Recovering the ‘political’ from ‘aesthetic’: Watching ‘Nasir’

One day I was asked: “How do you choose your lenses?”

And I responded: “Following the sense of justice.”

                                                                                           —Abbas Kiarostami

*There are spoilers

What answer 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 i.e. When you translate social justice into any 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 of the Savarna artists, despite of 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 it’s 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 it’s brave attempts to capture and present socio-political reality(ies) in an aesthetically and technically mediated way in order to convince it’s targeted audience. Aesthetics and technicalities of the cinema is always a contested subject as it restricts the idea of cinema into project with linear progression and limits the discussions/debates over cinema only in it’s aesthetic and technical premise. For example, ‘The birth of a nation’ (1915) is an American film directed by D.W Griffith which is lauded by various critics for it’s technical brilliance and ‘historical’ importance in the cinematic history. It’s considered as 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 [1]. The depiction of the 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 one of the landmarks. This view is somewhat problematic as here, 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. This historical background is discussed just to spark an idea in your minds that the aesthetic and the technical aspects are nothing but a significant feature in the linear historical progression of cinema and has mostly nothing to do with the content it deals with. But most of the times, The ‘aesthetic’ works as propaganda just to safely translate the content-wise propaganda of the film into the mass psyche.

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’ got 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 got 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 color-scape. The soundscape of the movie deserves appreciation as it marks the micro-growth of Hindutva politics through using auditory technique.

Nasir' movie review: A devastating story of a salesman- The New ...

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 clerck’s story, a short story by Dilip Kumar, a Tamil writer. It captures the everyday life of Nasir, a Muslim salesman from Coimbatore. I was always curious about depictions of Muslim everyday in the Indian cinema, and how faith determines their everyday. So, when I watched a film which doesn’t use much music other than the sound of ‘Aazan’ ( Call for prayer ) and Ilairaja melodies and Begum Akther (I’m not sure about this, though)  ghazals, the way the everyday encounters of Nasir is depicted, the film has shown a promising aura at the start. 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’.

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 depict 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 the Muslim male self of Nasir is constructed. 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 at 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. This apolitical nature can also be excused given the same reasons. The movie urges us to sympathize 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? Do the same sympathies apply to that Muslim too? Remember that a Muslim has every right to be all these’ 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. But when we analyse the way the even the character of Nasir was constructed, The answer to our question would be a no. The vulgar 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, may it be political-economical or cultural,  between the majority and the minority in the contemporary Indian society.

The critique of rising political hindutva made by the film, one of the main reasons why the film is appreciated for, 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 it’s a brilliant depiction of equalization of ‘hate speeches’ of religions with mutual enmity.It’s really easy to dump everything under the rubric of ‘religion’ and ‘communalism’ but is that really the case? When we scrutinize the scene, the observations take an interesting turn. When they’re walking through the Muslim households, we can see that the speech made is aharmless ‘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, from the obvious hints and remarks. When the savarna liberal intelligentsia, while receiving the movie, equalizes both as ‘Hate speeches’, there’s an evident power inequality in that equalization process.

If it’s an equalization done by the recipients, we can see that there’s another instance of equalization happens in the cinema itself when the co-worker in the shop of Nasir, who is supposed to be right-wing supporter from his phone conversation, in which he asks his people to ‘react’ to a situation ‘created’ by Muslims i.e. The stopping of procession from entering their household. This logic of retaliation is constantly reproduced in normative majoritarian narratives when they’re accused of Rioting, looting, or violating minority/ lower caste bodies. We can assume that, from the given hints, this ‘creation’ and ‘reaction’ ignites into a larger riot situation, which later, has a significant part to play at the end of the story too. The normative discourse on riots in the colonial/national epistemological framework also ignores these evident variations in the distribution of power, most of the time, which reproduces old colonial justifications and tries to equalize the disparities with secular logic (There are exceptions too).

Thus in a particular way, It 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. It’s unequal for it safely protects and preserves the casteist structure of Hinduism which is actually the root cause for the power variations and hierarchies and even has influenced the political hindutva in many ways. Not only in this scene, but in every scene where the majoritarian extremism is mentioned or depicted, it’s always ‘political’ and ‘new’. Here the ‘political’ cover up the root cause, which is ‘cultural’ and relatively ‘old’. To sum up, the film just 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 that 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 too from the dialogues of the old man and woman, probably shop owner’s parents. But here if you look more closely, you can notice the normalisation of vegetarianism and an injection of another ‘innocent’ joke on taste buds and a joke later, which makes the vegetarian people look ‘cool’ and ‘non-violent’, while on socio-political contemporary, the root logic of the same lynching and killing of minorities and Dalits accusing them of eating/transporting meat.

There has been various discussions on the liberatory potential of cinema against the prevailing injustices in the fundamental structure of society. Theodore Adorno, a famous Frankfurt school philosopher, structurally theorizes and criticizes popular culture (including cinema) as a space where cultural modernity neutralizes the liminal space of expression by appropriating it through commodification.  For Walter Benjamin, another cultural Marxist and contemporary of Adorno,   fascism is the aesthetization 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 this film also, following a series of films by various directors from Tamil language including Mani Ratnam and Sankar, simply reproduces the Hindu/Muslim binary for convience, 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 sympathize with the minority dead body at the end… These movies, by doing the same, earn acclaims and social-economic-career capital for those who are behind this from film festivals, mainly from the west. Most of the western white audience lacks a proper understanding of the complex fundamental realities of the existing societal structure and realities of the place where the film was made. 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 minoritarian, lower caste voices. This movie has to be read in connection with two other contemporary ‘art house’ movies, ‘Ghamak Ghar’ by Achal Mishra and ‘Cat Sticks’ by Ronny Senn where the romanticization and preservation of Brahminism 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 receive for their technical and aesthetic brilliance reaffirm our arguments. It’s also important, at the same time, to break the narratives produced by savarna-liberal intelligentsia while receiving the cinema.

Benjamin remarks that when the aestheticization of politics happens, it’s important to politicize the ‘aesthetic’. Otherwise, it would be impossible to determine and decipher the conservative undertones of ‘aesthetically’ and ‘technically’ mediated, and Savarna dominated the art sphere.

Reji Dev. B and Thamjeedh Thaha contributed writing.

Afeef Ahmed is a student of English literature at Hindu College University Of Delhi.

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