In one of the early dialogues in the film Mulk, the prosecution lawyer Santosh Anand (played by Ashutosh Rana) in a court scene states that, while it is said that all Muslims are not terrorists, “kaun kaun kaisa hai yeh kaun batayega?” (Who is what, how is one to know?)
It is easy to choose if the good and bad sides are clearly demarcated. But Mulk reveals the shades of grey in all Indians. It depicts minorities as both the wrong doers and the wronged. It shows us majoritarian aggression as well as apathy. The film lays bare a simple story, where each one of us would have personally known at least one character from the film in our real lives.
Making or Breaking Stereotypes?
While it is alleged that the ‘usual stereotypes’ are reinforced in the film, I also found so many of them being broken. The unquestionable acceptance of a non-muslim daughter-in-law for example. The ‘badi bahu’ of the house dressing as she likes - for instance the calf-length dress in her introductory sequence – with no objection from others in the household, which includes a hijabi.
Mulk starkly highlights the hollowness of stereotyped arguments of inadequate education and a high number of children, through all the Muslim protagonists in the film (while explicitly calling the same the work of a prejudiced mind).
Yes, it uses the skull cap liberally, but not universally. It does not blame the family for planting the seeds of discontent in the mind of the ‘terrorist’ (Prateik Babbar), but only puts the onus of not being more vigilant on them, especially in the times that we’re living in. It makes the case that the dissatisfaction among Indian Muslims is on the same lines as their Hindu counterparts –bijli, paani, sadak, and jobs.
Mulk gives us two youths, both equally jobless and radicalised. While the one from the Muslim minority community finds a mentor in ‘underground’ elements, the other belonging to the Hindu majority seeks power and strength from political affiliations. Both characters are used through the reinforcement of their need for shared disenfranchisement – the ‘minority’ is given the weak path to show brute force and the ‘majority’ is given political support to vandalise and claim open spaces and loud noises.
Both actions are shrouded in a religious garb. While one is termed terrorism, the other, hooliganism. Mulk goes the extra mile and calls out this problem of nomenclature.
Is Every Muslim a Terrorist?
I remember talking to many Muslim mothers about their kids being bullied in classrooms, and being told to ‘go to Pakistan’. I asked them if Muslim kids can retaliate in the same way? Can a non-Muslim student be called a terrorist, or Pakistani even, in ‘harmless jokes’? The answer, almost always, was a vehement “no”. I thought of this as the unfairness in Mulk’s grey zones played out on screen.
Was there really a moral sanction in either paths walked by the two youths? Killing of the soul and self-esteem should be as much an equal opportunity offender as killing of the body.
This is what Mulk does. It make us question our assumptions, pulling us out of our prejudices, and turning the mirror towards our uncomfortable truths, our times and ourselves.
We are happy believing that bigots are vocalised only through trolls on social media. We forget that they echo in the heads of thousands more offline. Is that why their representation on celluloid disturbs us?
There is a scene where Murad Ali Mohammed (the lead Muslim protagonist played by Rishi Kapoor), tells off a group of Muslims in the Masjid for bursting crackers to celebrate the Pakistani cricket team. This scene is seen as pandering to a majoritarian discourse, acting as a dog whistle. Instead, why can’t we see the scene for the reality it represents? As a minority within a minority? And in fact, the film does its viewers a service by stating this fact.
Another scene worth highlighting is that of the prosecution lawyer going into a verbal diarrhoea over what he considers to be the many fallings of the Muslim community. Every possible trope in the Sanghi manual is pulled out and laid bare. This scene makes many cringe for being too bombastic. Instead, we need to realise that this is exactly how all anti-Muslim conversations sound in our living rooms and on our social media timelines.
In fact, the film also gives us Danish Javed (an ATS officer played by Rajat Kapoor), a man who embodies all shades of grey, who in his quest to rise up, demonises his own community, so as to stand taller on an imaginary scale of morality and patriotism.
There is only one way to know ‘kaun kaisa hai’ (who is what) – channelise your empathy and disengage from political rhetoric. I don’t think Mulk creates external binaries, but it does reveal those within.
(Nazia Erum is the author of the critically acclaimed and bestselling book, 'Mothering A Muslim'. She writes on the intersections of gender, faith and politics. She tweets at @nazia_e. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)