"Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk (2018) holds a mirror to India’s pervasive Islamophobia, but ironically, its own reflecting surface is tainted by several socio-political prejudices" writes Damini Kulkarni in her review of the film.
This film review was originally published in University of Michigan's Film Review Journal (Volume 42, Issue 3: Reviews, 2018) and is reproduced here as is via CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk (2018) holds a mirror to India’s pervasive Islamophobia, but ironically, its own reflecting surface is tainted by several socio-political prejudices. Faisal Devji states that, after the partition of India and the creation of the Islamic state of Pakistan, Muslims in India “represent a fundamental anxiety of nationalism itself: of the nation as something unachieved.” This anxiety is occasionally questioned, and repeatedly regurgitated in Mulk.
Benaras-based lawyer Murad Ali Mohammed (Rishi Kapoor) is introduced while he walks back home from his morning prayers and stops to chat with his Hindu friends. The cordiality with which he is treated highlights the social location of the respected Muslim man in a town which holds religious importance for Hindus. This sequence reiterates Hindi cinema’s penchant for presenting an uncomplicated and peaceful co-existence among Hindus and Muslims, which is strengthened by the relationship between Aarti Mohammed (Taapsee Pannu) and Murad’s nephew, Aftab (Indraneil Sengupta): they are married.
Figure #1: Murad Ali Mohammed, who has just finished his morning prayers, peacefully walks past a Hindu temple on his way home.
However, Mulk hints at the slippages in this apparently uncomplicated harmony when a Hindu woman refuses to eat the food served at a feast hosted by the family. The myth of easy Hindu-Muslim co-existence is ruptured altogether when Murad Ali’s nephew Shahid (PrateikBabbar) is killed by a law enforcement official because he is involved in terrorist activity. After the youth’s death, the family is required to prove in court that they are not all terrorists, but “good” Muslims who are deeply devoted to India.
As Mahmood Mamdani has illustrated, the “bad” Muslim is socially constructed as the one who challenges the Indian state, while the “good” is defined as the Muslim who defends it. Mulk repeatedly constructs Murad Ali as a “good” Muslim who invests great faith in the Indian legal system, pays taxes, does not indulge in corrupt practices such as bribery, and refuses to leave India despite tremendous provocation.
Murad’s “goodness” is further established when several “bad” Muslims approach him (significantly, after they have all finished their prayers), claiming that Shahid’s actions are to be commended,adding that it is essential for Muslims to remain united in the face of Hindu aggression. However, Murad states that he is more intent on weeding out radical Muslims, rather than locating and punishing Hindu extremists. When he is reminded that Hindu vandals have written “go back to Pakistan” on the wall of his house, he attests that the graffiti could be justified because some Muslims “burst crackers” when the Pakistani cricket team is victorious, underscoring the deeply entrenched relationship of the sport with the idea of Indian nationhood.
Thus, Murad’s “goodness” as a Muslim is tied to his devotion to the nation-state and his attitude towards other Muslims. Aarti’s location as a devout Hindu who lives out of the country and vouches for the family lends further credibility to Murad’s status. Ultimately, Mulk’s “good” Muslim is one who has successfully bargained for space within the Hindu majority state.
Murad is contrasted with his nephew Shahid, who turns out to be a “bad” Muslim. Mulk implicitly outlines the traits that define a “bad Muslim” with its characterization of Shahid and his handler MehfoozAlam (SumitKaul), but does not attempt to hint at the social mechanisms which create people like Shahid. The “goodness” of Murad’s family is further validated when they refuse to accept his corpse, and disassociate themselves from him entirely.
While delivering his final verdict, the judge draws a dichotomy between Muslims who have committed acts of terror and those who have brought glory to the country. Significantly, Murad is required to prove that he is a “good Muslim” by locating himself firmly in the latter category. It is not enough for him to simply not be a bad Muslim. A Muslim is required to earn the right to live in the country by committing acts of brilliance, valor or patriotism. Consequently, a Muslim who either does not have enough access to resources to achieve feats of brilliance, or does not subscribe to the idea of patriotism, is automatically “bad.”
Mulk offers an incisive commentary on the culture of surveillance in Indian joint families, in which older members exert considerable agency over younger people, and are also expected to shoulder responsibility for their actions. This responsibility is passed along in a patriarchal hierarchy. The onus of Shahid’s terrorist activities falls first on his father Bilal, and after his death, on Murad.
Mulk grapples with the political and cultural connotations of the use of Hindi, Urdu and English in India. Hindi cinema routinely associates “chaste” Urdu with Muslims, and Hindi with Hindus.In Mulk, this dichotomy appears mostly clearly in the usage of the words for country and religion. The Urdu words mulk and mazhab are connected to Muslims, while the Hindi words desh and dharm are employed by Hindus. On the other hand, Aarti, who is meant to function as an educated, liberal and non-partisan Hindu savior, frequently uses English words in court.
Aarti speaks of the Otherization that Muslims continue to endure in India, and exhorts Hindus to accept responsibility for the systematic ghettoization of Muslims in India. However, she shifts the onus of terrorism in the country firmly to Muslims by stating, “they (Muslims) will have to keep their eye on Shahids and Rashids in their midst.” While Aarti attempts to underline that terrorist activities are committed by people of all religions, she mentions the practice of untouchability, which is rooted in the Hindu caste system. She does not refer to the myriad violent terror attacks that have been carried out by Hindus in the name of their religion. Mulk’s reluctance to mention these attacks, and its characterization of the “good” Muslim, suggest that it has been made as a timid primer for Hindu audiences.
Mulk offers sharp, and much-needed, insight into the experience of being an Indian Muslim, sensitizing Hindus to the discrimination that Muslims continue to face in the country. However, if the politics of Mulk are any indication, evenIndian Hindu liberals are a long way from becoming completely aware of the many shades of their complicity in the mechanisms that perpetuate this discrimination.
Damini Kulkarni is a Junior Research Fellow at the Department of Media and Communication Studies at SavitribaiPhule Pune University, where she is currently pursuing her Ph.D. Her work has previously appeared in the publicationsEconomic and Political Weekly and Scroll.in.