Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk is a relevant and timely film. Set in Banaras, the film tells the story of the members of a Muslim family who are forced to fight for their dignity after they are falsely accused of being terrorists. Murad Ali Mohammed (Rishi Kapoor) and his wife Tabassum (Neena Gupta) live in their family home along with Murad’s brother Bilal Ali Mohammed (Manoj Pahwa) and his wife Tabassum (Prachee Shah Pandya). They have good relationships with their Hindu neighbors. Their life takes a turn when Bilal’s son Shahid (Prateik Babbar) plays a crucial role in carrying out bomb blasts in a neighboring city. Shahid is killed by Inspector Danish (Rajat Kapoor). However, the police accuse Bilal and Murad as conspirators for providing material support for Shahid’s crime. Murad’s daughter-in-law Aarti (Taapsee Pannu), who is a lawyer, fights for her family in court. The film is inspired by newspaper headlines in India over the last few years, a period marked by an increased polarization between the communities resulting from the changes in the political dispensation.
Mulk opens with a teacher writing two words in the Urdu script—khuda and juda—where he mentions that the structure of these two words is exactly the same and the only difference between the two words is the position of the dot. This seems to be inspired by the following couplet that mentions something similar.
Woh mohabbat mohabbat likhte rahe,
Hum mehnat mehnat padhte rahe,
Nukte ke her pher se khuda juda ho gaya.
He kept on writing love,
I kept on reading it as effort,
Because of one dot, God turned to separation.
In Urdu, a dot, also known as a nukta, has a special significance. A change in the position of the dot can change the meaning of a word. This couplet is in line with Mulk‘s theme which is about how people are prejudiced against others on the basis of the khuda (God) they follow. Ultimately, all religions have the same underlying philosophy (the same core structure). They all talk about God, just that the path to that God is different (the position of the nukta). This inherent similarity of religions is shown in other ways in Mulk as well. The daughter is named Ayat, while the daughter-in-law is named Aarti. Both these names—one Muslim and one Hindu—have the same meaning of prayer. When there is Urs, the procession leads to a traffic jam on the roads. Likewise, when there is a Jagran, the people are again on the roads blocking the traffic. Both religions treat public places in the same way.
One more similarity in the two religions that Mulk tries to present is the victimhood of the young. Shahid gets influenced by Mehfooz Alam (Sumit Kaul) who brainwashes him by saying that Muslims do not fight for their rights which is why they are in a poor condition. Later, Shahid calls Muslims as victims and comments that he and Rashid (Ashrut Jain) have not found any jobs. Rashid corrects him that their Hindu friends also have not found any jobs in spite of having higher marks than them. On the other side is the son of Choubey, Murad’s neighbor, who has also turned into a fundamentalist. The son is more interested in working for his religion and his nation instead of having a job. He tells his father that Hindus are being killed in their own country and he is busy having a meal at the house of his Muslim friends. The young in both the religions are shown to toe the line of extremism. At some other stage in the film, a man justifies Shahid’s actions and tells Murad in a mosque that these days the kids can see the pitiable state of Muslims from all over the world, hence, their anger is justified. One would expect the young to have a more liberal outlook but, somehow, these days we see the opposite to be true. The young seem to be more conservative. We are seeing that every community is engaging in a kind of competitive victimhood. A cursory glance at the social media trends shows how everyone loves to be a victim whether it be the ban on crackers or the ban on triple talaaq. After all, it is easy to blame one’s own faults onto others. I remember one of my favorite quotes from Priyanka Gandhi where she says, “People ask about non-violence, I think true non-violence is the absence of victimhood.” This is such a deep thought which is very true. If this perceived victimhood goes away, things can get a lot better for everyone.
The premise of Mulk is based on prejudice and bias. It is about how humans develop biases against others who are different from them based on certain social stereotypes. These biases could be either conscious or unconscious. In an early scene in the film, a woman refuses to eat anything at the party thrown by Murad and says she does not believe in eating at the house of Muslims. The arguments in the court that Santosh Anand (Ashutosh Rana) put forward against Murad and Bilal were based on his biased view of the Muslim community. He claims that Muslims are uneducated and have more children. He applied this perception in his arguments against the accused. He claims that there are only a handful of Muslim achievers without realizing there are many more in history. Later, Aarti questions Danish, a Muslim cop serving in the anti-terror squad, where he also admits he was biased against the members of his own community. Mulk asks everyone to introspect about this bias and remove this dirt of prejudice from their vision. Apna chashma saaf kijye, duniya khud saaf ho jayegi. Clear your spectacles, the world would automatically seem cleaner.
Just because someone is a Muslim does not make him less of a patriot. And, that is why the film’s most thoughtful scene is the one where Murad narrates his story of the time when his wife asked him to prove his love for her. In court, Murad was asked the same question but this time he was asked to prove his love for his nation because he was a Muslim. He tells Aarti, “Ab pyaar saabit kaise kiya jaata hai?” How does one prove love? Then, he asks Aarti to fight his case. His Hindu daughter-in-law will fight his case to prove his love for the nation. And, on the other side, there is the superintendent of police, Danish, a Muslim, fighting a case against the members of his own community. Perhaps, that is why the scenes between Aarti and Danish are so powerful.
One interesting thing that was portrayed in Mulk was that truth and justice are two separate concepts which might not necessarily reconcile with each other in the annals of law. At one point, a media management consultant and Santosh Anand talk about truth and justice. The man says, in the early days, there was no concept of justice as such. A man drinks a cow’s milk, while a lion can eat a cow. No one asked for justice then, the man or the cow. It was only when modern living started, the concept of justice came into being. To humor him, Santosh Anand replies, “Satya zyada avashyak hai nyaya?” Is truth more important or justice? Sometimes, both are believed to be the same but it is quite intuitive to understand the differences between the two. Justice is often based on perceived truth, while the actual truth might be different. This conversation on truth and justice again pops up later in the film when Aarti and Danish are having tea. Danish asks her if she thinks she will win the case. Aarti replies, “Sach samjha dungi court ko, justice unka kaam hai.” I will tell the truth; dispensing justice is the court’s task. It again reinforces the idea that truth and justice might not be the same. Justice appears again in the final moments of the film. After the court’s final verdict, Santosh Anand walks up to Aarti and says, “Aaj phir nyaya ne dharam ko chitt kar diya.” Justice trumped religion once again. It must be mentioned that he uses the word dharam and not dharma, two words which are also often assumed to be the same but are quite different in their meaning.
In court, Santosh Anand refers to Karan Johar’s My Name Is Khan when he argues about the business of terrorism. But while watching the film, I was reminded of another film of Shah Rukh Khan—Chak De! India. At one point in Mulk, the neighbors write terrorist and Go To Pakistan on the wall of Murad’s house after they found out about Shahid’s role in the bomb blasts. This is quite reminiscent of Chak De! India in a similar context where the neighbors wrote Gaddar on the outside wall of Kabir Khan’s house after he lost a crucial hockey match. He was accused of being in cahoots with the Pakistani hockey team. Religious prejudice against a Muslim Kabir Khan makes some people suspicious of his motives, labeling him a traitor. Kabir decides to leave his house while his mother says that their neighbors would believe in them, but no one comes to support and see them off. In a similar fashion, Tabassum, Murad’s wife, had believed that their neighbors would always support them but they abandoned them. No one even came for the funeral of Bilal, which is why she wants to leave. The film’s tagline which was removed by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) was also related to this. It said, “When your own disown you.” The people with whom you have spent years suddenly turn against you. This is also what happens in communal riots. The neighbours perpetuate the crimes on neighbours whom they have known for years.
The role of a judge in a court is to act unbiasedly and deliver judgments based solely on the facts of the case. The judge Harish Madhok, played brilliantly by Kumud Mishra, initially seemed to be biased in the favor of Santosh Anand. However, as the case progressed, he displayed impartiality and fairness to both sides. The judge truly became a judge. The judgment that he delivered is important in the current times of fake news. In his judgment, he says that the constitution should be the sole guiding book if anyone tries to prove that certain religions do not belong to India. One must clear the dust from his prejudiced vision. He also calls out WhatsApp messages which are nothing but bigoted propaganda with political motives and encourages people to read history. He also makes the comment to separate the state and the religion. The temple is not a place for political speech and the parliament is not the place for a religious prayer. And, the most wonderful of the lot where he says, “Aur humko jab bhi ko hum aur woh me baantne ki koshish kare, ki hum acche hain, woh bure hain, toh ghar jaake calendar dekh lijiyega ki election me kitna time bacha hai.” Whenever someone tries to divide us into us versus them, that we are good, and they are evil, then go home and check if the election dates are nearing.
Rishi Kapoor and Manoj Pahwa deliver terrific performances as the two brothers. The film does not provide any clarity on the reason of the brothers not talking to each other. Taapsee Pannu is really good in the court scenes. Other performances by the members, such as Neena Gupta and Rajat Kapoor, are noteworthy. But Prateik Babbar was bad. There was something weird about the way he spoke his lines as if he is just not interested in the role. Also, I felt that the film is shot in a way that it gives out a feeling of coldness, unlike other films that are based in Banaras that focus on the colorful and the vibrant nature of the city. The visual tone of the film is a bit darker.
In the last scene of the film, a young boy is shown wearing a skull cap and the t-shirt of the Indian cricket team with Dhoni’s name on it. Cricket is a religion in itself in India with cricketers worshipped like Gods. Along with films, it is a unifying force in a nation that is dealing with numerous fault lines every day. It is only then befitting that Mulk which opens with a chapter on separation (juda khuda), ends with a lesson on unification.
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