Mulk revolves around a Muslim joint family based in a Hindu-dominated locality of Varanasi. The patriarch, Murad Ali Mohammed (Rishi Kapoor), is a reputed lawyer and commands respect of his neighbours who cut across religions and professions. Life takes an ugly turn when his nephew Shahid (Prateik Babbar) is declared a terrorist and killed in an encounter by Anti-Terrorist Squad official Danish Javed (Rajat Kapoor). Shahid’s father and Murad’s younger brother Bilal (Manoj Pahwa) is arrested on charges of being an accomplice in his son’s unlawful activities. Murad represents his brother in the court before he is also dragged into the case as an accused by the prosecution lawyer (Ashutosh Rana). Murad’s Hindu daughter-in-law Aarti Mohammed (Taapsee Pannu) then takes charge of the case and vows to get justice for her family.
While the first half is a family drama, the second is populated by intense courtroom scenes. In terms of battling perception, a parallel can be drawn between Mulk and Anirudha Roy Choudhary’s 2016 legal drama Pink. What Pink was for feminism, Mulk is for terrorism. Pink brought to the fore the clear, yet widely misunderstood, nuances of consent in sexual relationships. “No means no,” Amitabh Bachchan dramatically spelt out in the climax of the Shoojit Sircar production. In Mulk, Bachchan’s Pink client Taapsee takes on the advocate gown and vows to prove, “Terrorism is a criminal activity, not a religious one.”
It is the director’s nuanced take on terrorism and its symbiotic relationship with religion that sets Mulk apart from say, a My Name Is Khan.
While both the films contest the same presumptions, Mulk delves deeper on the Indian context and how terrorism has come to be associated with religion. While the first half, a rather endless assault of appetisers, takes too long to serve the main course, a sumptuous second half makes up for the lost appetite. But it is unfair to jump to a conclusion that the film relies only on the courtroom tension for drama. The family dynamics between Aarti and her husband, and Malik and Bilal provide many more conflicts for the audience to chew on.
However, unlike Pink, Mulk is not very fond of silences. Mangesh Dhakde’s soaring background music never allows the isolation that the Muslim family faces to permeate the audience. The music by Prasad Sasthe and Anurag Sakia is also a weak point as the few songs are forgettable to say the least. But where Mulk does score brownie points over Pink are the costumes and the production design. Ewan Muligan’s cinematography shows Varanasi in all its glory. The beautiful pan shots of its saffron walls and wide shots of the mosques establish the microcosmic and secular colours of the city, as well as the larger theme of the film. Rishi Kapoor, Neena Gupta (his wife Tabassum) and Manoj Pahwa’s looks, in particular, are spot on. The detailing, by Anirudh Singh and Dipika Lalwani, is evident by the density of kohl in their solemn eyes.
Taapsee gets a meatier part than Pink in Mulk where she is suddenly asked to assume the role of the family’s saviour in court. The makers deliberately sideline her in the first half to show that she has little involvement in the going-ons. But she is the lifeline of the second half, in the capacity a nervous yet resolute lawyer. She nails the scenes where she is supposed to be unsure of herself. But she is a revelation in the bits where she is supposed to be at her feisty best in the court. The climactic moment when she gulps down a glass of water after seemingly winning a crucial argument is a visual delight.
Rishi Kapoor could have done with some more intense courtroom scenes. But his stint as “Varanasi’s reputed lawyer” is short-lived. He gets to deliver the best of lines only in a few scenes, parts of which he gets reduced to his off-screen animated self. But he still displays vulnerability with a genuine sense of surrender, which makes his character one to root for. Neena Gupta is also a great support in the little she gets to do in the film. Manoj Pahwa proves he deserves diverse roles as he is capable of far more than the typical ‘Santa-Banta comedy’. Prateik and Rajat Kapoor fare well too but Ashutosh Rana and the judge (Kumud Mishra) appear exaggerated versions of their stereotypes, though their respective signature styles of theatrics and wryness make for hilarious scenes, courtesy the witty and no-nonsense dialogues by Anubhav Sinha.
Sinha does make his politics very clear right at the start of the film, with references to demonetisation and Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency. He lends his voice to Bilal’s character who casually tells a panwala counting money, “Gin lo, ye bhi gin lo; ye bhi chale jayenge.” In another scene, a hardware shop owner pours water in front of the neighbouring shop, much to the ire of the owner. But the former reasons, “Swachh Bharat karna hai na.”
In the new India, it has become a crime to belong to a certain faith. Some of Sinha’s dialogue crackles with righteous anger. When Santosh draws fanciful conclusions from the meaning of Bilal’s name, he gets a firm whack from Mishra’s judge. I got that Whatsapp forward too, the judge says. In these commonsensical moments, Mulk is at its most clear-eyed about what is at stake.
The courtroom scenes also hammer home the larger point that terrorism is not only Islamic but of various other forms. However, when viewed through a logical prism and not one misted by any colour (green or saffron), Mulk stands out an eye-opener for those who wish to see the world untainted.