The understated, deeply humane approach director Arun Karthick takes in addressing the heinous anti-Muslim rhetoric infecting Indian politics today proves far more powerful than any larger-scale drama one can imagine. “Nasir” is a superb example of what can be done on a tiny budget when the vision is strong, the script is low-key, and the performers privilege rapport and naturalism over dramatic flourishes. Set over the course of one day in Karthick’s hometown of Coimbatore in western Tamil Nadu, the story is a slice-of-life look at a Muslim fabric shop salesman steeped in an ever more toxic atmosphere of Hindu nationalism. Beautifully shot in a 4:3 ratio with a Super 16mm lens to get a notable depth of saturated color, “Nasir” is a sleeper gem deserving of significant festival play.
Karthick employs such a delicate structure, focusing on the mundanity of daily life while carefully introducing discordant elements, that the brutal finale comes as a shock even though he’s been building up to this practically from the beginning. He creates an atmosphere of mutual support and affection between Nasir (theater director Koumarane Valavane) and his wife Tal (Sudha Ranganathan), shrewdly crafting a nuanced portrait of his protagonist so that the film acts not merely as a condemnation of intolerance and violence, but a humanistic sketch of a person with whom we might interact every day, be it a shopkeeper, waiter, delivery person or doorman. “Nasir” gives life to the otherwise abstract concept of “neighbor,” offering a glimpse into the unexpected depths of the people around us who pass unremarked.
A series of tight shots and closeups capture small quotidian pleasantries as Nasir awakens to his wife and mother’s preparations in the kitchen. Tal is going away for three days to assist at a wedding, leaving Nasir to largely care for their developmentally disabled adoptive son Iqbal. As they all get ready for the morning, public loudspeakers broadcast announcements from the mosque on one side, and Hindu nationalist propaganda on the other.
At the fabric emporium where Nasir works, a decorative triptych features symbols of Hinduism, Islam and Christianity, but it’s an empty display of interfaith pluralism given the dangerous anti-Muslim comments that casually fall out of the mouth of his boss Manickam, who has no interest in his employees as anything other than cogs in the business. A friend offers to connect Nasir with people in Abu Dhabi who could hire him to work there, but while he’s considering the possibility, he makes deliveries, including to an elite boys’ school where the boarders treat him with disdain. He has one break in the day, for prayers in the mosque, when the bustle, noise and colors of the shop and city are suddenly cut out, replaced by stillness and silence.
Karthick avoids exposition, so audiences need to glean information from situations and casual conversations as well as the incitements to anti-Muslim violence projected from loudspeakers. Nasir’s respectful interactions with clients don’t set him apart from his co-workers, but then while the employees engage in gossipy, occasionally salacious banter, someone asks him to recite one of his poems. As he speaks elegant words written for his wife, there’s a slow pan to his side of the shop, the camera’s movement acting almost as a discreet highlighter to visually underline the moment as something extraordinary, standing apart from the triteness around him. The scene suddenly adds as much color to Nasir’s character as the sumptuous hues of the merchandise, revealing dignity and depth in a place of commercialism and prejudice. Grace notes like these make the horror of the ending the kind of gut-punch that doesn’t disappear once the lights come up.
Cinematographer Saumyananda Sahi also worked with Karthick on his debut feature, “The Strange Case of Shiva,” and the two appear to work seamlessly together, layering the visual planes — at the start, Tal is separated from Nasir by a screen or grill — and drawing out the tactility of simple actions via nicely edited closeups. The rich red tones of many of the fabrics in the shop act like a warm tapestry of colors; though life isn’t easy for Nasir and his family, this is their city, with a modest appreciable beauty, and the forces of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s racist BJP party are the true infection.