Nakkash movie review: Hindutva hate and Muslim bigotry get a tongue lashing in a touching Varanasi saga
Nakkash is not designed as a thriller meant to dazzle us with its twists and turns. It is instead a believable slice-of-life saga in a toxic setting.
castInaamulhaq, Kumud Kumar Mishra, Sharib Hashmi, Rajesh Sharma, Pawan Tiwari, Harminder Singh Alag, Gulki Joshi
When routine tales of human decency and human interactions make headlines, you know a society is in trouble. News ought to be that which is uncommon, unusual, unexpected, and out of the ordinary. Yet Allah Rakha Siddiqui aka Allah Miyan (clever, huh?) finds himself becoming a subject of media curiosity even as he is ostracised by fellow Muslims and viewed with suspicion by Hindus in the present day for his commitment to a craft that his family has practised for generations.
Allah Miyan is the protagonist of Nakkash (Engraver/Carver/Sculptor), which draws its title from the nakkashi work he does in Varanasi temples. It is a skill he acquired in his childhood from his father. He knows no other trade, and now relies on it to take care of his son Mohammad. As it happens, he is that rare single dad in Hindi cinema who does not make a song and dance about being “baap bhi aur maa bhi” (both a father and a mother) to his child, an unconventional hero whose parenting challenges, love and commitment are no different from the conventionally portrayed mother.
The world as Allah Miyan once knew it is changing though, with Hindutva politics shaping the majority community’s increasing antagonism towards him while minority community fanatics deride him. Through his troubles, his faith in humanity is kept intact by two factors: first, the secular values of the temple priest Bhagwan Das Vedanti who has complete faith in him and fights off Hindu bigots opposed to a Muslim presence in a Hindu holy place, and second, the unstinting support of his lively best friend Samad who keeps his spirits up and advocates for him within their own community.
It goes without saying that the theme of Nakkash is relevant to the times we live in, where right-wing establishments worldwide have been overtly promoting animosity between communities. Relevance does not necessarily make for great cinema though, and Nakkash starts off looking like it might possibly go down a clichéd sermonising route. Fortunately, it does not – it simply tells a relatable story. When, for instance, Vedanti asks an embarrassed policeman, “While eating food, do you check to find out whether the grain came from a Hindu or a Muslim farmer?” he is not preaching, he is confronting an ideological fence-sitter with fundamentalist leanings in a conversation that echoes animated debates taking place in drawing rooms across the country these days.
Nakkash examines the politics of hate through Allah Miyan whose innocence makes him a misfit in contemporary India. The sources of its inspiration are easy to spot. Such as with the politician Munna Bhaiyya who says in a speech, “Saathiyon, iss desh pe sabse pehla haq hamara hai. Yahaan pe koi baahar se nahin aa sakta.” (Friends, we have the foremost claim over this country. No outsider can come in here.) He does not name the “we” or the “outsider” nor is any real-life political party mentioned, but the references are unmistakable.
Writer-director-producer Zaigham Imam’s last film, Alif (2017), also revolved around Hindu-Muslim politics. It was a well-intentioned but shoddy affair. Imam has evolved dramatically with Nakkash, which not only tells its story well, but is also technically stronger. From the quality of the visuals it appears that he had a larger budget available this time round, especially for cinematography (Asit Biswas) and art design (Sumit Mishra). This is not a perfect production – for one, the grandeur of Allah Miyan’s metal carvings in the sanctum sanctorum of Vedanti’s temple is not adequately captured – but it is still overall a nice-looking film and miles ahead of Alif in every department.
In terms of narrative style, Imam swings between naturalism and an occasionally operatic tone, which suits Nakkash well. The plot is not designed as a thriller meant to dazzle us with its twists and turns. It is instead a believable slice-of-life saga in a toxic setting.
Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk last year is one of the few Hindi films in this hyper-Hindutva decade that has had the courage to discuss in black-and-white the troubled relationship between India’s Hindus and Muslims or the persecution of Muslims by the Indian establishment. It was frank about Islamophobia without looking at Muslims through rose-tinted glasses in the way a certain kind of Bollywood cinema once did. Nakkash goes deeper into the minuses of both communities, holding nothing back while highlighting the great, the good, the bad and the ugly among both.
Considering the film’s progressiveness on one front, the absence of a significant female perspective on the issues at hand is glaring. The only couple of women in the picture are marginal to the action. This is inexcusable because in most scenarios of communal persecution women end up being the greatest sufferers.
Nakkash’s other creases feel minor in comparison. The closing montage, for instance, is stretched and given a maudlin air. The supporting cast’s performances could have done with some finessing here and there, particularly the female actor lamenting an assault on Allah Miyan who sounds tacky. Though Harminder Singh Alag as Mohammad is cute and shares a sweet chemistry with Inaamulhaq, he needed to loosen up a bit.
The lead cast though is superb. Sharib Hashmi as Allah Miyan’s endearingly mischievous and enigmatic buddy Samad outdoes himself, his character offering an illustrative example of the burdens that patriarchy places on men and also the dangers in a mindless, literal interpretation of religious scriptures and edicts. If you, like me, loved him in Filmistaan, his performance alone makes Nakkash worth watching.
Kumud Mishra (credited here as Kumud Kumar Mishra) lives up to his track record as one of Bollywood’s finest artistes with the dignity and stoicism he lends to Vedanti.
Rajesh Sharma, another of Bollywood’s best, has a much smaller but possibly tougher role. As a Varanasi Police Inspector who mouths some of Nakkash’s uglier lines, he makes a transition that perhaps only Sharma could have conveyed as he does, leaving us guessing about which end of the political spectrum this man will ultimately choose.
Pawan Tiwari, who is also one of Nakkash’s producers, makes the despicable Munna both repulsive and terrifying, yet stops short of caricaturing him.
On the shoulders of Inaamulhaq falls the role of the socially awkward, reticent Allah Miyan. The actor is so far known most for brilliantly playing a Bollywood-obsessed Pakistani smuggler of pirated CDs alongside Hashmi in Filmistaan. He is an intriguing casting choice because he is not a conventional charmer who could invite empathy by his mere presence on screen – his likeability is derived entirely from the strength of his performances, and here he makes the interesting choice of putting no effort into giving Allah Miyan any overtly attractive touches. In fact when he meets a prospective bride, the actor goes in the opposite direction and makes the character decidedly odd. It is this scene though that, with blinding sharpness, throws light on the kind of person this apparently non-descript chap truly is – not a born liberal revolutionary, but a regular conservative Indian male whose social conditioning does give him pause when he is faced with unconventional choices yet a man who, despite his shuffling demeanour, somehow finds the strength and courage to walk the road less travelled. In an India rife with negativity and backward mindsets, his story is both heartening and heart-breaking.
Because of Allah Miyan, Vedantisaab and the Inspector, as much as Nakkash is a cause for despair, it is also a wellspring of hope.
All images from YouTube.
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