'Mulk gets a lot of things right, including its vision of the country as a place where underneath the punctilious, forced-secular surface there are volatilities waiting to go off,' says Sreehari Nair.
Anubhav Sinha's Mulk gets so many touches, details, and simmering tensions right that it starts to give you the pessimist's hunch: 'God, this can all go downhill pretty fast!'
And then it does.
It does go downhill, and so fast and so furiously -- screeching, bellowing, eyeballs glaring, frothing at the mouth -- that unless you have a lasting memory for all things 'fine', you wouldn't be left with any recollection of those aspects of Mulk that are soul-shatteringly good!
Like that shot of a boy tea-servant walking into a rickety office with six glasses of tea. The boy hands the set of six to a gentleman with a note, 'There's no sugar in any of the teas.'
The gentleman collects the set and walks into a room that turns out to be an interrogation chamber where a dead terrorist's father (Manoj Pahwa as Bilaal Mohammed) is being grilled for his role in a bomb blast that killed 16 people.
The beauty of that shot is in its showing us how close the rhythms of these Espionage & Intelligence set-ups are to those bureaucracies and offices we have grown up smelling from.
Outside, Bilaal Mohammed's elder brother Ali (Rishi Kapoor) wants to know by what time Bilaal's interrogation would be over.
The charge on Bilaal is of 'abetting terrorism' and Ali Mohammed is looking at his watch for an answer to 'by what time, will it all get settled?'
Eventually, the Mohammed brothers do meet, them occupying two ends of a table, and what starts out as a scene of Bilaal trying to explain his innocence soon turns into a confession -- a confession of a brother, who has always thought himself 'smaller' than his prodigious elder one.
Later, back in his interrogation chamber, when the perfectly round, perfectly good-humoured Pahwa is made to go down on his knees and record his statement, it's like watching a once-funny Falstaff, now broken and embittered. The scene kills you... very slowly.
Bilaal's tormentor-in-chief is Anti-Terrorism officer Danish Javed (Rajat Kapoor), a Muslim Uncle Tom of sorts, who believes that he must skin Islamic radicals to prove his loyalty to his country.
On the trail of a terrorist, Danish asks a subordinate to call him back post breakfast, and after 'the kill' he insists that the body of the slain terrorist (Prateik Babbar as Shahid Mohammed, Bilaal's son) be dragged through those narrow lanes where cycle-shops, and muttonchops, and moustaches, and kurtas, and dhotis, and mobile stores, and paan tapris, and brick walled-homes, and dargahs, and temples, and azaans, and bhajans, and kidney beans, and chicken livers, all seem to be growing out of and eating into each other's space.
Danish Javed is an animal, but in the hands of Rajat Kapoor -- an actor who knows exactly what the camera wants and in what doses -- he is transformed into a suave professional.
When Danish presents Bilaal in court for the first time, he whispers to the prosecution lawyer (Ashutosh Rana) on the way to his seat, 'I want him in custody.'
And Rajat Kapoor does it so subtly that you may feel that you were privy to a moment of conspiracy being brewed jointly by two arms of the public machinery.
There are, at least, half a dozen such complex scenes in Mulk where Anubhav Sinha merely provides a controlled atmosphere and his actors fill it with their passions.
Rishi Kapoor is brilliant, but he is unmistakably Rishi Ali Mohammed Kapoor, and as far the best performance in Mulk goes, it is Manoj Pahwa's to deliver.
Pahwa creates a tragic original out of a character, so weighed down by his own under-achievements that he has now stopped trying.
Bilaal's greatest sin -- carelessness -- seems as much a matter of habit as his paan eating.
When compared to his brother Ali, Bilaal is the fat man in no particular hurry (this is a movie of portly men), and he pays for it with his own life.
These are some of the delicate facts that Mulk gets at when it is not screeching -- men such as Bilaal or the contrast between the young, super-religious boys and their old, secular folks. (The fundamentalist world is more young than old, as a matter of fact -- the men who 'inhaled stuff' in the '60s now have deeply religious, teetotaler children).
It's when Manoj Pahwa's Bilaal dies that he takes the film with him to his grave.
Mulk begins in a restless Benaras, captured often in unbroken shots (some of which do look forced), and full of women, whom one can guess that they must have braided each other's pigtails at some point.
This fluid film, however, soon settles down into being talky and stiff.
Taapsee Pannu appears as Aarti, Ali Mohammed's Hindu daughter-in-law and Bilaal's defence lawyer, and there will be those who claim this to be her breakout role.
I am no fan, however.
She may be sincere, but I find Pannu to have a rather nervous style.
This is an age of Hindi film actresses who are terrific physical performers with their little tricks, ones who know how to use their bodies to sketch out their characters; great actresses such as Rasika Dugal, Shweta Tripathi, Radhika Apte, and Shahana Goswami. When compared to these names, I find Pannu's nervousness quite distracting.
Anybody with half a brain would understand that Mulk gets its genre from Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury's squeaky, over-literate PINK that cared more for hashtags than its characters and Pannu's showy courtroom performance here is as effective as Amitabh Bachchan's self-conscious turn there.
If you think that is great acting, then these are great films.
The genesis of movies such as Mulk and PINK is the kind of sensational newspaper reporting that goes by the board that is then turned into storylines, the shock apparatuses for which have already been supplied by the newspapers.
The anger of these movies is sourced from lessons we know all too well.
And yet, when compared to PINK, this manufacturing-anger-through-newspaper-stories approach hurts you more in Mulk because Anubhav Sinha has clearly done some of his best work here which he then carefully destroys in his 'courtroom for lessons'.
Even when the characters in Mulk turn out to be caricatures, you'll be grateful that they are played by actors who have a sense of humour about the whole thing. (Now, this was obviously not true of PINK.)
Ashutosh Rana's prosecution lawyer Santosh Anand is as broad as Taapsee Pannu's Aarti, but Rana plays him like a man being carried away by his own eloquence -- and that gives Anand an added dimension.
Kumud Mishra is the judge, who wants only the 'right things' to be said in court (every time Mishra opens his mouth, 'Political Correctness' takes a leave of absence), and his beating down of Santosh Anand's religious thookpatti is as much admonishment as it is comic relief.
Mishra is cool but in movies such as Mulk, which want us to naively believe that court cases change social attitudes, a cool judge has to wind up as a schoolteacher, and so even the great Kumud Mishra ends up 'instructing.'
I strongly believe that movies of this kind (Mulk, PINK), in the way they turn social issues into happy, genre-based endeavours, do not reduce the chasms in the society but widen them even further.
Relinquish that crusader cape for a bit and it wouldn't be that difficult to gauge: Today, we live in a world of not overtly wrong people but people who cannot help doing and saying wrong things.
We live in a world of soft misogyny, of soft racism.
My father is a Hindu fundamentalist, who once had strong hardliner opinions but now that his preferred party is in power, believes that Muslims 'must learn to co-exist with Hindus.'
It is a sad comedy more than anything else!
Louis CK has a wonderful routine about a chicken crossing a road, because 'there was a black guy walking behind him.' ('This isn't a racist joke,' CK insists, 'the chicken, however, was racist'.)
Good art teaches us that we are bound more by our contradictions and our bad habits than by our good sides.
Mulk gets a lot of things right, including its vision of the country as a place where underneath the punctilious, forced-secular surface there are volatilities waiting to go off.
A Hindu guest at Ali Mohammed's birthday party says at the sight of korma, 'We do dance with these people, but we don't eat at their place' -- and that line has more muscle, more silent power than any of the courtroom bombasts.
That passing line performs what Chekhov said was the task of an artist: 'To not solve the problem but to state the problem correctly.'
Mulk, however, has the cursed PINK strain in it and it has been injected the wrong way. And so, in its desire to be 'powerful', the film gives up on its chance to be truly great.
I wish racial and gender issues were explored more humanistically in our cinema so that aspects such as buried prejudices, history, and culture would bubble up through the smallest of back-and-forth.
When done correctly, this kind of cinema helps us conclude that even Shahid Mohammed's act of terrorism is no display of strength but a cry for help.
When done correctly, a cinema of this grade helps us surmise that every right-winger's act of vandalism is a result of a misplaced but genuinely felt paranoia.
And only when cinema attempts to raise itself to this superior stature does it go beyond scattered irritations and reflexes into the realm of exploration -- which is what this 'divided world' so badly calls for right now.
As if to rival the 'No is a sentence' rhetoric of PINK, Anubhav Sinha, in Mulk, presents an 'Us Vs Them' monologue that wants to scream at those who see Muslims as 'the other' -- those in the courtroom who laugh deliriously when Ashutosh Rana attacks the community with incessant racial slurs.
In the swanky multiplex where I watched the movie, among a set of educated, liberal-minded, well-read, sitcom-addicted people, there was not one soul who thought of Rana's arguments and the courtroom laughter as anything but plain disgusting.
This audience, I realised, was fighting its own Us Vs Them battle.