When in March 2017 Indian security forces brought the body of Saifullah Khan, an alleged Islamic State terrorist, to the doorstep of his house, the man’s father, Sartaj Khan, refused to accept the mortal remains of his son. “If he did not belong to this country, how can he be mine?” Khan, a Muslim resident of a north Indian city, reportedly said. However, while Khan’s posture was praised by even the home minister as patriotic, Khan also challenged the security forces in court to prove that his son Saifullah was indeed a terrorist. According to a part of the Indian media, that affair – dubbed as the Saifullah encounter case – served as the inspiration for Mulk, a new Indian movie. While I have not yet found confirmation that the story of the film is based on this particular case, the creators of Mulk do stress that it refers to some true events.
Mulk hit the screens in August 2018. Compared to an average Bollywood blockbuster, it is a sordid tale, a movie that wants to take on the problems of society, rather than let us forget about them and indulge in 2-3 hours of escapist fantasy. Mulk, however, serves to highlight part of the issues rather than kick up real debate or float solutions.
The film tells the story of Murad Ali Muhammad, an elderly lawyer and a devout Muslim (played by the veteran Bollywood actor Rishi Kapoor), whose family house is hidden somewhere in the narrow lanes of Varanasi, a holy Hindu city in north India. He is shown as friendly, if a bit restrained. His friends include two local Hindu shopkeepers, and, while being deeply devout, when forced to choose he would clearly prefer the company of liberal Hindus over that of extreme Islamists. At first, before switching into a straightforward and preachy mode, Mulk treats us with small, easy-to-miss accents that go completely against the grain of stereotypes and show the complexity of Indian society. In one scene, Muhammad’s Hindu neighbor claims to be a vegetarian, but, having heard he clandestinely devours kababs, the elderly Muslim teases his friend with the scent of meat dishes. When the hero meets his Hindu friends, the two shopkeepers, contrary to tradition he greets them with “Ram Ram” (an evocation of god Rama which is customarily used between Hindus) while they reply with “Salam Alaikum” (a greetings used between the followers of Islam).
Muhammad’s calm little world is shattered when his brother’s son, Shahid, becomes a terrorist. True to his name – shahid means “martyr” – Shahid murders 16 innocent people, including three Muslims, by planting a bomb in a bus. Shahid is subsequently killed by a security officer (incidentally also a Muslim) when his hideout is stormed. In a scene reminiscent of the Saifullah encounter case, Shahid’s family refuses to accept his body. This is, however, only the beginning of their ordeal.
What follows is a court case in which the prosecution betrays a collective responsibility attitude by wrongly assuming that Shahid’s family consists entirely of terrorists. From now on, the movie plot becomes closely connected to its message. The court proceedings and the rest of the story serve as a sad list of stereotypes that the Indian Muslims must face every day: That they regard their religion higher than their country, that they cheer Pakistan’s team during cricket matches, that they breed radicals, and so on.
Even before the partition, some radical Hindus claimed that Indian Muslims should be “Indian first, Muslim second.” This demand was based on the assumption that the followers of Islam do the reverse. The accusation proved true in case of some of Muslims, but generally emerged wrong: When Pakistan was separated from India in 1947, most Muslims who lived on the Indian side of the new border decided to stay in India. A majority of Pakistan’s population comprised people who happened to live on the territories declared as Pakistan, not Muslim migrants from India. The “Muslim first, Indian second” accusation also assumed that religion and patriotism exist on the same plane and that a person must choose one over the other, as if being both at the same time was not possible. Moreover, it was believed that this is somehow only a problem for Indian Muslims and Christians. Nobody ever demanded Hindus be “Indians first, and Hindus second.”
Mulk shows how such attitudes against Muslims persist in India. Shahid’s family is pushed into an indefensible position. The cunning prosecutor wants them to prove that they are patriotic Indians despite being Muslims, as if the court was a place to produce such evidence and as if the state was entitled to hand out patriotism certificates to its citizens.
Let us think of the Saifullah encounter case again. By no means should the question of terrorism be ignored and it is true that when it comes to arranging bomb attacks, most of these in India are the work of extreme Muslim organizations (though the picture looks different if we consider all kinds of terrorist attacks or acts of violence more broadly). Thus, radicalization of a part of Muslim youth in India is a problem and the movie does not deny this. But when Sartaj Khan was receiving the body of Saifullah, they were still the remains of his son. Even if Saifullah was indeed a terrorist, it would still be reasonable for a father to accept the corpse of his son. Thus, when Home Minister Rajnath Singh – who belongs to the current, Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi – praised Sartaj Khan, it was as if he said that by distancing himself from his own son, Sartaj passed the test of being Indian first, and a father second. While hardly anybody defends terrorism, these are by no means simple matters, and they are not solved by simply deciding who gets to be a patriot. The entire “Indian first, Muslim second” slogan diverts the attention from burning and complex issues of the social, economic, and political situation of contemporary followers of Islam in today’s India.
The movie is obviously not an academic essay and nobody expects a movie to cover all aspects of a given phenomenon. But, similarly to the Pakistani movie Khuda Kay Liye, Mulk uses the setting of the courtroom as a narrative tool to spread its message. The effect, however, is that the proceedings sound completely unrealistic and the overdrawn characters get a chance to discuss their views, rather than the case evidence (this happens not only in South Asian movies, by the way; Hollywood knows this illness as well). While watching I often felt like a first-grade student made to listen to a speech by a professor delivered in a sermon-like manner.
Most of the film challenges the above stated stereotypes by denying them, but doesn’t go deeper. It does not suffice to counter “Muslims have to prove their patriotism” by simply responding “No, they do not.” The film only lightly and occasionally touches on the issues facing Muslims in India. Outside the screen, and before the movie was shot, some of the government commissions and the research of academics such as Christophe Jaffrelot proved how the marginalization and poverty of Indian Muslims is a growing problem. There is little sense in discussing Muslim terrorism without showing this socioeconomic background. It is equally true that extreme Islamist organizations, some of them Pakistani, take stock of the situation to further radicalize. But the above-mentioned research shows that there are many cases of Muslims being treated as unwanted or suspicious elements of society, and not only during court cases.
Not only is it hard to find a follower of Islam among the class of most affluent Indians, but there are instances of housing apartheid in which Hindus refuse to lend a flat to followers of Islam in their neighborhood (quite possibly the reverse happens as well). Muslims are also grossly under-represented in services such as the police or the army. There are, therefore, people who quite deliberately lay more bricks in the wall of Muslim marginalization, while what is equally unfortunate is that this wall was fortified by the efforts of conservative and extreme Muslims. While saying “most Muslims are not terrorists, though a part of their society has been radicalized” is certainly better than saying “all Muslims are terrorists,” it is still far from a complex consideration of the situation.
On first thought, it would seem that simpler stories about India’s social reality should be reserved for foreign audiences. In practice, however, some of the Hindus and Muslims, despite living side by side, sometimes betray a stunning ignorance of each other, a situation actually made even worse by political agenda and propaganda of the sort on WhatsApp. I have myself encountered Hindus who claim that Muslims do “everything in reverse” – not only do they write from right to left, but they even knead the dough in a reverse manner (years after hearing this I still do not know how this is possible, and I do not think it is only because I am a bad cook). Thus, perhaps the need of the hour is just to counter the stereotypes with all means possible, before moving the discussion to new areas (if this is even possible).
Mulk does not show a black-and-white world, and this is obviously an advantage. Muhammad’s family are Muslims, but so are his radical nephew Shahid, his innocent victims, and the officer that shot Shahid dead. When Shahid is on the run and TV shows footage with his face, one of Muhammad’s Hindu friends decides to inform the police as a patriotic act, because it’s a “national affair.” The other Hindu friend prefers to remain silent, as he knows it may put Muhammad’s family in peril. The film does not tell us that one of those postures is 100 percent wrong and the other is completely right. When Muhammad approaches the father of Rashid, a friend of Shahid, for help in the court case, the father refuses because he wants to protect his own family from similar accusations. The characters of the film are not just religious or not, Hindus or Muslims, patriotic or not – they are people, in all the complexity that that entails.
The movie faced mixed reactions in India, as critics pointed out to similar weaknesses which I mention here, but also because some Hindu radicals considered it “pro-Muslim.” At the same time, however, it has been banned in Pakistan. This shows how difficult it is to address Hindu-Muslim relations in a serious manner in either of the two South Asian countries. The creators of Mulk were even more bold, as they took care not to hide under a political umbrella of one party, but risked pointing out that terrorism can be the work of various organizations or parties. One strong scene reminds us that both the events of 1984 in Delhi and 1992 in Ayodhya were terror acts. In 1984 mobs in Delhi and other north Indian cities massacred Sikhs under the guidance of members of the Indian National Congress party, while in 1992 Hindu radicals led by Bharatiya Janata Party politicians demolished a mosque in Ayodhya (and these two parties remain India’s largest). Thus, despite its preachy tone and a bit cardboard scenes, the film highlights important problems and the courage of the makers should certainly be approved.