The Indie filmmaker, Arun Karthick, deftly dodges stereotypes of victimhood that occur too often when cinema talks about oppression.

Screengrab from the movie NasirYouTube Screengrab
Flix Review Monday, June 08, 2020 - 10:35

Arun Karthick’s second Tamil film, Nasir premiered in India on June 6 as a part of MAMI’s online 'We Are One: A Global Film Festival'. It comes just months after the anti-Muslim pogroms in North East Delhi. In these times of heightened Islamophobia, when Muslims are reduced to statistics, to just a faceless community under siege, Karthick is determined to re-establish the individual’s singularity. The film stuns because there is no drama, no strident declarations. There’s just a camera following Nasir (played by Koumarane Valavane) around as he gets through his day as a salesman in a sari shop. He romances his wife, holds his co-workers spellbound with his poetry, worries about chit-funds and a young relative with disabilities who is dependent on him. 

The Indie filmmaker, deftly dodges stereotypes of victimhood that occur too often when cinema talks about oppression. He simply shows you Nasir with his faith, his elan for writing and his love for old SPB songs and Begum Akhtar’s gazals. Like in his previous film, Sivapuranam, there is a near-photographic stillness to the cinematography. A stillness against which Karthick shows daily Islamophobia. These overheard conversations, snippets of political rhetoric from a passing loudspeaker, a stranger’s reflex to edge away from Nasir settle over him, separating him in even crowded streets—he is “other”. 

“I stand on one bank—its name is silence. Merciless time flows in spats between…on the other bank, loneliness rains down. So, Poet Nasir asks, what is life, but loneliness and silence?” Koumarane Valavane transforms in those moments when he recites these lines. From soft-spoken salesman to silver-tongued poet, he is suddenly larger than his small frame as the richness of his voice and searing words pull the whole scene in towards him with irrefutable strength. But it is fleeting. 

The unrelenting tide of Hindutva leeches into Nasir’s life. The film reveals the cracks in Tamil Nadu’s image: this long cherished idea of a state that is a bastion of regional politics and impervious to Hindu-Hindi far-right rhetoric from the north. He highlights the rise in popularity of Vinayagar (Ganesh) Chathurthi in Tamil Nadu and its connections to the Sangh. Back in the 80s the Sangh Parivar working in affiliation with organisations like the Hindu Munani Katchi pushed for the celebration of Vinayagar Chaturthi, which until then wasn’t a huge factor of religious culture here. These efforts were in tandem with the Sangh’s project for a homogenised Hindu-identity rather than indigenous ritualisms.

As the processions increased in magnitude, there was a deliberate bloody turn against Muslim majority neighbourhoods. In 1990, violence erupted near the Ice House Mosque in Triplicane, Chennai. Through this decade, in Coimbatore where the film is set, tensions between Muslims and caste-Hindus simmered until they reached a deadly point from 1997-98. As recently as 2016, riots threatened to breakout in Coimbatore. 

This history lurks around the edges of Karthick’s Nasir, remaining almost entirely invisible, but present as bodiless voices over loudspeakers: “they say Ganesh is not a Tamil god. Then I ask, was Allah born in this neighbourhood?” These voices slip insidiously into scenes while Nasir runs errands for his boss or walks through the streets to his home, ghostly and oppressive. Arun Karthick chooses to restrain himself from spectacles of violence as a shortcut to empathy. Instead, quiet has many layers here. The photolike stillness of many shots. Nasir’s life between his work and home. The chaos of rioting is reserved for only seconds, yet sufficient to bring back images from only a few months ago. As the stillness returns, the silence that sneaks around his assaulted body hidden in the half-light of a street lamp, holding this scene for excruciating minutes, it becomes a damning judgement on all those complicit by their refusal to speak up.

Nasir is adapted from Dilip Kumar’s Tamil short story A Clerk’s Tale and co-produced by Stray Factory Rinkel Film, Uncombed Buddha, Magic Hour Films, Colored Pickle Films and Harman Ventures. It had also received financial aid from the Hubert Bals Fund run by the International Rotterdam Film Festival (IFFR) where Nasir had its world premiere in 2020 and won the festival’s Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema (NETPAC) Award. Mumbai Academy of Moving Images (MAMI) that runs the Mumbai Film Festival premiered Nasir online via a viewing link that was made free to access for 24 hours on YouTube. Arun Karthick’s much celebrated debut film Sivapuranam (The Strange Case of Shiva) is currently available for streaming on MUBI. 

Bharathy Singaravel is a freelance film reporter who focuses on the intersection of politics, music and cinema in Tamil Nadu. She's written for The News Minute, Firstpost, The Federal, Umbra, Newsclick and Indian Cultural Forum.

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film's producers or any other members of its cast and crew.

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