On surface, writer-director Zaigham Imam’s Nakkash is a simple story about India’s Ganga-Jamuni tehjeeb — in this case set in a tiny, traditional pocket where
Hindus and Muslims work together in the sanctum sanctorum of Hinduism — and how this can come under threat from radical elements on both sides.
But at another level, Nakkash is a sharp, heartfelt political commentary with scary contemporariness on our society and the nation’s rightward march. It uses a
small example of secular India, of traditional Hindu-Muslim collaboration to show how fragile this harmony is, and how its total destruction is not just presided over by, but actively coerced by a politics that needs hate to survive.
Nakkash, in essence, is about how love can wilt in the face of relentless hate.
Zaigham Imam’s Nakkash begins with visuals and sounds that capture the soul of India as preserved for generations in the oldest living city in the world: In Varanasi, ambers of the aarti are dancing to the chants of shlokas and bells, and soon Maghreb azaan is heard from a nearby mosque.
In this setting, Nakkash tells the story of two friends — both Muslims — a temple priest and his son, and how aligned and similarly-inclined hardliners are, no matter what their faith.
Allah Rakha Siddique (Inaamulhaq) is a widower who has a young son, Mohammed (Harminder Singh Alag), and his friend Samat (Sharib Hashmi) drives an electric rickshaw.
Allah Rakha works in temples creating metal work, nakkashi (engraving, in relief), with the encouragement of Vedantji (Kumud Mishra), the chief priest of a rich local temple.
Vedantji’s morning sun and Ganga salutation are performed to the rendition of the Gayatri Mantra in Urdu, composed and sent to him by a Muslim friend in Delhi. The film pauses to tell us this because it wants to remind us that we are one nation, one people who have lived and worked together for generations.
Vedantji is proud of the tradition of Muslim artists decorating the sanctum sanctorum of his temple.
Samad loves Allah Rakha very much but is, at the moment, worried about his ageing father’s last wish — to go for Haj. But no matter what he mortgages, the money is just enough.
Every day Allah Rakha changes from his usual attire — kurta and a lungi that skirts above his ankles — to a pant and shirt and puts a red mark on his forehead before venturing into the temple. When he’s done, he changes back again and then heads home to his son whom the Maulvi at the local madrasa won’t admit because he disapproves of Allah Rakha and his work at Hindu temples.
The cops, unusually alert to a Muslim’s movements because, they say, of a recent blast in a temple, arrest him for stealing gold. But Vedanji assures them that Allah Rakha is given gold by him to melt, beat into a thin sheet and then bring back to the temple to decorate the walls.
But Vedantji’s son, Munna Bhaiyya (Pawan Tiwari), who is canvassing and hoping to get a ticket from a party that firmly believes “rajneeti karam ki nahin, dharma ki honi chahiye”, disapproves. Also, the party wants him to “manage” this cozy, little secular arrangement between Allah Rakha and Vedantji.
Let’s pause here to consider the fact that we are now increasingly finding our politicians and leaders in our temples.
Imagine Imran Khan or Donald Trump’s Cabinet littered with imams and priests? Does that image strike you as odd? Does it ring a warning bell? If it does, look around you and, well, ponder.
Two trips to the local thana, before and after Allah Rakha’s marriage to sweet Sabiha (Gulki Joshi), alter the course of Allah Rakha and Samad’s lives and friendship, and brings them face-to-face with the politics of hate.
Nakkash’s throbbing heart is Inaamulhaq’s Allah Rakha, a simple, dishevelled man who loves what he does, an artist who believes in the sanctity of all religions and refuses to even engage with those maulvis and neighbours who disapprove of him.
It’s easy to love Allah Rakha’s character because of how sweet, honest and sincere he is. He is so accommodating of the other that he is willing to sacrifice himself and his reputation to save a friend.
But the disarming diffidence and quietness, along with an unshakeable belief in his value system that Inaamulhaq portrays is what lifts this otherwise stock, almost bechara character and makes him real, believable and a symbol of a species endangered.
Nakkash, written and directed by Zaigham Imam, is simply told. It lacks finesse but it more than makes up for that with its pulsating heart and strong performances.
The story is fairly simple and straightforward too, but in these times when the obvious often gets downed in loud, rhetorical grandstanding, it serves as a cautionary tale — of an India that was, and an India that is fast turning into a nation where the space for anyone other than the Hindu is receding at a scary, alarming pace.
Nakkash’s sights and sounds are what we hardly hear or see these days on our screens — qawwali, nikkah, a modern woman in a burqa, men in skull caps without the looming spectre of terrorism.
But more than that, Nakkash is important — because it’s a good thing when movies refuse to let us slip into complacency. Because it’s a good thing when movies remind us that democracy, secularism cannot and must not be taken for granted. Because it’s a good thing when movies tell us that our job is not done just by standing proudly and humming along when Jan Gan Man is played on the screen.
All we did was take a pledge. Now we must honour those words with our actions, work.