To emit: Koumarane Valavane, Sudha Ranganathan
Director: Arun Karthick
Classification: 4 stars (out of 5)
Nasir, directed by Arun Karthick, is one of two narrative features in the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival’s selection for the We Are One Global International Film Festival.
Time stands still and weighs heavily Nasir, the second year exit of the writer and director Arun Karthick (Sivapuranam). A languid day in the life of a Coimbatore clothing vendor forms the core of the grim film. But man’s unremarkable daytime routine flows parallel to a rising tide of bigotry during a religious festival that brings processions and street gatherings, all set for incitement and outbreaks of violence.
How long does it take an unsuspecting man who has absolutely nothing to do with the confusion surrounding him to be sucked into his vortex? The Tamil-language film, a stunningly mature work by a young filmmaker with a singular cinematic sense, presents a tale from dawn to dusk in which nothing seems to happen. However, much does.
Karthick’s sparse script draws audiences deep into the eponymous figure universe, which is made up of dead habit tasks, while hinting in dribbles and drabs to the severely flawed environment around him. Hate is on the rise, but Nasir (Koumarane Valavane) is too benign a man, and too immersed in his immediate responsibilities, to fully understand the inflammatory nature of hate speech being thrown through the microphones.
Nasir is a conscientious and sensitive man who writes poetry in a medium that militates against the softest shadows of human expression. But it shows no visible signs of strain even when all the signs around it warn of the poison spreading rapidly in the air.
Nasir, one of the two narrative features that represent India at the We Are One Global Film Festival, is devoid of accessories. But it has little impact. Karthick employs the art of a fastidious miniaturist to capture the granular details of Nasir’s life. He intermittently switches to the broader chronicler mode to draw public attention to the anonymity that ordinary people struggling to survive share with marauding mobs who wait their time before attacking. The likes of the former hope that getting lost in the crowd will protect them from trouble; The latter are sure that they have security in numbers and can therefore wreak havoc at will.
Adapted from a story by the Gujarati-born Tamil writer Dilip Kumar, which begins at 6:30 in the morning, Nasir adheres to the time frame of the written text. Shortly after Nasir woke up to the pre-dawn prayer call, a table clock in his little house shows 06:03. But from there, director Karthick dispenses with time markers, relying instead on the protagonist’s activities to give us an idea of the time of day.
Nasir’s exceptional day comes in the form of vignettes that unfold as long, richly detailed rituals. He begins his morning ablutions before walking to the terminal to bid farewell to his wife (Sudha Ranganathan), who leaves town for three days on an 8:30 a.m. bus. Along the way, he collects two jasmine flowers for the woman he describes in a poem as “more dear to me than life.”
And then it’s time for the store to open. The blinds are raised, the store is dusted, things are put back into place, and Nasir adorns a bust of Lord Krishna placed near the cash register and some framed portraits on the wall, one of which is a composite of a mosque, a Hindu Seer and Jesus Christ placed side by side.
The day continues along the same lines that shoppers and other visitors arrive at the store and sellers go to work. Nasir runs various errands over the next few hours, including a trip to the mosque to pray in the afternoon and a break for lunch and a nap at home.
While trying to see a noon wink on a mat on the floor, Begum Akhtar sings Kis se pooche humne kahaan chehra-e-roshan dekha hai / Mehfil mehfil dhoond chuke hai gulshan gulshan dekha hai on the soundtrack, a delicious juxtaposition of familiarity and poetry. In a way, the device also indicates the distance between Nasir’s gentleness and the deepening desolation.
Off-screen speeches by fundamentalist rabble supporters crying out for “one nation, one religion” provide the soundscape surrounding Nasir’s daily routine and one cannot stray further from the melodluence of Akhtari Bai than that.
Filmed in aptly austere style by cinematographer Soumyananda Sahi, Nasir is infinitely more atmosphere than action. Gautam Nair’s sound design forms the backbone of the film. The late Arghya Basu’s edition imparts to the film a languid rhythm that serves to underscore the monotony of Nasir’s daily existence.
At dawn, as his wife Taj peels onions and his elderly mother scrapes a coconut, Nasir leaves the house to fetch tea at a nearby kiosk, buys a pack of beedis, helps the wife fetch tap water from the community, returns home, listen to music, brush his teeth, shave and bathe.
The routine of his life, like that of all the little people around him, is nothing to write home about. But not for a moment does he complain. His life is full of problems. One of them belongs to money. His mother is old, he has a teenage room that needs special care and the debts have to be settled. “I have no control over life or any complaints,” this is how a poem opens that he recites to his co-workers. It refers to “ruthless time (that) flows in a streak.”
Nasir exudes serenity like sage. He asks his wife before she gets on the bus, “Do you really have to go?” That is the only time when it shows a touch of emotion. He reserves the articulation of his most intimate feelings for his poems and a letter addressed to his spouse hours after she has left town.
The atmosphere around him is a threat that he doesn’t even take note of, even when a co-worker reveals his majority inclinations in no uncertain terms. As the world around him plunges into intolerance of manic proportions, this process is revealed in brief capsules reflecting a sense of urgency that is at odds with the film’s deliberate pace, Nasir continues regardless of his own pace without haste.
How time passes, he wonders when he learns that the daughter of an old acquaintance who has just returned from Abu Dhabi is about to get married. How would you know that the time you are talking about is completely out of place and that the more you fly, the worse it will be? Nasir it is a heartfelt ode to a man who deserves better and, by extension, to all humans who do.
(Nasir is available for a week on YouTube from June 6 at 7 p.m.)