How Arun Karthick's Tamil film Nasir employs a Savarna reading of the good Muslim/bad Muslim binary
Nasir premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2020, as an entry for the Tiger Competition and won the prestigious NETPAC Award for the best Asian feature film. It recently premiered in the MAMI film festival Mumbai.
One day I was asked: “How do you choose your lenses?”
And I responded: “Following the sense of justice.”
[ some spoilers ahead ]
What answers do we get when we translate the idea of social justice? There might be various responses, but I hope that most of you would agree with me when I say social justice is untranslatable. When you translate social justice into a medium, whether it be literature, cinema, drama or any other form which enables wide readership/audience, the meaning should not change. The idea of social justice should reflect as social justice itself.
But unfortunately, most Savarna artists, despite their sphere, lack this ability to translate/transform the question of social justice into a more powerful one through their area of talent, may it be film or literature. On the contrary, when they try to convert/translate the question loses its essence and as a result, the end product becomes a story of sugar-coated benevolence.
Cinema, like most art forms, is a socio-political institution. It’s not a mere screening of moving frames, rather it acts as a point of coherence for multiple sensual experiences in order to form a virtual reality. It is this feature of cinema that makes it one of the most popular and profit-making mediums, apart from other art forms. Cinema is always lauded for its brave attempts to capture and present socio-political reality(ies) in an aesthetically and technically-mediated way in order to convince its targeted audience. For example, ‘The Birth of a Nation’ (1915) is an American film directed by D.W Griffith which is lauded by various critics for its technical brilliance. It’s considered a landmark in film history and in 1992, the Library of Congress deemed the film "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry. But the depiction of African-Americans in the film was so problematic that the film's release had also been acknowledged as an inspiration for the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, an infamous white racist terrorist group, only months after the release of the film. But still, the film is considered a landmark. This view is somewhat problematic as we can see that the ‘aesthetic’ often overlaps with the ‘historic’ and ‘cultural’, where the history and culture depicted in the film is deeply racist and very problematic. But this historical manipulation is excused through the technical and aesthetic brilliance and mediation.
It’s in this context, I want to discuss the Tamil movie Nasir (2019), directed by Arun Karthick, with the help of Hubert Bals Fund from Netherlands. Nasir premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2020, as an entry for the Tiger Competition and won the prestigious NETPAC Award for the best Asian feature film. It recently premiered in the MAMI film festival Mumbai. It was indeed a pleasure to watch a film with neat and frames, assisted with perfectly modulated soundscape and brilliantly curated colour-scape. The soundscape of the movie deserves appreciation as it marks the micro-growth of Hindutva politics through using auditory technique.
But at the same time, I think it’s important to remark the contradictions and slight manipulations on the structural anatomy of the film’s content. The film is an adaptation of A Clerk’s Story, a short story by Dilip Kumar, a Tamil writer. It captures the everyday life of Nasir, a Muslim salesman from Coimbatore. I am always curious about depictions of Muslim life in Indian cinema, and how faith determines their everydat. So, when I watched a film that doesn’t use much music other than the sound of ‘Aazan’ ( Call for prayer ), Ilayaraja melodies and Begum Akthar (I’m not sure about this, though) ghazals, I thought the everyday encounters of Nasir was a promising depiction. But when the plot progresses, the brilliant making ie. the ‘aesthetic,’ slowly seduces our visual senses and cripples our critical intellect. It is only at the culminating violence where I could regain my critical capacities. Till that, the ‘aesthetic’ relegates us from entering the ‘critical’.
Also read on Firstpost: "Nasir is a portrait of the impact of communalism on innocent lives"
In the film, Nasir is depicted as an innocent, wife-loving, family loving, tolerating, poetic, secular Muslim. Various scenes and contexts are incorporated in the plot in order to justify each of these prefixes which turns out to make Nasir a ‘vulnerable’ person. The early morning shots with the wife depicts loose gender hierarchies where Nasir helps his wife with her daily chores and even helps her while she’s getting dressed. The creation of a character of a disabled son (that too an adopted one, from the obvious hints given) adds to the loose/liberal structure. It wouldn’t disturb you much while you’re watching, rather it’ll reaffirm your sympathetic gaze towards the protagonist.
But all these benevolent traits of Nasir is justified in the culminating scene. When we add all these traits together, we can evidently see the manipulation that happened there in order to gain maximum sympathy for the protagonist, who is at the receiving end of unexpected mob violence at the end. Maybe this essential weakening of the character is justifiable given the plot but I’m curious about other things. In the movie, we cannot see Nasir making at least one political statement. It’s surprising that he doesn’t even share it with his intimate circle, given the contemporary political context.
The movie urges us to sympathise with the fate of an apolitical, tolerating, poetic, non-grieving Muslim who happened to get lynched by a ‘fanatic mob’ in a ‘communal violence’. But what about a political, not-that benevolent, sceptical secular Muslim who is there in the same situation? Does the same sympathies apply to that Muslim too?
Remember that a Muslim has every right to be political and sceptical regarding secularism given the historical trajectory of what their community had to suffer in the post-colonial context of India and not-so benevolent given his class position. The good Muslim/bad Muslim binary is unintentionally produced here, where we can see a perfectly moulded Muslim character, who fits in the liberal-secular framework, a Muslim who is apolitical and weak enough to qualify for secular-upper caste condemnation for his ‘unfortunate death’. This is a serious manipulation of the prevailing power variations between the majority and the minority in contemporary Indian society.
The critique of rising political Hindutva made by the film, one of the main reasons why the film is appreciated, is also problematic in some ways.
In one of the early shots where Nasir and his wife are walking to the bus station, we can notice the change in the settlements by listening to the sounds made. The mainstream observation was that this is a brilliant depiction of equalisation of ‘hate speeches’ of religions with mutual enmity. It’s really easy to dump everything under the umbrella of ‘religion’ and ‘communalism’ but is that really the case? When we scrutinise the scene, the observations take an interesting turn. When they’re walking through the Muslim households, we can see that the speech made is a harmless ‘religious’ one but when they get into the Hindu households, we can notice that the speech there is entirely ‘political’ in the form of hate speech.
When the Savarna liberal intelligentsia, while receiving the movie, equalises both as ‘hate speeches', there’s an evident power inequality in that equalisation process.
In a particular way, Nasir blames every wrongdoing from the majoritarian side on political hindutva, which rose into popularity after the destruction of Babri Masjid in 1992, and a second wave after 2014 elections, according to the normative liberal logic. While on the other side, it’s just Islam. This is inherently unequal for it safely protects and preserves the casteist structure of Hinduism.
To sum up, Nasir reproduces the Savarna soft-hindutva binary which differentiates the cultural from political, but when in reality it is the cultural which acts as the surface for the political.
This is the same logic which compels the character of Nasir to be politically mute. In the movie, it is made clear that his upper caste shop owner’s family is vegetarian. But here if you look more closely, you will notice the normalisation of vegetarianism and an injection of ‘innocent’ jokes on taste buds which makes the vegetarians look ‘cool’ and ‘non violent’, while on the socio-political front, the root logic is the same while lynching and killing of minorities and dalits, accusing them of eating/transporting meat.
There has been various discussions on the liberal potential of cinema against the prevailing injustices in the fundamental structure of society.
Theodore Adorno, a famous Frankfurt school philosopher, structurally theorises and criticises popular culture (including cinema) as a space where cultural modernity neutralises the liminal space of expression by appropriating it through commodification. For Walter Benjamin, another cultural Marxist and contemporary of Adorno, fascism is the aesthetisation of politics. By relegating politics into its aesthetic appeal - it delimits the idea of liberation and resistance into the realm of expression and denies its material becoming.
Here, we can see that Nasir, following a series of films by various directors from Tamil language including Mani Ratnam and Sankar, simply reproduces the Hindu/Muslim binary for convenience, by incorporating a larger political meta narrative into it, which in effect conveys nothing about the structural injustices but leaves the audience in a cathartic position where they can easily sympathise with the minority dead body at the end.
These movies, by doing the same, earn acclaim and social-economic-career capital for those who are behind this from film festivals, mainly from the west. Most of the western white audience lack proper understanding of the complex fundamental realities of the existing societal structures in India. For eg. most of their understandings are so limited that their popular convention of Priyanka Chopra is as a South Asian actress who faces racism.
The logic and driving factor of Brahmanic hegemony is dominance. By dominating the narrative over minority bodies, the contemporary ‘art house’ cinema in India is providing the space for Savarnas to ‘dominate’ by essentially muting the minority, lower caste voices. Nasir has to be read in connection with two other contemporary ‘art house’ movies, Ghamak Ghar by Achal Mishra and Cat Sticks by Ronny Senn. The romanticisation and preservation of Brahaminism happens in the former while the latter reproduces the conventional extra-arrogant Muslim ‘other’ and sensible ‘Brahmin’ narratives. The popularity and acclamation that these movies received for their technical and aesthetic brilliance reaffirms our arguments.