Indians are terrible people, let's face it. We truly are. I realised this while watching Mulk, a Muslim-themed pastiche of Shoojit Sircar's Pink, though naturally that realisation is ever recurrent. While walking out of the film discussing xenophobia, I was forced to overhear a diatribe on how people from one of the Indian states eat humans. I don’t even want to know who these people talking in front of me are, but we’re definitely somebody else inside our skins.
Mulk is the tale of an ordinary Muslim family, living in harmony with their mostly Hindu neighbours in Benares, that veritable melting pot of cultures and beliefs which houses BHU. That is what's portrayed in the first 15 minutes of the film anyway, wherein advocate Murad Ali (Rishi Kapoor) wishes his friends and neighbours a friendly Salaam Walaikum, only to receive a laid-back Ram Ram in return, because caste and creed are no bar in this city.
Alas, Murad’s nephew Shahid (Prateik Babbar, curiously clumsy in this particular role) is seduced by the machinations of terrorism and the (admittedly justified) fear of oppressive judgement. He participates in a terror plot – which kills 16 people -- and then, even worse, fails to die tamely in a police encounter like his two cohorts and holes up in a neighbourhood in Benares. Then begins a manhunt which soon culminates in a courtroom battle.
Given that his father Bilaal ran a ramshackle electronic shop, it’s evident how the state views them. In the eyes of the authority, this is the making of a terrorist. Luckily the electrician’s older brother is a lawyer and the family’s Hindu daughter-in-law is one as well. Shall Justice prevail?
Director Anubhav Sinha has taken more than a leaf out of Shoojit Sircar's book, given that Mulk is set in a template nigh identical to Pink. If Pink spoke of the challenges faced by single women in India day in and day out, Mulk addresses the casual religious intolerance faced by Muslims in a country mostly populated by the Hindus.
The burden of the film's histrionics lies mostly on the broad and svelte shoulders of Rishi Kapoor and Taapsee Pannu respectively, and they acquit themselves competently. Rishi assumes a gravitas that carries the theme of Mulk, while Taapsee is the pragmatically perfect Hindu-born bahu to a Muslim household, syncretic to a fault and the Aarti to their Namaaz (kudos to the character names).
Watching Neena Gupta as the elder Tabassum (her sister-in-law shares the same name) is sheer pleasure; she doesn't dominate the scenes she's in as much as she palliates them, providing much needed succour in sequences inundated with pathos and misery, not to mention much wailing. Manoj Pahwa and Rajat Kapoor are also fabulous; the former's bumbling Bilal and the latter's dour SSP Danish capture the two extremes of perceived Indian Muslim stereotypes.
Then, in the other corner is Ashutosh Rana's superlatively essayed prosecuting lawyer, a bundle of contradicting joviality and menace, a shark in the Gangetic courts of Benares who's as dead-eyed as he is hearty. Watch out for him.
Finally, Mulk isn’t original cinema, it’s not even its own film, but it’s a much needed reminder and lesson that we live in a secular nation, something that we always strive for.