studios in a deliberate and premature attempt to cash in on the emergence of a new black audience. With Blaxploitation, the difficulty with articulating a differing ideological perspective, one which was as fiercely radical and uncompromising as that of the values of black revolutionaries, remained worryingly absent from mainstream cinema.

Black actor and film maker, Ivan Dixon’s second film as a director, The Spook who sat by the door, makes for provocative and highly charged viewing today. Yet the explicit political sympathy it shows with the ideology of black militancy and its centrality within the black community as a force of real change continues to be largely responsible for its relative obscurity and marginal status. Written by Chicago based black activist Sam Greenlee, ‘The Spook who sat by the door’, was published in 1968. Greenlee served as a foreign services officer with the US Information Agency between 1954 and 1957. Though his first novel was a work of fiction, it undoubtedly reflected his own personal experience (and perhaps the discrimination he faced) working for an extension of the white establishment. Co-adapted by Greenlee for the screen (he also acted as one of the producers alongside Ivan Dixon), the novel like the film follows the journey of black CIA agent Dan Freeman who uses his training and skills to create a popular black uprising in the deprived ghetto of Chicago.

Post 68, America had been traumatised by a wave of political assassinations including that of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The death of the civil rights movement and the political gap left by the absence of aspiring leaders brought about a period of disillusionment. The reactionary, armed struggle and brand of empowering black militancy advocated by Marxist groups like The Black Panthers questioned the pacifist approach taken by the civil rights activists as somewhat abortive in achieving the ultimate objective of political, social and economic independence and freedom. Rejecting the non-violent ideologies of Martin Luther, black militancy argued that for real change and progress to take place in the black communities it would need to emerge from a collective and somewhat revolutionary attitude towards the oppression of the white establishment.

A handful of films were able to channel such anxieties including the much dismissed and misinterpreted 1973 film, The Spook who sat by the door. The financing for the project came from wealthy black members of the Chicago community whilst Ivan Dixon’s credentials as a black actor and competent director of TV shows secured a distribution deal with United Artists who also agreed to contribute the final share of the budget. On this basis alone, one could argue that Dixon’s film is an independent feature, made outside the sphere of studio interference and described by Greenlee as ‘guerrilla’ film making. Dixon had promised United Artists another blaxploitation film in the vein of his directorial debut Trouble Man but the finished film enraged the studio who gave it a truncated release. Ivan Dixon started his Hollywood career acting as an uncredited student double for Sidney Poitier on The Defiant Ones. Eventually shifting into television, recognition came with Nothing but a Man, an independent film for which he received critical acclaim in the lead role.

Dixon spent much of his career directing apolitical television shows, much of which he has openly criticised as insignificant. His career after The Spook who sat by the door seemed to stall; Dixon accused the FBI of making it difficult for him to find work – his inflammatory political ideals did not go down well with the wider conservative elements of the white establishment. I think the staunch resistance Dixon faced from United Artists when it came to distribution and the suppression of the final film galvanised a mind set which confirmed that it was possible to make a political film but virtually impossible to get it distributed. I suspect this is what largely prevented Dixon from continuing his engagement with political film making. He tried but had failed at subverting the system.

What makes The Spook who sat by the door fascinating viewing today is the film’s uncompromising approach in detailing the ideology of black militancy – the idea of an armed struggle is something that we actually witness and take place in the film. Perhaps the major criticism with the film is Dixon’s over reliance on the trappings of the blaxploitation film – one can see clear evidence throughout of Dixon’s anxiety with making a film that would potentially limit the commercial prospects. Upon the rigorous recruitment procedure, Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook) is hired to be the CIA’s first black agent and immediately given a redundant, powerless and token desk job. In the sequences in which Freeman interacts with the white establishment, Dixon mocks the Uncle Tom stereotype as our protagonist acts submissively, politely following orders and maintaining his subservient position as the CIA’s pathetic symbol of liberalism.

Though his time at the CIA is a humiliating one, Freeman’s infiltration proves to be worthwhile as he puts to work his skills and knowledge as an agent to instigate a political revolt in his own community. He recruits a mixture of naïve community activists and politicised revolutionaries, teaching them how political resistance must be determined by acts of violent retaliation – he inevitably attracts the support and even consent of the local community who rally around the group’s radical oppositional thinking. For me, this was the most surprising aspect of the film. Unlike most films in which the revolutionary or radical is eventually captured, imprisoned and killed, the ending sees Freeman very much in control of the revolution and prepared to go to any lengths to ensure it achieves the purpose of political emancipation – the CIA and FBI are unable to repress Freeman as he uses their ideas of guerrilla warfare as a weapon against them. The irony here is simply devastating.

Ivan Dixon’s film seems to be a missing link between the work of black film makers in the 1970s and the confrontational politics of a contemporary black film maker like Spike Lee.