2018 has been a year where hindi films have mostly come out weaker than what their teasers promised. Mulk will stand on the other side of this spectrum, and is a surprisingly good film. I will be honest, the loud screaming trailer was a major put off, and did induce an obvious bias that the film is not going to work for me. Surprisingly it does, and in the process makes its point even more clear that prejudice of any kind against anything is never a good thing.
Writer / Director Anubhav Sinha tells a rather evocative story about how our ingrained prejudice unconsciously works to be judgmental on a very broad base and decides that an entire family has to be guilty and should be branded criminals because of their religion, does not matter what their societal camaraderie and cultural gravitas has been till that point. Because a misguided young muslim boy (played by a bizzare Prateik Babbar) has succumbed to dark influences and taken up terrorism, his entire family is now branded as a terror house by default that has allegedly been a breeding ground for darkness. Its the same respected family of the neighborhood that till yesterday was the destination for grand community celebrations involving all cultures and religions, its the same family where a cross religious marriage is an integral part of the larger household without a hitch. And now the same family is subject to horrendous harassment, with them being robbed of all their honor with no one bothered about what they have stood for ages along with the rest.
Rishi Kapoor, as the patriarch of the house, goes from being a respected defense counsel to an accused within minutes, and the seasoned actor is in good form to convincingly portray his pride, hurt, patriotism, and strength of character without really becoming overbearing at any time. Yes, some of the dialogs given to him in the courtroom drama may seem like playing to the gallery, but subtlety is anyway not the strongest point of the film. In my mind, that is intentional because the film rightfully raises some very uncomfortable questions, and these questions have to be asked loud and clear to be heard across the table. A brilliant Tapsee Pannu becomes the mouthpiece for the arguments being put forward, and she is wonderfully composed and complementarily arousing as needed, in possibly her career best performance to date. She is particularly sharp in her interrogation sequence with Rajat Kapoor, the muslim police officer who is possibly harsher on his own religion and has developed the prejudice to push back any acquisitions of bias against himself. Tapsee and Rajat are the exact opposites in this case of justice where truth is pitted against religion, and it takes an actor of Rajat’s calibre to be that nuanced in projecting the dilemma and survival conflicts that he lives with. Ashutosh Rana is the crafted antagonist here, and his hamming, over the top enact seems intentional, but honestly stretches it bit too far. Its sad to see Rana in such back to back poorly written roles and such one note performances. Neena Gupta and Prachi Shah and effective in their small but important roles, and Kumud Mishra is solid and intriguing in his portrayal of the judge who is humorous, matter of fact, no nonsense, but also empathetic in his approach to get the right facts established.
But amidst so many solid performances, the one who leaves the maximum impact is ManojPahwa – the man is brilliantly restrained and notably honest in moving us with his vulnerability, helplessness and sense of extreme loss as he is himself caught up in the biggest joke life has played with him. Kudos to him – when the year end lists are drawn this year, Pahwa should surely reserve a spot in many lists for one of the most charming supporting performances of the year!
The effectiveness of many of these performances is enhanced because Mulk does pretty well technically too. Benaras is shot well, and one of the introductory long shots where we meet the Mohammad family is quite impressive. The courtroom drama never loses its grip due to the sharp editing, and becomes so engaging because its mostly presented in an uncomfortable no-nonsense mode with the right balance of drama. Yes, the tonality does go high at places as already talked about, but it does not overpower the depth of the message for a moment, and that is where the film succeeds. It also succeeds because the writing is so strong and is surprisingly neutral to point out issues across both ends of the religious divide without taking sides. Hence it pleads the human side of every single individual to rise above the ‘us’ and ‘them’ and unite as ‘we’ – We who can build the nation together, we who can protect it together, and we who can see the basic goodness in everyone around us leaving behind our every single prejudice. Just like the houseful evening show rose up today to deliver the cheerful applause that an important film like Mulk has deservingly earned for itself!