Director: Arun Karthick
Cast: Valavane Koumarane, Jensan Diwakar, Sudha Ranganathan
“What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? That she was beautiful. And Brilliant. That she loved Mozart and Bach. And the Beatles. And me.” Erich Segal’s Love Story opens with these lines, which suggest that a person is best defined through instantly discernable neon-highlights — the girl’s beauty, her brilliance, her love for Mozart, Bach, the Beatles. It’s what Alfred Hitchcock said: “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” Then there are others like the Belgian director Chantal Akerman who prefer to define a life with the “dull bits”. One of the most telling scenes in her most famous film — Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975) — is that of the protagonist in her kitchen, peeling potatoes.
In his superb second feature, Nasir, Arun Karthick adopts the latter approach. Speaking of Jeanne Dielman, Akerman said, “I do think it’s a feminist film because I give space to things which were never, almost never, shown in that way, like the daily gestures of a woman. They are the lowest in the hierarchy of film images. A kiss or a car crash comes higher, and I don’t think that’s accidental. It’s because these are women’s gestures that they count for so little.” Through Nasir — which won the NETPAC Award for best Asian film premiering at this year’s Rotterdam film festival, and which is adapted from author Dilip Kumar’s A Clerk’s Story — Arun is saying something similar. To paraphrase Akerman, he gives space to things which have never, almost never, been shown in that way, like the daily gestures of a man.
Even though Arun has taken up a highly charged premise that detonates with a big bang, he is — in his own way — questioning the “hierarchy of film images”. For instance: Why should a story about communal violence be filled with blood and weapons, shouts and wails? The genius of Nasir is that — by shunning conventional cause-and-effect melodrama — its active “plot” gets relegated to the sidelines, and we see very little of it. Instead, we hear about it. We hear about roads being closed due to a religious procession. We hear that Muslims have said the procession should not pass through their streets. We hear arguments on loudspeakers about Allah and Ganesha, neither of whom is deemed a “Tamil” god.
And what do we see? We see the forty-something Nasir (a brilliantly undramatic Koumarane Valavan) walk through “Muslim streets” and then through “Hindu streets”, each identified by the targets of hate speech in the loudspeaker pronouncements in the air. Nasir walks through these streets almost unconcerned. This is a political film about an apparently apolitical man, who — like many of us — awakens and works from dawn to dusk and goes back home to sleep. Like many of our lives, his is filled with “dull bits”. (The compressed frame is suitably squarish, non-panoramic.) We saw this in Arun’s first film, too: Sivapuranam. It had a lip-smacking premise about a man obsessed with a woman in a photograph. But instead of remaining a “plot point” around the protagonist, this voyeurism was worked into his very being to the extent that it was just another thing he did, like eating or applying perfume or removing laundry from the clothesline.
And what do we get when the sensational is de-sensationalised? Instead of a character being defined through a series of events, [his] character becomes the “event”. Nasir‘s mission is to help us understand who the man from the title is. When a friend he helped undertake the Hajj pilgrimage says he can get Nasir a job in Abu Dhabi, he thinks. This isn’t about a Muslim man feeling unsafe in India (or in Coimbatore, where this story is set). It’s just about money. Nasir is a practical man. Also, a poetic man. He writes poems about thanimai (solitude) and mounam (silence). (In Sivapuranam, too, we had a poetic protagonist, who read Baudelaire.) In an era of cell phones, he writes long letters to his wife, who has left to spend time with her family.
One of these letters is read out — with interruptions — in three long segments, in three different surroundings. It’s a brilliant touch. The first time, Nasir is at work. It’s a clothing store — the stacks of shirts and saris, in all hues, may be the one instance of Nasir’s life that’s ultra-colourful. The store is small and secular. On the wall is one of those tripartite pictures representing Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. Also consider that such a store, by its very nature, is secular. It does business with all kinds of people, without a care about which gods they worship. Nasir has good relations with the members of a Saiva Pillai household, and even the music he listens to is secular, ranging from Ilaiyaraaja (it was a kick to hear ‘Panivizhum Malarvanam’ erupt on the speakers of a Berlin theatre) to the kind of lovelorn thumris and ghazals you’d associate with Begum Akhtar or Farida Khanum.
There is no artificiality in the drama, and thankfully, there is no background score to nudge us. The only “music” is religious — say, the sound of prayer that opens the film, as Nasir lies asleep on a mat. (The film ends with an echo image.) We see Nasir defined through the diligent way he shapes his beard, through the thoroughness with which he cleans his feet, or by the casual way he plants a kiss on his wife’s lips. She accepts it most casually, a rare thing for a middle-aged woman in our cinema, without getting all red-faced and “what if your mother walks in”! This man is all love, no hate. Even the burden of a developmentally challenged son or an ailing mother cannot induce an iota of negativity. In another segment of the letter to his wife, he writes of his mother curled up in pain, like a foetus. The imagery is stunning.
Of course, India being what it is today, the hate cannot crouch in the corners of the story forever. It crawls slowly, steadily to the centre of the story, with saffron hues and “Bharat Mata ki Jai” slogans. A riot breaks out. The filmmaking, for an instant, is breathtaking. Had Nasir written about this scene, he would have called it a beautiful chaos of faces and limbs. Finally, we see why Nasir has been built up for us so painstakingly, why we have been invited to examine every incidental detail of his unremarkable life. It’s shattering. Nasir is an important film not just because of what it says but because it says it all without holding up a single placard. This is not a movie with a message. The messaging is the movie, which shows how quickly and terrifyingly the political engulfs the personal. Had Nasir written about the structure of this film, he’d probably say one stone is all it takes to alter the surface of a placid lake.