Millennium Post

Mulk was reflective of Anubhav's world view

A college friend of Anubhav Sinha peels back the curtains to shed light on the man who conceived the story of Mulk, and today finds himself in the crosshairs of many pretend patriots, for whom the slightest normalisation of a minority community elicits howls of betrayal

The movie Mulk, written and directed by my college friend and roommate Anubhav Sinha, has drawn rave reviews from critics and sparked a long overdue conversation about patriotism (desh bhakti). Although the issues in the movie are distinctly Indian, overarching questions about patriotism are universal. The terrorist who kills innocent souls in his own country is certainly not a patriot. And neither are those who target an entire community from which that terrorist came from. George Washington warned us to guard against the 'imposters' of 'pretend patriotism'. Mulk unmasks the pretend patriots.

I will spare you yet another critique of the movie. But I will peel back the curtains to shed light on the man who conceived the story of Mulk and today finds himself in the crosshairs of many pretend patriots, for whom the slightest normalisation of a minority community elicits howls of betrayal (gaddari).

That Anubhav wrote the story of Mulk is not surprising, given his lasting friendship with many Muslims. Such friendships are not uncommon in India but what sets Anubhav apart was his keenness to observe and learn, before pontificating an opinion. This imbued him with the empathy necessary to deal with a topic as complex as patriotism in the age of homegrown terrorism. But Anubhav's journey was not predictable. It required making choices by him and the people he looked to for inspiration.

I met Anubhav in 1982 at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). Both of us were running late to our first period class and ran into each other as we scrambled to find the right classroom tucked at the back of the metal workshops inside Zakir Hussein College of Engineering and Technology. He a Hindu Kayasth from Varanasi and I a Bengali Muslim from Kolkata. We were both a bit overwhelmed in our new unfamiliar surroundings and found in each other the unlikeliest of kindred spirit partly stemming from our mutual love for cinema and the art of making cinema. Both of us joined AMU's famed Drama Club, which boasts Naseeruddin Shah as one of its many famed alumni. Soon we realized, we were both misfits in our mechanical engineering program. Thank God that neither of us designed a machine you had to use. Fortunately for him he pursued his true love of the arts and I moved to America to settle down into the challenges of academia.

Both of us also cherished the respective cultures that shaped our lives and outlooks. I would often extoll the virtues of Bengali literary and cultural elitism while Anubhav would take me on a journey of Hindi classics. My Tagore from Kolkata versus his Munshi Premchand from Varanasi. The debates raged over unending cups of Aligarh's iconic chai. He did not understand Bengali and while I had a working knowledge of Hindi, I would often fail the gender test of non-living things in Hindi. Till date, I remain confused as to why chair is feminine but bed is masculine. Neither of us were particularly religious but nonetheless our religious identities were important to us. This recognition of each other's sensibilities can go a long way in developing relationships across differences.

During our five years at AMU, Anubhav and I faced incredible challenges to our unlikely friendship. Many of Anubhav's Hindu friends expressed discomfort about his Muslim roommate. Many of my Muslim friends were puzzled as to why I found in Anubhav a kindred spirit. It amazes me even now, as to why so many of my Muslim friends often looked at Anubhav with suspicion, despite his deep love and surprising knowledge for what really mattered most to Aligarians – Urdu shayari (poetry). Mutual suspicion among Hindus and Muslims remain the Achilles heel for India's social, moral and even economic development. Mulk boldly shows India a glimpse of how that suspicion adversely impacts people and ultimately hollows out the soul of a nation.

After my first year at AMU, I was to return home to Kolkata for my summer break. Anubhav suggested I spend a few days at his home in Varanasi before proceeding to Kolkata. Shortly after arriving at his parent's modest home, I fell severely ill. Anubhav's mother took care of me in the same way as my Mom would. She stayed up several nights by my side. Anubhav's father, an amateur homeopath, tried his best to experiment with homeopathic medicine, which my allopathic doctor Dad would have probably frowned upon. But Uncle gets an A for effort. After several difficult days and nights, I finally recovered not only because the antibiotics started to finally work but mostly because of a mother's love.

On the day I was to leave, Anubhav's mother told me that I was the first Muslim to cross her threshold (chowkath). In her ancestral family (maike), if the shadow of a Muslim crossed their threshold, they would sprinkle holy water from the Ganges. Muslims were viewed as impure. Aunty then took out her prayer (puja) plate (thali) and lovingly smirched my forehead with the traditional red vermillion. I was startled but went along because it was the polite thing to do. She then packed lunch for me and Anubhav dropped me off at the train station. When I entered my home and greeted my Mom with the traditional salaam(peace) she was disconcerted at the tilak on my forehead. After I recounted the whole story, she was able to look past the religious oddity and thanked God that a mother's love brought her son back to her.

During the next Ramadan, Anubhav would wake me up every day for the pre-dawn meal (sehri). He would also often help me out preparing for iftar. On rare occasions when he wanted to visit a temple (mandir), I would accompany him. During a particularly difficult period, as Hindu-Muslim violence was flaring up across Uttar Pradesh, many of my Muslim friends told all our Hindu friends to stay-put on campus and it was on our shoulders to protect them from harm. Many Hindu students failed to trust us. Anubhav did. That trust mattered. Anubhav's Mulk is an enduring story of love, a love that transcends divides and embraces people as simply insaan (human beings). Of all the identities that divides us, the identity of being human ought to unify us. Of all the ideologies that keep us apart, the love for our country, its people, and its constitution ought to bring us together. To celebrate this will require a new conscience and a new way to bridging our divides. Anubhav's Mulk makes a plea to all of us to overcome our fear of others and make others our own. And this plea comes from the depths of a mother's love as it cascades towards the love of motherland.

[Parvez Ahmed is professor of finance at the University of North Florida]

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