'Nasir': Film Review | Rotterdam 2020

Nasir - Rotterdam - Publicity Still - H 2020
International Film Festival Rotterdam
Quiet gem reveals a deceptively sharp edge.

Koumarane Valavane plays the eponymous protagonist of writer-director Arun Karthick's sophomore feature, a contender for the Dutch festival's Tiger award.

Still only 27, Arun Karthick confirms his status as one of India's most promising younger filmmakers with his sophomore feature Nasir. An observational chronicle of one seemingly ordinary day in the life of a seemingly ordinary sari salesman in the southern city of Coimbatore, the film's abrupt resolution casts everything that went before in a stark and moving new light.

World-premiering in the main competition at Rotterdam, where Karthick's debut, The Strange Case of Shiva, bowed in the Bright Future section five years ago, this carefully constructed character study — with an underlying theme of religious intolerance — has a shot at the event's Tiger Award and will be a popular pick for future festivals, especially those favoring human rights themes.

Officially a co-production between India, the Netherlands and Singapore, the picture is a Rotterdam project through and through. It was developed via the organization's Cinemart co-production market and then received financial assistance from the festival's Hubert Bals Fund, which for decades has aided smaller filmmaking industries. India is, of course, one of the world's most vibrant and prolific sources of cinema, but the scene is still largely dominated by commercially oriented Bollywood fare. Nasir is emphatically at the independent end of the spectrum, a gentle-paced and (mostly) low key affair from a self-taught filmmaker from an area far distant from his country's main cultural hubs.

Karthick's home town Coimbatore in the province of Tamil Nadu is home to some two million people, and is unfussily evoked here via Saumyananda Sahi's intimate 4:3 cinematography (the corners of the frame are subtly curved.) The vast majority of Coimbatore's citizens follow the Hindu faith, but there is also a considerable Muslim minority, numbering nearly 10 percent. This community — in a period of rising Hindu nationalism across the land — has in recent years increasingly been the target of oppression, persecution and harassment.

This is the background noise that plays out throughout Nasir (sometimes quite literally and audibly, via hate-stoking tannoy announcements), which follows a self-effacing Muslim fellow in his early forties as he goes about his quotidian business. Played by Franco-Indian theater director Koumarane Valavane in an accomplished big-screen debut, Nasir lives with his wife (Sudha Ragunathan) and mentally handicapped nephew Iqbal ("Sabari") in a cramped apartment in a crowded ghetto of the city — the interiors of their home are convincingly detailed via Mausam Aggarwal's production design.

An unassuming-looking fellow — "just someone random," he's summed up at one point — Nasir toils in a busy, Hindu-run sari shop (even the mannequins have bindi dots applied to their foreheads) where he goes about his tasks with glum professionalism. A possible escape route appears via a job offer in the Muslim statelet of Abu Dhabi, causing him to reflect upon his financially precarious, socially insecure situation.

Having seen his wife off on a trip to visit relatives, he composes a letter and a poem to her: Nasir, we learn, is a skilled poet, one whose sensitivity and creativity find little outlet in his existence of dutiful drudgery. "What else is life if not loneliness and silence?" he has a poet character ask in one of his own compositions.

Based on Dilip Kumar's diaristic 2012 short story "A Clerk's Tale," Nasir has been adapted by the author and Karthick in the light of Coimbatore's September 2016 anti-Muslim riots, part of a wave of sectarian violence that has included dozens of fatal lynchings. Coming after such a measured and quiet 70 minutes, the climax — featuring frenzied handheld camerawork — hits like a hammer. This structural technique recalls Hungarian director Bence Fliegauf's Just the Wind, winner of the Grand Prix at the 2012 Berlinale, but if anything it is even more effective in Karthick's attentive, patiently empathetic hands. 

A quiet plea for tolerance and an assertion of humanistic values in an era where such things can no longer be taken for granted, Nasir is all the more touching for its scrupulous avoidance of sentimentality and manipulation. The quietest voices, it reminds us, can often make the most penetrating, memorable impact. 

Production companies: Stray Factory, Rinkel Film, Harman Ventures, Magic Hour Films, Cent Percent Films, Uncombed Buddha
Cast: Koumarane Valavane, Sudha Ragunathan, Yasmin Rahman, Sabari, Bakkiyam Sarikar
Director: Arun Karthick
Screenwriters: Arun Karthick, Dilip Kumar (based on Kumar's short story "A Clerk's Story")
Producers: Mathivanan Rajendran, Reinier Selen, Ibo Karatay, Manoj Poosappan, Samir Sarkar, Anu Rangachar, Aditya Grover, Harsh Agarwal
Cinematographer: Saumyananda Sahi
Production designer: Mausam Aggarwal
Editor: Arghya Basu
Venue: International Film Festival Rotterdam (Competition)
Sales: Stray Dogs, Paris
In Tamil
No rating, 79 minutes