Mulk: A Movie Touching the Big Elephant in the Room About Which Bollywood Remains Silent

Vistasp Hodiwala

Mulk is a fine, fine movie, even if ten years too late.

It is honest, sincere and has its heart in the right place throughout. (There will be a few spoilers ahead, so please proceed with discretion.)

No, it is not about “The Good Muslim” who must be held up as some sort of an ideal that most Indians (read Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and Parsees) can happily and guiltlessly celebrate.

It does not flinch from accepting that young Muslim boys can lose their way and become terrorists.

But once it does that, it is unforgiving in detailing all the complexities and nuances that make up ‘The Muslim Situation’ as it exists in India, circa 2018.

It speaks of the varieties of Muslims who make up the community’s composition: the radicals who have become a headache within their families, the innocents who go about their livelihoods with no malice in their hearts—the ones that make up the overwhelming majority, and the crucial minority which includes those amongst the establishment who take no prisoners, especially if they happen to belong to his own community so as to prove their loyalties twice over.

Each of these are painstakingly etched out without the employment of broad brushstrokes.

But the one which stayed with me is the fourth character, which as my favourite reviewer Shubhra Gupta says has the ability ‘to haunt us much after the movie is over’.

This is the character of Bilal, played heartbreakingly well by Manoj Pahwa.

He is not ‘Propah’ in any sense of the term. He doesn’t have the gravitas of his much educated elder brother (played by Rishi’s character) and comes across as poorly made thanks to his slightly shady, devil-may-care demeanour, but actually is, for all accounts and purposes entirely blameless.

But does the system remotely care for that? And THIS is the question Mulk forces us to reconsider.

Despite coming from a reasonably privileged family, with an accomplished lawyer for a brother, Bilal finds himself trapped fairly easily because of the prejudices and assumptions that encircle every single Muslim in the country today.

In my opinion, the film is mild in the way it’s handled Bilal’s journey despite the sad way in which he ends up, and yet, it’s good enough to drive the point home.

For me the most positive takeout was in the fact that a mainstream Hindi movie finally manages to provoke a long-stalled debate of how an entire Muslim family is routinely expected to pay the price for a dastardly act committed by one family member.

This was the big, crazy elephant in the room which nobody dared touch in Bollywood, and finally somebody has.

So maybe just maybe drawing rooms and online chat groups across the country can now feel ‘okay’ to debate on the patent unfairness of this manifest evil.

We can also take heart from the fact that the all-round bigotry which has been getting more and more normalised will possibly get a pushback from ‘normal’ ‘thinking’ and ‘sensitive’ citizens (who certainly are not in a minority) on the back of this monumental effort.

And while I am not sure if I was with a particularly decent audience, there was not one jibe, one nervous comment, one all-knowing dig or smirk throughout the movie and that should tell its own story too.

This is a fairly disturbing movie to watch and yet at the end of the day I couldn’t help but accept that what happens in real life must be and is way more disturbing.

In real life, the prosecution and the investigation team routinely plant tons of false evidence to implicate innocents.

In real life, there are probably just 0.1 percent families who benefit from having a lawyer at home.

In real life, a third degree treatment of undertrials is an inevitability.

In real life, the lower courts are much more terrifying, what with quite a few judges being fairly prejudiced against the community already.

But this movie wasn’t just attempting to depict real life. Very gently and very sensitively, it attempts to reshape a conversation that a nation has stopped having with its self.

What is the true idea of a fair state devoid of all prejudices?

Do we need to expand on the meaning of terrorism to encompass not just what’s glaringly evident but also what lurks beneath the rugs and crevices of a system’s shaky edifice, that is the acts of the state itself?

Can we as citizens force a change in this narrative by confronting our biases; if not through the prism of liberalism, then through the mirror of everyday fairness at least?

Hopefully soon, we might just start having those honest conversations which actually illuminate and not just divide us all.

If that does happen, it would be way more than what one solitary movie could have set out to accomplish.