I came out of Mulk thinking of how our prejudices constrict our capacity for empathy. The movie follows the turmoil and trial of a Muslim family after one of their sons, Shahid, turns to jihad. Almost instantly, the family goes from being a revered part of their community to the object of suspicion.
In these undeniably polarised times, Mulk offers a flicker of hope but doesn’t do much to improve how Muslims are depicted in film. In this movie too, almost all the Muslim men are shown wearing skull caps. The younger ones who don’t wear skull caps, are shown to be extremely religious, rather orthodox. In Shahid’s case, the taweez around the techie’s neck compensates for the absence of a skull cap.
The movie also skirts the issue of “love jihad” in Aftab and Aarti’s marriage. Aftab’s reluctance to have a child and give him/her a right to choose his/her faith is not because of his Muslim identity, rather it’s a completely patriarchal issue.
In one scene, Aarti Mohammad applies tika to Murad’s forehead – it seems the movie exaggerates the act in an effort to undercut the exaggerated stereotype of the intolerant Muslim man who would never accept such a “Hindu act”. Indian Muslims don’t just suffer at the hands of negative stereotypes like others assuming they’re “vulnerable to radicalisation” but also from “model minority” expectations of how to be a “good” Muslim.
However, every Muslim can’t embody the palatable avatar of Muslim embodied by former president Abdul Kalam. To be accepted as Muslim in India, you have to be like Mohsin Raza, Bukkal Nawab or Waseem Rizvi – Muslim politicians who support the BJP and are vocal in their criticism of Islam.
In Mulk, SSP Javed’s character does the same to his fellow Muslims to escape majoritarian censure for appearing “too Muslim”. Many Muslims feel the need to be critical of Islam or accept others’ insults and ignorance about their faith just to survive in these times.
Who remembers Sartaj Khan of Kanpur now?
Sartaj Khan is the father of Saifullah, an ISIS member who was killed in Lucknow. Just like Tabbassum, he also refused to take his son’s corpse after Saifullah was killed. While this was Khan’s decision to make, we must understand that not all parents would act that way – but that wouldn’t necessarily make their patriotism more suspect. He may have easily accepted the body, letting his parental love overpower his nationalism. However, Muslim parents cannot exercise empathy towards their wayward sons for fear of being anti-national. At the same time, our political environment enables radicalised Hindus like Shambhu Lal.
Through Sonkar’s character, we see a sensible non-Muslim who continues to believe in his Muslim friend’s innocence. Sonkar represents the dwindling group of people who look beyond a man’s beard.
Exiting the theatre, my Kashmiri Muslim friend and I shared the lift with a couple of men who were freely voicing Islamophobic comments. “Sab (Muslims) time bomb hai saale. Inki image sudharne k liye Sanju wala attempt kara hai tukde-tukde gang ne,” said one. (All Muslims are ticking time bombs. The tukde-tukde gang has done a Sanju-level image makeover for them.) Listening to your worst fears is painful. It’s even more painful when you live in an artificially imposed denial about the state of our society.
Mulk is a brilliant movie but no single thing can counter the path of Islamophobia we’ve been set on. When all our public discussions are about beards, burqas and terrorism, then Mulk can only do so much.
We can continue to live in denial. India seriously needs films, books and works to counter our current political narrative of hate. We need movies that explore the rise of this “Hindu khatre mein hain” (Hindus are in danger) rhetoric in our family Whatsapp groups and seemingly non-radicalised spaces. I miss the times when being secular was the default and not a conscious choice that we needed to advocate for.