What is it that makes “Mulk” tick?

Anjan Basu

The storyline seems contrived, the characterisation often unrealistic in a movie built around a topical theme. Yet it is a profoundly moving film. Why?

When I went to see Mulk last month, I set off for the theatre in trepidation. I had by then read a couple of reviews of the film – quite perceptive ones – and I had also watched the film’s director as well as its male protagonist discuss the film, its background and its message on a major national TV network in a primetime slot. It seemed to me that it was a noble film, also a courageous film given the current political milieu, and I sincerely hoped that I would like the film very much. But I was somewhat apprehensive. The reviews suggested that the storyline was a little thin and its treatment somewhat simplistic. The TV discussion also pointed to that possibility.

In the end, my fears came true. The simplifications – even the unabashed over-simplifications -- were all there, and in no small measure. As a critic had noted, even a film such as Mulk, which had set out to break mindless stereotypes,  could not do without projecting, and in fact placing firmly at its centre, another stereotype – that of the ‘good Muslim’ aka ‘the patriotic Muslim’. There were also plenty of unidimensional  characters in the movie: the self-righteous Hindu neighbour who thinks nothing of reporting  the supposed transgressions of his hospitable (and always welcoming) Muslim neighbour to the police without bothering to find out what has really happened and how; the villainous public prosecutor who relishes every half-opportunity of declaiming against  Islam and Muslims and cynically, remorselessly goes about pushing the family towards its ruin; the young ‘terrorist’ himself, who manages to turn everyone’s world topsy-turvy, but shows very little of himself as a man, a member of the Murad Ali family....  Each is a barely- fleshed- out character at best. Each is there in the story mainly to serve a specific purpose, and not so much as a flesh-and-blood human who breathes and grows and falters and decays.

At the centre of this essentially unreal world sits the courtroom. For much of the film, all audience attention is riveted on this courtroom which is presided over by an avuncular judge. And the courtroom scenes happen to be frankly, unabashedly improbable. The daughter-in-law, in the city supposedly on a short visit, dons her lawyer’s cloak and effortlessly slips into the role of an astute  human rights champion who makes rousing speeches; the main accused stands by after his testimony is over, and makes passionate appeals to the judge to not implicate his elder brother; both prosecution and defence call upon witnesses seemingly out of turn and conjure them into existence at will; the defence does not appear to be in any need for ‘preparing’ its case which it nevertheless presents with consummate skill; and on both sides, long, rolling, ringing speeches that seem to leap straight out of three-penny novels or soap operas....

And yet, I loved Mulk. Indeed, I was intrigued how the movie brought tears to my eyes – and my eyes are neither young nor new to melodrama. As I watched the denouement, I felt a little light in the head at the same time that I felt strangely elated. ‘Felt uplifted’ would have been nearer the mark, except that it would sound like sentimental frivolity. I tried to figure out how this was happening. And what I could dimly make out is what follows.

As the strength of the defence’s case waxes and wanes, the counsel (Aarti Mohammad) settles on an unusual, and completely unexpected, argument. She turns  her own case on its head and asks Murad Ali to prove to the court his and his family’s patriotism, their commitment to the land they were born and grew up in. It is a surprising  line for the defence to take, but it achieves its goal with startling success: for, after all, how does an ordinary citizen  really prove her patriotism, her sense of belonging to a country? In the mundane chores and anxieties of her quotidian existence, how does the individual validate her commitment to an abstract value-set? Aarti asks Murad the question repeatedly, with rising passion in her voice and her gestures, with apparent exasperation at Murad’s patent inability to prove the point about his patriotism. Murad watches her in bewilderment, not knowing what is expected of him, nor sure if his chance of proving his innocence is slipping away from him for good. The audience sits fascinated as it realises that the point Aarti is making is a very simple one: that you can wear your patriotism on your shirt-sleeves but can never really prove it. At this point, the court-room scene manages to rise far above the standard melodramatic trope  that it looked poised to slip into. -- This is as bold a technical manoeuvre as it is artistically valid.  This imaginative retelling of the patriotic narrative remains Anubhav Sinha’s unique contribution to Indian cinema. Its complete novelty makes for that willing suspension of disbelief in the audience which is every successful story’s lifeline.

Another brilliant directorial intervention revolves around the judge, who with his calm, imperturbable manner, evident good sense and complete composure presides effortlessly over a turbulent courtroom. Even as the temperature rises sharply and rapidly around him, he sits unfazed and unflustered, never once raising his voice nor giving the impression of being hemmed in from all sides. As the storm rages, he remains an old-world symbol of moderation, rectitude and sanity. He provides to Mulk what the great Shakespearean scholar Sir Arthur Quiller Couch (quoting Coventry Patmore) called the punctum indifferens, or Point of Rest: in the character, for example, of Kent in a play that depicts the trauma of King Lear’s madness, or in that of Banquo in the story of Macbeth’s cynical, obsessively overweening ambition. His is the one under-stated, unobtrusive character in the whole movie, and it is this unselfconscious unobtrusiveness that makes the judge a peaceful focus of the high-octane courtroom drama. Like the vital centre of a great wheel, his character displays” little motion in itself but transmits and controls the fierce revolution of the circumference”. Sinha’s judge is a memorable character portrait.

It would be unfair to omit a mention of the editing, which is slick and assured, and the camera-work which is often subtle and nuanced. (One would have liked for the close-ups to have been somewhat fewer, though,) The nightly episode in which Murad confides in Aarti his inability to fight the case any longer himself is poignant and appropriately low-key. At least one viewer will not forget that scene in a hurry. Acting is uniformly competent, sometimes even outstanding, though, as we have noted already, stereotypes abound in Mulk.

I will end by quoting a friend who has this opinion on Mulk: “Unless your heart has turned all leaden and your grey-matter has taken on a deeply saffron hue, you cannot help loving  this movie”. I couldn’t  agree with him more.

Anjan Basu is a literary critic, commentator and translator of poetry based out of Bangalore. He can be reached at

Oct 8, 2018

Anjan Basu

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