Nasir is a portrait of the impact of communalism on innocent lives, says director Arun Karthick about the Tamil indie

Nasir, a Tamil Indie film, was aired during the online 10-day international film festival, We Are One, the Global Film Festival last week.

Kavitha Shanmugam June 09, 2020 15:08:50 IST
Nasir is a portrait of the impact of communalism on innocent lives, says director Arun Karthick about the Tamil indie

Nasir, a Tamil Indie film, was aired during the online 10-day international film festival, We Are One, the Global Film Festival last week.

Available to audiences to stream for a day, this Indo-Dutch production, which chronicles one day in the life of an ordinary saree shop salesman in Coimbatore has garnered rave reviews.

Urging people to see this excellent film, Sean Baker, American film director of Florida Project and Tangerine fame, tweeted about Nasir: “It is a slow and satisfying burn, which becomes a cry against bigotry and intolerance.”

In a telephonic interview, Arun Karthick, the 28-year-old director of Nasir says, “I am overwhelmed, people from different parts of the world have appreciated the film. Some may have had trouble orienting themselves to the film, particularly at first. Slowly, however the characters take over.”

Nasir is a portrait of the impact of communalism on innocent lives says director Arun Karthick about the Tamil indie

A still from Nasir.

Slowly, is the figurative word here, as the film opens in a languorous pace, as the camera ponderously follows the protagonist, Nasir, during his morning ablutions. Not before a hasty canoodle with his wife in their cramped living space. Clearly, he is a devoted husband very much in love with his wife.

Nasir is the film adaption of a short story titled A Clerk’s Story, written by a well-known Chennai writer, Dilip Kumar. (who is ironically a Gujarati, and who writes like a dream in Tamil!) What attracts writers to the seemingly insignificant lives of clerks? The film remains faithful to the short story effectively capturing the prosaic, humdrum life of a salesman – as he drops off his wife at the bus station; dresses up the female mannequins in the shop affectionately tweaking their noses as if they are human; delivering a tiffin box to the shop owner’s son at his school, who refers to him as the trustworthy ‘uncle’ or catching up with his Abu Dhabi-returned friend for an impromptu lunch.

It is a commonplace life of the faceless middle-class in India. He has an endearing trait however – he is able to compose a poem to lift the mundanity of his life and that of his co-workers. What else is life if not loneliness and silence? asks this simpleton. But, even as he ruminates about his life, religious tensions are being stoked in the city as hate speeches blare out of loudspeakers. Saddened by the divisiveness, Nasir ostensibly distances himself from the madness. However, he ends up getting sucked into the vicious churn of communal hatred, which unleashes faceless, insane mobs, “who behave like mad men on a wild hunt”.

On the relevance of Nasir in India today, Karthick says, “It is a portrait of the impact of communalism on innocent, helpless people. I want people to reflect on this.”

The film is not remotely close to what we see in Tamil cinema today. Karthick, a self-taught filmmaker, who dropped out of engineering, clarifies that his “sensibilities” are more tuned in to make independent films.

“I enjoy telling a narrative that is rooted in a particular milieu or culture rather than committing to unreasonable commercial narratives to suit market demands,” he says.

He is not alone in this ‘emerging vibrant space’ in the Tamil film industry, he says. Known in film festival circuits as an “exciting new voice”, Karthick adds, “Filmmakers from diverse backgrounds are telling stories in unique ways. For me, it is all about the stories I want to tell and the way I want to do it. I don’t let the market dictate my interests.”

His first film Sivapuranam (The Strange Case of Shiva), explores the obsession of a young recluse with the photograph of a girl who is a stranger. (This film is currently streaming on the MUBI platform).

Having read and liked The Clerk’s Story seven years ago, Karthick decided to make the celluloid version after communal riots broke out in Coimbatore in 2016. The murder of a Hindu right wing organisation spokesperson had led arsonists to target shops and other commercial establishments reportedly owned by Muslims.

“As a witness to the riot, I realised the pain of innocent people falling prey to communal violence,” recalls Karthick.

The filmmaker actually moved into the Muslim dominated area, in which his film is set, to imbibe the “flavour”. For two years, Karthick mingled with the residents, who were initially wary of him. He wanted them to get comfortable with him to be able to train his camera (a Digital Bolex) on their bustling lives in the heart of the densely populated Oppanakarra street, teeming with commercial establishments.

His skilled crew, which included his calm DOP, Saumyananda Sahi, assumed control of the space on the street and searched for adventurous ways to frame and shoot each scene. However, they had to avoid certain volatile streets prone to communal tensions. Coincidentally, Sahi is the lensman for Eeb Allay Ooo!, the Hindi film which was the only other Indian film to air on We are One Film fest.

Most of the actors, including the understated Koumarane Valavane, who brilliantly essays the role of Nasir, are first-timers. In fact, Valavane is the director of the Pondicherry theatre group, Indianostrum and has not faced a film camera before.

Five Indian companies, which includes Stray Factory and one Dutch production, backed Nasir. The film also bagged a grant of 50,000 Euros from Netherlands Film Fund and Hubert Bals Fund. The funding has been used to wrap up the film’s colour grading and sound in Amsterdam studios.

The film has picked up an award at the Rotterdam Film Festival and has been invited to a dozen film festivals in Jerusalem, Poland and scheduled to be screened at the ‘New directors, New Films’ event at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. COVID-19 has however disrupted the screenings, he says.
It is not clear at this point if the producers will opt for an OTT or a theatrical release in India. However, Karthick feels that OTTs are valid options for independent films and can bring in a wider global audience.

Basking in the accolades coming his way, the young director says that he will remain committed to working in a “local” space in a global world. And, to remain grounded, like his character Nasir, only to enable him to get closer to the characters he hopes to bring to life on the screen in the future.

Kavitha Shanmugam is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru.

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