It is heartening to see a mainstream film take up an issue right out of the headlines. Seen as a straightforward drama about one family’s trauma, Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk is mostly engaging. But then taking up a subject like terrorism and the discrimination of Muslims means there will be some subtext—intentional or not—and the director has to be careful not to let the contrivances show.
The family of Murad Ali Mohammad (Rishi Kapoor) is traditional—going by their clothing and appearance—living cheek-by-jowl with Hindus in Varanasi. They live in complete harmony with others in the mohalla, but there is some unexplained tension in the home, between Murad Ali and his brother Bilal (Manoj Pahwa - brilliant). Murad Ali’s London-based son has married the Hindu Aarti (Taapsee Pannu - sincere), and they are having some differences over the religion of their unborn children.
It is possible, but not likely, that a boy from such a family will become a terrorist, but Bilal’s son Shahid (Prateek Babbar) does, and is responsible for a bomb blast that kills many people. It is obvious that in an atmosphere like this, the cops will treat the family harshly. If the investigating officer Danish Javed (Rajat Kapoor - remarkably effective) happens to be a Muslim himself, he will be even harsher to prove that he is not one of ‘them.’ The main point of the film is about Us and Them, but it is twisted to mean Hindu and Muslim, when it could well mean two factions of Muslims. If a young man kills in the name of religion, how can the family not come under the suspicion? How can the neighbours and friends –of both religions-- not distance themselves?
The one who comes as the family’s saviour is the daughter-in-law, and the decision of the director to make her a Hindu has political connotations too. So do some of the ancillary events. Like, when Shahid’s terrorist links are revealed, the neighbours suddenly start asserting their Hindu identity with a jaagran.
The court scenes, where the sneering prosecutor Santosh Anand (Ashutosh Rana) paints all Muslims with the same brush, it is easy for Aarti to deflect him with sensible arguments, especially when the judge (Kumud Mishra) is amazingly level-headed. These scenes have a kind of dramatic power, but the complexity of the situation is outside the scope of this film, that just wants to noisily proclaim its secularism. It is, undoubtedly, very important to do that, which is why Mulk is worth watching.
Rishi Kapoor towers over the film with a performance that is intensely felt; Manoj Pahwa’s Bilal gets the sympathy because his suffering is there to see, but Murad Ali’s anguish is that of a man whose belief systems are being ripped apart and he does not know whether to hold on or let go. It is very tough part, and Kapoor deserves all the awards there are!