'Mulk' is an engaging film — but could have hit harder

The movie raises vital questions of religion, identity and patriotism. But while its plot is strong, its execution often falters.

 |  4-minute read |   02-08-2018
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Mulk: ★★★1/2

Director: Anubhav Sinha

Cast: Rishi Kapoor, Taapsee Pannu, Neena Gupta, Manoj Pahwa, Prachee Shah, Rajat Kapoor, Prateik Babbar, Kumud Mishra, Ashutosh Rana

So, Mulk has its heart in the right place. Its craft, however, is often all over the place. 

This combination makes Mulk an engaging watch — but one which leaves you wishing for more.

The film’s story is its biggest plus point. The family of Vakil Sahab, Murad Ali Mohammed (Rishi Kapoor) resides in their ancestral mansion, Badr Manzil, tucked away in a gully in Madanpura, Benaras. The family’s roots are deep and their relations with their Hindu neighbours, sweet. So sweet, in fact, that the bonhomie — the film starts with a gully sequence, all mud, paan, buffaloes and banter — seems laced with a saccharine-like quality.

However, Vakil Sahab’s family is excitedly planning his 65th birthday daawat, with 30 kilos of gosht ordered by his lovable younger brother Bilal (Manoj Pahwa), whose son Shahid (Prateik) heralds the arrival of ‘bhabhijaan Aarti’ (Taapsee), a Hindu lawyer who’s married Vakil Sahab’s son Aftab in Europe. Aarti is greeted joyfully by her mother-in-law Tabassum (Neena Gupta) and Bilal’s wife, ‘Chotti Ammi’ (Prachi Shah); the latter is concerned as she’s heard Aarti and Aftab may split over their children's religion. She tries to convince Aarti that ‘the family’s religion’ prevails, but Aarti brushes aside discussions till the daawat is done.

The daawat itself showcases Vakil Sahab's warmth who cheekily offers korma to his neighbour Choubey ji, vegetarian with his wife, kebab connoisseur with friends. Later, Shahid asks Bilal to drop him near the railway station (Bilal’s look of wonderment as he asks his son, ‘Yahaan kahaan?’ is noteworthy; an innocent man, wandering through dark times). The next morning, the family hears of a terror attack on a bus in Allahabad. Sixteen people are killed — Shahid is the perpetrator.

Here starts Vakil Sahab and his family’s nightmare.

mulk-8_080218050421.jpgThe nightmare begins. A still of Vakil Sahab's family in Mulk. Photo: Screengrab

Bilal is arrested and tried for abetting a terrorist. The prosecuting lawyer, Santosh Anand (Ashutosh Rana, wearing a tousled wig with flair) demands Vakil Sahab also be tried for, Santosh tells ‘Judge Sahab’ (Kumud Mishra), everyone in the ‘Madanpura ka adda’ knew. Thus, the family — illiterate anyway, sneers Santosh — looked the other way when Shahid installed an ‘anteena’ for a special mobile network on their roof. Why should ‘we’ trust ‘them’, he demands? The case thus pitches Aarti against Santosh, Vakil Sahab against his friends, ‘the Muslim’ against ‘the mainstream’.

Its collection of such political threads — minority identity, majority suspicion, the nation’s laws, who breaks these — makes Mulk a powerful watch. The effort to seriously address major issues is laudable, as is the control on scenes of violence and hate.

But the film has weaknesses too.

The acting is the first. There are some notable performances. Rishi Kapoor carries the film on his shoulders; as Vakil Sahab, he looks entirely different, aged, worried, rarely smiling, angry, proud; in one memorable scene, his eyes gleam with tears in the dark as he beseeches Aarti to fight his case for he doesn’t know, he cries brokenly, how to prove his patriotism. Ashutosh Rana bites into his role with the relish of a Benarasi paan — as a beaming bigot, he spits spite at the Muslim family. In his cameo, Kumud Mishra shines as the saturnine judge, swaying between his prejudices — ‘Bol rahe hain, toh sun lijiye,’ he tells Vakil Sahab protesting Santosh’s insults — and his integral beliefs.

mulk-7_080218050451.jpgSterling performance by Rishi Kapoor playing the harried Vakil Sahab. (Photo: Screengrab)

The trouble is with the younger actors. Taapsee Pannu just doesn’t push it in key courtroom sequences. Her mannerisms — a sudden jerkiness of head, a weariness that seems expressed more in fifty shades of face powder — distract and her lines are spoken well, but lack fire from the heart. Prateik Babbar is consistently blank while Rajat Gupta — a Muslim SSP — lacks consistency.

mulk-4_080218050508.jpgTaapsee Pannu tries. But not hard enough. (Photo: Screengrab)

As does the film itself. 

The first half appears stagey, often theatrical. The cinematography, a sort of bleached blue, seems to borrow from Monsoon Wedding and Philadelphia; it doesn’t give a sense of being in the heart of vibrant Benaras. It is only in the second half that the film tightens and you sense real tension — mostly from Rishi Kapoor. But again, the film leaves vital questions unanswered. What happens to Aarti’s dilemma about her children’s religion?

There are drawbacks with Mulk thus.

However, this is still a good film to watch — for the questions it raises, for its courage, for its empathy — and for its heart, which beats in the right place.

Star Rating:

★ Don't even bother 

★★ Read a book

★★★ Looking good

★★★★ Very good

★★★★★ Outstanding

Also read: The Imran Khan I know — and trust

Writer

Srijana Mitra Das Srijana Mitra Das @srijanapiya17

Opinion Editor, India Today Group Digital.

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