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Chronicling Islamophobia: Kannada Film Daredevil Musthafa Mirrors India Today

The real tension erupts when a newcomer, named Jamal Abdullah Musthafa Hussain, arrives at the college.

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Daredevil Musthafa by debutant director Shashank Soghal has created a buzz among the Kannada film audience. The newly formed government making the film tax free and BJP MP Patap Simha promoting the film has created curiosity even among those who are outside the circle of those thrilled about the film for promoting secular values and those excited about the film for it being based on a short-story by the Kannada writer and cultural icon Poornachandra Tejaswi.

Set in Abachuru which, as the narrator says, neither comes under village council nor under municipality council, the film primarily explores the uneasiness caused in an all-Hindu college by the arrival of a new student Musthafa, belonging to the Muslim community.

In tune with the tone and texture of Poornachandra Tejaswi's work, the film Daredevil Musthafa uses humour as a style and playfulness as an approach to tell the tale. The impact is effective, helps the film become engaging – without endorsing the occurrences that unfold with the plot – and ensures the political vision of the film is not lost.

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When Segregation Leads to Islamophobia

Daredevil Musthafa is neither the most prominent nor the most popular story by Poornachandra Tejaswi, whose stories Abachurina Post-Offeesu, Tabrana Katey, Kubi Mattu Iyaala, and Kiriyoorina Gayyaaligalu, have been made into films earlier.

Even though it's not one of the best stories by Poornachandra Tejaswi and certainly not a story with enough flesh for a feature film, Shashank Soghal has opted for the story Dardevil Musthafa for the subject’s political relevance – that of prejudice against Muslims and the need for communal harmony – in contemporary India. This ‘dare’ of the director certainly deserves an applause.

The film revolves around the character Ramanuja Iyengari and his friends Sampath Kumar, Shankar Shetty, Pulakeshi and Srinivasa. Three among the five are in love with their classmate Rama Mani, though their romantic inclination triggers no friction or tension among these friends. Even though teachers and students of the college do not share a very graceful relationship, there is fun and frolic even in the hierarchical relationship.

The real tension erupts when a newcomer, named Jamal Abdullah Musthafa Hussain, arrives at the college.

Even before Musthafa reaches the college, rumours about him – having long beard and him bathing not in water but itr – do the rounds. The narrator of the film explains how the villagers and the students have certain notions about Muslims because of the jobs they do – butchering, leather work, and metal work. The narrator also says even what students read in textbooks about India's princely rulers who were Muslims, have created stereotypical views about Muslims in general.

The ways of Muslims also seem ‘strange,’ says the narrator – especially the wearing of burqa and going to the Masjid late in the night during festivals. These simple matters, we realise early on, have created an Islamophobic atmosphere in the village and the college.

Segregation leading to unfamiliarity, unfamiliarity leading to ignorance, ignorance leading to fear, and fear leading to hatred are well articulated at the very beginning of the film.
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A 'Designed' Character in a Biased Filmic Universe

The place where the film unfolds – Abachuru – has been witnessing communal clashes every year during Ganesh Chaturuthi. To make matters worse, there was a case of a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy eloping from the village, deepening the divide between the two communities.

When Musthafa arrives at the college, the principal insists on checking his pockets – the prejudice that awaits Musthafa in the college becomes extremely evident early on.

We see how the prejudice affects day-to-day life. Srinivas, who steals tiffin from others’ lunch boxes, believes Musthafa must be carrying biryani in his box only to find curd-rice in it. The boys file a false complaint against Musthafa, exclude him from sports, and also keep referring to him in derogatory language.

The language used by characters in the film reflect biases the Hindu majoritarian society, arguably, harbours. The insensitive remarks made by Bengaluru MP Tejasvi Soorya about illiteracy among Muslims also makes its way into a dialogue.

Faced with such biases, Musthafa wonders why people are against him even without knowing him. He even says, “I am new to this village, yet why do I attract such animosity?” When he is told about the inter-faith couple who eloped, he innocently asks, “Why extend that hatred to me when I don’t even know him?” Musthafa being oblivious about the cause of hostility does twist our gut, making us feel for him.

Musthafa embracing Srinivas for accidentally hurting him, his bravery during the Ganesh Utsav which diffuses a possible communal clash, him being extremely good at football, his interest in Kannada poetry, and his bravery in questioning teachers, make the character pre-designed to puncture biased perceptions.

But the writers have tried to balance this out with his child-like quality in wanting to wear a fez cap, his hesitation when Rama Mani tries to communicate with him, and his playfulness with Ramanuja during the 'talent day.'

However, Musthafa does seem ‘designed’ and not organically evolved in the narrative universe.

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A Promising Director's Unfailing Film

Daredevil Musthafa gets a bit lost after having established the bias among villagers against Muslims. Incidents depicting bias are shown in engaging ways but the story doesn’t proceed much further. The fun, beautiful, and skillful first half of the film makes way for a second half where all of it gets eroded bit by bit.

The same fights continue, the same bias continues, and Musthafa continues to wonder and ask the same questions too. The incidents are different but their undercurrents remain the same. The conflict repeats itself in different ways almost like it is the socio-political reality of our society. With an ideal end in mind, without knowing how to reach there, the film, like our society, loses its way, liveliness, and beauty.

To break the bias of the characters against Musthafa, to bring harmony in the college in Abachuru, becomes the vision of the film. But it falls short in making that journey possible in a convincing way. The film introduces cricket into the narrative in an interesting way, underlining not just the insecurity and itch for glory in Ramanuja, but also the Brahminical nature of the game which maintains bodily distances.

But when cricket is used as a device to resolve the conflict, the film’s craft, rhythm, and even politics erodes. The characters appear sketchy, the plot gets contrived and predictable, and the telling – with its withholding of information and delayed expositions – becomes gimmicky.

The film which started off like a well sculpted story with rich and interesting detailing through minor strokes, eventually becomes a moral-science lesson with broad strokes. While it effectively becomes a ‘mirror’ to the existing scenario, it falls short in becoming a ‘lit lamp.’

Raising questions, showing the mirror to the society are markers of good art. But the film Daredevil Musthafa remains unfulfilling as it neatly establishes conflict and elaborates it without convincingly and organically taking its characters to their desired end.

But there can be no question, despite the unfulfilling nature of Dardevil Musthafa, about two matters. One, the film has its heart in the right place even when it falls short in the end. Two, the film is skillfully and cinematically made and the director of the film is a talent to look forward to.

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