2018 seems to be the year when the Hindi film industry gets serious with content related to the stark social, political, and cultural issues of India, thanks to the arrival of newbie directors and writers who don’t resort to the non-classified Bollywood formula. Earlier this year, although a remake, Shashank Khaitan sampled the issue of caste politics in his hard-hitting and emotionally tolling crime drama Dhadak (2018), while here writer-director Anubhav Sinha diverts our attention to the topics of terrorism and namesake secularism in India, a case that is most relevant in the current socio-political landscape of the country.
Rishi Kapoor plays a reputed lawyer who lives with his extended family in the city of Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. His peaceful world, living with fellow citizens of the country and from all walks of religion, is thrown upside down when a close member (Prateik Babbar) of his family is accused of and consequently killed (in an encounter) for having contacts with a known terrorist and plotting a fatal bomb attack in the city. Things go downhill from there for Kapoor’s character and his kin even as he puts all his natural faith on another lawyer family member (Tapsee Pannu), the only Hindi in his family of Islam, to fight his case in the court of law now that the prosecution has dragged him and his younger brother (Manoj Pahwa) for instigating communal violence in a separate case. Mulk is essentially preachy to the point that you sense what the makers are trying to say. Which is not always a good thing, much like how telling me to stand up for the National Anthem before a movie in a theatre is. It is a courtroom drama that also sheds light into the communal tension between Hindus and Muslims that is ubiquitous everywhere in the country and concentrated in states such as where this film is set; which is also why it is a mixed bag. The apprehensive start will hook you into the story which is a product of Sinha’s tepid writing and out-of-focus narrative. Every other social issue has been thrown into the mix as Mulk transforms from a film about the flawed equation between the two religious communities and the general mentality of them of the people at large into an unrealistic courtroom drama that is way too far away from reality.
Mulk is an important film but it also shows how important writing has to be if people are supposed to take it seriously. The contrived courtroom scenes as the prosecution and defence lock horns to fight the mentality surrounding the subject of ‘Islamic terrorism’ do not do justice to the film’s motive. It’s an opera show where the justice, played by a meek Kumud Mishra, is supportive of the arguments of an enthusiastic prosecutor (Ashutosh Rana) and non-reactive when Pannu’s character makes her points. Of course, it shows how even judges can be biased and prejudiced while taking decisions (something that Chaitanya Tamhane pointed out in his 2015 Marathi-language film Court), but it still is not free from the contrived nature of the proceedings. Even if you ignore the technical flaws, Mulk ends up like a sore drama that makes many great points about the subjects it tackles, but the ridiculously preachy undertone and schooling that you get, while it flip-flops with unrelated topics is what makes it an average film.
Sinha may not be a good writer (who seems to be overcome by emotions) but he can sure direct well. The entire cast is brilliant at portraying their roles in a way that makes you put yourself in their shoes. You have seen all these characters in real life: Kapoor, the educated head of a family, looks and behaves like a born Muslim; and Pannu, again with another ecstatic and emotional character as a feather in her cap, is energetic, and only second to Rana, who is the star of the show. He seems to have studied the Hindi language like a holy book because when he speaks, you believe him. You understand what he’s trying to say, even if you think it’s nonsense. You realize and approve of his character, and that alone is a validation to perhaps the most exciting performance in the film. Rajat Kapoor is a bonafide actor and a charlatan who assumes characters in his films like he’s changing clothes. In Mulk, he is an encounter specialist who uses prejudice to shoot down his targets. Everyone else including Neena Gupta and Prateik Babbar contributes to making Mulk a hard-hitting show while being not privy to the pitfalls of the flawed writing of their story. It should be noted that Sinha can write characters well; it is his storytelling that suffers.
The background score is what you’d expect for a taut thriller like this, and thankfully there are no items songs here. Director Sinha focuses on his objective here, which is to show that people’s mentality is at fault when you talk about communal disharmony. The concentration is nauseous.
If Mulk was a documentary, I would take it more seriously for the diversity of issues and their severity that it brings to the fore is amazing. I was enthralled by how brutally honest writer Sinha is in his dialogues, but all of that does not translate in the present setup. The final 30 minutes of Mulk are extraordinarily fantastical, which is why I will recommend you to watch it but also request you to take the proceedings with a pinch of salt.