‘Mulk’: A Step in the Right Direction for Muslim Representation

‘Mulk’ fits in a lot of thoughts about the Muslim community’s place in Indian society.

Updated
Bollywood
3 min read
Rishi Kapoor and Taapsee Pannu in a still from <i>Mulk</i>.&nbsp;
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I can’t be blamed for being skeptical about Mulk. The Rishi Kapoor-Taapsee Pannu starrer appeared to be another piece of mainstream entertainment banking on a topical issue, in this case discrimination against Muslims in India, to score points. Mulk is written and directed by Anubhav Sinha, who in his previous films like Dus, Ra.One and Tum Bin II has shown no inclination of political awareness. Something about Mulk surely felt like a cynical exercise.

Well, colour me surprised. Mulk is a finely made film, a nuanced yet crowd pleasing attempt at fitting in a lot of thoughts about the Muslim community’s place in Indian society.

Mulk is shot beautifully by Ewan Mulligan. The cast of the film is great all around with underrated actors like Ashutosh Rana, Kumud Mishra and Manoj Pahwa getting meaty parts. I was especially glad to see Neena Gupta, who definitely goes to court. The film has a few problematic moments but ultimately Sinha deserves credit.

Bollywood depictions of Muslims tend to fall into a binary; we are either a collection of stereotypes prone to regressive and anti-national thinking, or we are liberal ‘good’ Muslims who carry no outward signs of their faith. Of course, this is also the average Islamophobe’s imagined binary.

Mulk complicates this world view by showing the Mohammeds at the centre of the story as a typical Muslim family but also, you know, decent folks. When one of their own is involved in a terrorist attack, they are forced to prove their innocence but more importantly, their decency.

Rishi Kapoor and Taapsee Pannu in a still from <i>Mulk</i>.
Rishi Kapoor and Taapsee Pannu in a still from Mulk.
(Photo courtesy: Twitter)
The plot is simply an excuse to bring the action to a courthouse, where not just the Mohammeds but their entire community is put on trial. It is here that Sinha injects a healthy dose of bombast, and successfully manipulates the audience into cheering for some pretty subversive points. Ashutosh Rana as the prosecutor becomes a mouthpiece for every “concern” lobbied against Muslims right up to resentment against the Mughals. Through him, Mulk perfectly captures the false sense of victimhood that grips the Hindu right wing today. It is unsubtle yet refreshing to see popular Whatsapp talking points coming from a clearly marked villain.
Ashutosh Rana in a still from <i>Mulk</i>.
Ashutosh Rana in a still from Mulk.
(Photo courtesy: Twitter)

The film’s intelligence lies in never dignifying these allegations with a response or giving in to nationalistic defenses. Kapoor’s Murad Ali is a good person who deserves to live peacefully not because he loves India, but because he is a good person who deserves to live peacefully. The film never pushes a rosy ideal of bhaichara and forgiveness. Such complexity may seem like too little too late for the enlightened, but it goes a long way with mainstream audiences.

There are many pointed asides in the film, with knowing references to the RSS and “aaj kal ka mahaul”. Most interesting is Rajat Kapoor’s SSP Danish Javed, who sends up red flags when he is introduced. Here is an apparent ‘good Muslim’ authority figure as the cliche goes. The movie upends this by depicting him as a self-hating trigger happy opportunist. It’s a fascinating character that left me wanting more.

Rishi Kapoor in <i>Mulk</i>.
Rishi Kapoor in Mulk.
(Photo courtesy: Twitter)

There is a lot of such lived-in nuance in Mulk, and the film uses it like a hammer to address the anxieties that Indian Muslims have to deal with every day. Murad Ali with his kurta, beard and skull cap could be seen as less of a person than a signifier. He is also a retired advocate who just started growing his beard because “hamare yahaan sunnat hai.” Murad has issues with his community but that does not mean he wants to be separated from it. My own father has recently retired and given in to the comforts of a kurta, and every time he steps out I worry if he would be seen as “too Muslim”. Mulk posits: who are we to tell these old men how to live?

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