“Terrorism is a criminal act, not a communal act.” Presented as a closing argument in this intense taut courtroom drama, this becomes the film’s argument as well. Anubhav Sinha roars back into form as director of Mulk, a film reminiscent of his days on television with shows such as Shikast. Talking about religion in a country with such a passionate population is always a murky proposition, but Mulk deals with this often-divisive subject in a respectful, academic, and graceful manner.
Mulk is not anti or pro religion. It is a story about a small Muslim joint family living in Varanasi who fights to regain their honor and respect after a family member commits a terrorist act. Sinha poses many questions through his film. Who is to blame? Is this an intrinsic problem with the religion of Islam, or Islamic culture? Or is there something else at play? The movie claims that it is not the religion that is at fault, but rather the people who misconstrue it. Sinha makes a point to say that even though it is true that a person’s prejudice should not exist when it comes to investigations of terrorism, and that Islam is not synonymous with terrorism, it is also a person’s obligation to make sure their members are not swept up into radicalism.
The social message aside, Mulk provides us with a treat of talented performances. Rishi Kapoor, who reinvigorated his acting career with 2009’s Luck By Chance, gives one of his best performances to date. It is easy to connect with Kapoor’s sincere portrayal of the strong-willed, passionate, and caring Advocate Murad Ali Mohammed. He brings a gravitas to the movie that only a seasoned actor can bring.
Taapsee Pannu’s depiction of Aarti Mohammed, a fellow lawyer who is the Hindu daughter-in-law of the family is powerful to say the least. Aarti serves as an important nexus of divided ideologies. Her character is a Hindu by birth, who marries into a Muslim family, but is never thought of as a pariah. In fact, she feels more at home with them then with her own family. Pannu has delicately balanced her presence in big budget blockbusters and important social dramas, showcasing her incredible acting range. Pannu’s grace and sensibility imbues her character with a relatability that might have been missing had someone else been cast.
Not to be overlooked, Manoj Pahwa, who is an Anubhav Sinha staple since his television days, gives a touching performance as the father of a misguided young man who is accused of aiding his son in becoming a terrorist. Pahwa who is known for playing comical sidekicks shows an aptitude for drama and creates an instant human connection with the audience. His heart-breaking performance will leave at least some of you in tears.
The film deconstructs the uncomfortable reality that there are vultures out there that will take advantage of impressionable young adults, for their own selfish needs. Prateik Babbar’s Shahid is a disgruntled young man who is upset with where his life is leading and becomes misguided in chase for a sense of purpose. Babbar perfectly embodies a mistaken youth who gets brainwashed into performing a terrible act of violence. No surprise there.
Mulk also posits that there is inherent prejudice that exists within law enforcement when investigating violent acts of terrorism. For example, Rajat Kapoor’s SSP Danish Javed, a driven anti-terrorism squad officer, also Muslim, is shown to have a predisposition to thinking that all terrorists are Muslim. Kapoor, who we last saw in horror flick Pari, does a decent job in his role, though his internal conflict of identity could have been more fleshed out, as it becomes consequential in the climax of the film.
It is a pleasant surprise to see Ashutosh Rana return to his roots in the role of public prosecutor. Rana brings his trademark antagonistic style of acting that established him in the industry in the late 90s. His character is not the villain of the story but it embodies all the hostile sentiments that are held against the protagonists. In doing so, Sinha expertly brings out any prejudices that the audiences might have through Rana’s character. As usual, Rana effortlessly executes each frame in each scene heightening the drama and increasing the intensity of conflict that is prevalent throughout.
Kumud Mishra does not disappoint either. A chameleon of the industry, most people would not recognize Mishra (Filmistaan, Badlapur, Airlift, Tiger Zinda Hai) as he is able to change not only behavior but appearance with every character he inhibits. He gives a firmly balanced performance as the Judge presiding over the trial. Though not given a lot of screen time, his character is the most crucial character in the film as he serves as an impartial, unbiased, and reasoned voice in an extremely divisive debate.
The storyline is simple but presented in a such a fresh and unique way that it has the aura of brilliance. This has mostly to do with the profound dialogues, written by Sinha himself, and the crisp editing by Ballu Saluja (Jodha Akbar, Swades, Dangal) the gives the film its edge over films of a similar genre.
The music of the film perfectly represents its humble nature. Having a total of three songs the album is a standard fare. One traditional style family dance number, Thenge Se, that will likely be played at upcoming weddings and gatherings. One Sufi-esque appeal for a clear path, Khudara, soulfully sung by Vishal Dadlani personifies the internal struggle of the film’s lead characters. One qawwali-based love ballad, which puts us into a trance. Each song’s lyrics are written by poet Shakeel Azmi who skillfully captures the emotions and moods through his lyrics. Though the album is nothing remarkable, it encapsulates the tone and feel of Mulk.
In conclusion, Mulk is an insightful film that is very relevant in today’s times. As the judge iterates in his verdict, if we keep focusing on who came from where, and who did what to whom 500 years ago, the little progress we have will be forced back 5000 years. With this film, Sinha presents a smart if somewhat naïve solution. Where people today are constantly becoming more and more divisive, adhering to a US versus THEM mentality, they need to realize that there is no US and THEM, only a WE. We are all together in this. Whether you want to agree or disagree, it’s your choice. But if you are someone who is willing to have that discussion, then Mulk is a must watch.