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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 35, New Delhi, August 15, 2020

Nasir: Depicting Subjugation As An Amalgamation Of Class And Religious Identities | Kiran Desai

Friday 14 August 2020, by Kiran Desai


Viewed “Nasir”, a Tamil movie screened at MAMI on 7th June 2020 on Youtube. Yes, it’s brilliant film. The director Arun Karthick has opted a technique of simple linear narration purposefully that entails mainly two inferences that will be unfolded as this essay moves along. The movie is apparently depicting a quotidian life for one day of a main character who is a simple, common person. The screenplay has very few dialogues as the protagonist goes through motions of daily life in the backdrop of ’silence’. Is the silence ominous sign of future turmoil? A devastation? Let’s first focus on the nature of narration. In order to underscore simplicity of daily routine; camera deliberately focuses for quite some time for capturing every small activity of a household and a protagonist; waking up slowly in early morning in the background of Azan, an extended shot that has a creative meaning which discloses in the last shot and also indicating the character’s religious affiliation; making affectionate, romantic gesture to wife, helping her in early morning chores of filling water by standing in a queue at community’s water-storage point, bringing tea and his daily stock of bidis. Meanwhile, their little conversation discloses that a bus has to catch at a specific time (by who is not divulged intentionally), he has to meet a religious figure and the family is in need of money for a purpose. Simultaneously his other daily activities too are shown — bathing, wearing clothes, helping wife in attiring, the couple then starts walking through a labyrinth of narrow streets; again an extended shot showing background in terms of their locality; and the narration with it then moves, slowly unfolding, takes viewers to a market where the protagonist purchases flowers and then to bus-stop. The wife boards the bus and related small conversations discloses that she is leaving to relative’s place for longer period. And it is also divulged that they have two more members in family; a differently-abled adolescent boy (his presence with his name is showed but the filial relationship of the boy with couple is not revealed though apparently he could be their son) and old mother of main character. Later on, it is also disclosed that he is a senior salesman at a big garment-shop where he is called as ’bhai’ (a significant moniker; indicating both his Muslim identity with derogatory meaning attached or also showing respect- but Director has left the meaning to viewers) by co-employees and, even by the owner. From a linear and simple narration of quotidian life of a humble person belonging to a lower middle class or more aptly, upper labour strata and minority religious group, the current socio-political backdrop, especially the virulent political tenor of narration is now slowly unfolded. As the couple passes through lanes and main road on their way to bus-stop, the hubbub of ‘religious’ sermons of venomous nature, mainly signifying militant Hindutva ideology, supersedes the silence that is marking the routine daily lives of people. And also signifies Director’s perspective and critical comment on how insidious political and communal design of fundamentalist religious groups has seeped in slowly but menacingly in public, community life of common people and has perturbed them who have been fully engrossed and entangled in their quotidian struggle of living in decent way. The political connotation gets even more explicit when the owner of the shop, in which Nasir has been working, is shown talking on the phone with someone about Hindu’s superiority and Muslim’s subordination in the current and local context. The film-maker as the frames rolls on, now gradually but with certainty, is acquainting the viewers with core essence in terms of ideology and perspective of linear narrative of film. In the initial part when Nasir opens up the shop in early morning with a co-worker, the viewers get impression that he is the owner though it seems paradoxical considering the lower middle-class living backdrop being depicted in the opening frames. But slowly reality strikes as the business of the shop gets underway. The spectators get even more uncertain when he garlands Hindu deities after opening the shop. Is he hiding his identity by appearing as a Hindu in order to run his business? Or it suggests eclecticism of this character that the director wishes to underscore?Is the film depicting about how minority has to live in state of subordination by concealing their religious identity to earn livelihood in Hindu majority country? These issues are dealt with in a complex manner by the film-maker. And he is not only attending to Minority’s issue but also amalgamating that with asymmetrical class-relations simultaneously. The narration unfolds severity of subjugation and subordination of a Muslim worker; stitching both identities organically of protagonist; hierarchically lowly placed in economic and occupational categorisation and being a Muslim in present spiteful communal-political milieu. And to underscore and highlight the point intensely, the film-maker compels us to scrutinize the personality of Nasir rather minutely and in nuanced manner and for that the viewers have to roll back entire depiction from frame one. And this is outstanding technique one can make out of film-maker. Though the narration style is linear and simple, the viewers are compelled to move back and forth in order to enter into and to comprehend inner-self of protagonist and also of core essence of film. And it also indirectly suggests that essentially life is never linear temporally and situation wise. But it always moves in back and forth manner, whether one is aware about it or not. The present is always link to past. So to get under the skin of main character, the viewer needs to go back often on previous frames. For instance, one needs to recall the scene of early morning bodily-rituals, when in community bathroom his neighbour bypasses Nasir though he is in queue earlier, and Nasir just takes this sort of undermining in his stride with mild reaction. In similar vein, his expressionless face is focussed while he is listening to his owner abusing his community on phone for capturing this agonising subjugation in a stark manner by Director. The various forms of subjugation and submissiveness the Muslims have to undergo in present malicious milieu dominated by Hindutvadi parochial forces are described in a study done with reference to Surat city in the wake of horrific violence of 2002 by the present author (Desai and De, 2003; Desai, 2006) and likewise the movie the study also infers that this sort of subordination is a security devise or coping mechanism being carved out by members of any marginalised group; both, for external safety against violent assault and hateful humiliation and internal security wall of numbness so that external occurrences do not wound own feelings. This point is deliberated in the following passage.

Coming back to the above frame, this moment of humiliation is interfaced with total and arrogant disregard by owner toward feelings and dignity of his most trusted and senior employee. It indicates his condescension not only as a dominating Hindu but also an upper placed owner in economic hierarchy. And that must have intensified the numbness related with subjugation in the central character. This sort of numbness or lack of any feeling, an internal shield being germinated that obstructs ingression of shock and impact due to external event of assault and emission of any sort of response vis-a’-vis such external occurrence, is a kind of coping mechanism, a last resort in a situation of persecution, humiliation, oppression and subjugation for the victims. And as poignantly narrated in "The Reader" (especially the book, Bernhard Schlink, 1998) this mechanism is mostly unconsciously devised by body and mind of victim or sufferer to enhance her chance of survival in adverse milieu. This is evidently seen in victims of horrendous events, whether in collective or individual form, such as communal frenzy, calamities of the nature of earthquake or flood, rape or of prolonged exploitation. They rarely show their inner and severe pain and agony externally through reactions except in few cases. In order to intensify sense of subjugation for the character and also empathetic identification towards character of Nasir among the viewers, he is further portrayed as basically a noble, gentle human being. He is a sensitive, polite person with soft demeanour; a loving, caring and romantic companion, a creative poet with a philosophical perspective towards life. It is also revealed later that the differently able boy the couple is nourishing is not their own son and Nasir is seeking financial support to admit him to a special institution that could take care of him properly. This set of traits of the protagonist intensifies the inner sufferings of subjugation of character and also has deep impacts on viewers. The specific nature of portrayal also is intended to rupture prevailing stereotype of Muslims among common Hindus as rowdy, immoral and aggressive individuals. Add into that, his comprehension about his inferior and dependent status, both due to class and religious identities, is shown though indirectly as immaculately pointed and clear. And yet he is not bitter or cynical, but perceives his condition philosophically, relating it with cosmos. He understands complexities of human life and how exploitation and sufferings and subjugation are interwoven into system especially in terms of encompassing intersectionality of his identity and who have no say or control over the system. When his wife is going to attend a social, familial function of a relative who seems to be of economically sound and wealthy status, he cautions her that she is only invited to be exploited as helping hand in related tasks. This short frame of one-liner starkly portrays tragedy pertaining to the feebleness of an individual with weak economic status and sound perceptive mind. Arun Karthik also makes a kind of Foucaultian statement that every relationship denotes and comprises nature of power the upper echelon of social and economic order holds over the lowly placed sections; whether it is a class relationship or of filial and kinship kind.

The enlightened and conscious Nasir; in terms of his set of identities, has carved out his person, his agency into two selves, segments: one, for public; to be displayed while interacting in shop with co-workers and customers, with community and for neighbours; and one for inner-self; inner-conversation; he is a poet, a thinking person who accepts and philosophises reality; who smokes cheap bidis to release his tensions — personal, familial and of exterior reality in which being a member of Muslim community and a working-class, he is experiencing overt and subtle subjugation and humiliation. The Director has also addressed misogynist arrogance and domination vis—a’-vis female subjugation in a sequence at shop which also intensified overall pain of subjugation and oppression of gentle-natured protagonist. Arun Karthik also points out middle-class males’ priorities in terms of quotidian interest apart from livelihood activity, i.e. food and sex, occupying most parts of their idle time conversation. And while depicting it he also suggests the apolitical character of this large vocal and talkative section. Informal ties and relationship between owner and employee too is captured; that was described as denoting ‘patronage and exploitation’ by renowned Dutch Sociologist Jan Breman with reference to agrarian relations between landlord and agricultural labour (Breman, 1974). In informal economy the employees of the shop have close ties with family of the owner; they also have to serve entire family’s needs; hand-over lunch-box to adolescent student member at school to satiate demand of titillating magazine of old patriarch. And in return they get social ‘security’. This also may be inferred as one of the coping mechanisms of working sections in informal economy and highly non-egalitarian economic and social order. But the Director also shows complexity embodies in such ties, as being depicted in friendly banter of Nasir and young boy about latter’s clandestine affair and his confidence that the former being a confident friend would not disclose this secret to elders of family. Inferring relationship between unequal in hierarchical order in terms of instrumentality needs to be reconsidered as it often ignores intrinsic and complex human nature. This requires separate deliberation.

‘Nasir’ is a movie with a simple flow of linear narrative in terms of cinematic style. As mentioned earlier it has very less dialogues; conversations among characters are few and short. The story moves in the backdrop of apparent silence. But as the narration, focussing its central character gets underway, the disconcerting reality at subterranean level related with him and the group he is belonging, especially in terms of intersectionality of identity and their subjugating and disconcerting status and condition, is disclosed, layer after layer. The silence and its rupture is signified at two levels: one is at the level quotidian life of common people who are engaged in their livelihood struggle day after day in rather mechanical and rhythmic but silent way and which is being disrupted by diabolic and parochial communal, fundamentalist forces who are embarking on their political project of ascendance through heinous and nefarious means of polarisation and macabre massacre. The film-maker also underscores distinction between religiosity and communal mind-set. The common-person may be religious as s/he offers namaz or prayer in masjid/madir regularly and yet s/he may not be communal. Well, again this is another debatable point that requires separate deliberation. The silence at another level is of subjugation and subordination of main character, representing and belonging to minority group as well as to working-class, both marginalised, oppressed and persecuted sections of social order in present Indian context. He has understood the intricacy of the system and has comprehended that to survive in such oppressive and hostile system one has to live silently, by remain subservient to dominant groups of the system in docile manner and he has been doing it in a perfunctory manner. He is facilitating even his co-workers; reciting poetry when they wish or carrying their part of work. Poetry and smoking cheap bidies are the only venting means he has at his disposal to ease out tension and inner, suppressed feelings of everyday humiliation he has to undergo and compromises he has to make. His poems reflect his philosophy of futility of life. But both these silences are eventually proved to be illusionary, and are craftily used as creative tools to build up ominous precursor of sinister design and social turmoil that has erupted and culminated in horrific violence against minority in the end. The last shot and the first shot certainly shows profound creative cinematic sense of Arun Karthik. In philosophical terms this set of filmographies makes a poignant statement with reference to simple-hearted, common persons who are at the receiving end of present socio-cultural-economic milieu of inequality, discrimination, communal hatred and stereo-types targeting Muslims and in spite of that they are making earnest and sincere efforts to live and sustain themselves peacefully despite oppression, humiliation, suppression, persecution and harassment. Of course, one may rightly ask what option or choice do they have? The long shot with which the film begins, showing Nasir lies idly though waken up, taking too long to get up at dawn, signifying that the community he belongs to (which is denoted through azan in background), is dead spiritually, morally even when their bodies are breathing and moving. And as the last shot poignantly shows the spiteful and cruel system eventually terminate them physically too.

In overall terms, how to interpret and summarise the film, and the heart-breaking end? Person like protagonist who has rightly assessed situation with reference to his marginalised status on count of his religious and class backgrounds and hence, has opted to live atomised and submissive life to dominant forces, using his agency at its minimally possible level in public sphere as being permitted by system in order not to dislocate and disrupt his reference-frame in terms of relationship of dependence and also without inviting any attention from other quarters, primarily in order to survive and live silently. He has been taking life as whatever space it has been offering to him and his family without much complaints and expectations and making sincere efforts to satisfy family needs, though meagre and essential ones, in that ‘available’ space. But as the film has rather disconcertingly underscored, he and majority of masses like him are mistaken. The hideous, wicked and diabolic group that has dominated and appropriated the system sooner or later cast their evil net over them. And with specific reference to present systemic context of India, this is the extremity of contradictory wickedness of both the major components that work in nexus: namely, provincial communal political fundamentalism and vulgar or zombie capitalism. The latter compels and encourages members of the society to atomise, to be individualistic, be reliant more on own agency for personal ’growth’ and ’progress’. Individuals are central, essential; all other institutions, be it family or union are illusionary, meaningless and detrimental for achieving and advancing personal ’growth’ and ’progress’. The only ‘valuable’ institution is market that provides ample opportunities to all who are deserving and capable of putting painstaking and hard work and effort. But in reality as it is unfolding, only few at the top of social and economic hierarchy and some of the sections at middle level have been taking lop-sided advantage of this individualism and in collusion with the state, have been gaining and achieving ‘growth’, affluence and enrichment, and that too by and large, at the cost of huge masses of deprived, minority groups. And as this atomisation has disrupting and debilitating effect on strength garner by organizational movements especially in favour of masses, the emerged situation of disrupted and dissipated social fabric of feeble nature is manipulated and misappropriated by the insidious and heinous forces with parochial communal agenda to subjugate the marginalised groups further through economic engineering and machination in order to establish their hegemony. The end of the movie ‘Nasir’ underscores this cruel and crude reality for marginalised and minority groups in the present context.


Breman, Jan. 1974. Patronage and Exploitation: Changing Agrarian Relations in South Gujarat, India. London: University of California Press.

Desai, Kiran. 2006. On Determinants of Communal Relations: Some Observations from Case Study of Surat City. In Lancy Lobo & Biswaroop, Das, eds., Communal Violence and Minorities. Jaipur: Rawat Publications.

Desai, Kiran & Aparajita, De. 2003. Hindu Muslim Relations in Gujarat: Case Studies of Surat & Vadodara. Surat: Centre for Social Studies (A mimeographed report submitted to Centre for Study of Society & Secularism, Mumbai).

Schlink, Bernhard (Translated by Carol Brown Janeway). 1998. The Reader. London: Phoenix.

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