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The film, based on litterateur and humanist Poornachandra Tejaswi’s short story, is a wholesome, precious watch in today’s world filled with division and hate.
Sometime in 1973, when the world in retrospect seems way better than it was today, Poornachandra Tejaswi wrote a short story about a Muslim boy entering a Hindu-only government college in a place called Abachur. He’s seen as an alien, someone whose culture stands out, in a college filled with Hindus. The village is pretty and everything looks picture perfect, but there’s a deep undercurrent of resentment between the Hindus and Muslims there after a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy eloped. How will Musthafa (a fabulous Shishir Baikady) fit in?
The teacher struggles to pronounce his name — Jamal Abdullah Mustafa Hussain — and director Shashank Soghal builds up every trope of Muslims that we have been fed over the years before breaking each one of them — the animation in the background explains why they are othered. The language they speak is different, their food and clothing are different, the jobs they do are not familiar, the perfume they wear is different. Shashank and his team of writers (Anantha Shandreya and Raghavendra Mayakonda) makes his case the way the moderates might explain religion to their children — we are different, but we are the same.
The college already has a group of boys led by Iyengari (Aditya Ashree is infuriatingly wonderful as Ramanuja, the boy with a mean streak and who has a past). Most of them pine for Ramamani (Prerana Gowda), who takes a shine to Musthafa. This rekindles old wounds in the boys’ minds, and they decide to teach Musthafa, who has no idea he’s the object of someone’s ardent affection, a lesson.
When a classmate checks Musthafa’s tiffin box, he’s disappointed there’s no biryani inside — and is gently told that no one eats festive food every day. Musthafa is like most of us — acutely aware of his surroundings, yet someone who holds on to hope. What a lovely boy Musthafa is — when the teacher derides him for not being able to recite a poem, he learns to do it just right. When the principal lists out the things he should not do, all he asks is what he should do to earn praise. He just steps up, always.
There’s so much detailing around the college’s teaching staff too — the teacher of English, the PT teacher, the principal — and each one of them gets an arc and a conclusion. Nagabhushana and Poornachandra Mysuru are part of the cast too, and I’m looking forward to what else Poornachandra has up his sleeve this year — he’s already been a part of very different scripts.
The film is crowd-funded and produced by Team Cinemamara. It’s wonderful that someone of the stature of Dhananjaya has backed a film that touches upon all of today’s burning issues such as inter-religious weddings and communal trouble during the Ganesha procession, and does not shy away from speaking upfront about them.
It’s interesting that the writing team chooses to not pontificate, but instead allow the students to realise their mistakes themselves — when someone wonders how Iyengari will forgive Musthafa for playing with his beliefs, another boy steps up to ask, but what about beliefs when we trampled his fez cap? It’s all so lived-in, so un-filmi.
Cricket is a great unifier for all such films, and all's well that ends well. All credit to director Shashank for taking you back in time — you literally travel back to school, when you dug around your steel geometry box to take out a one rupee coin, and delight in rose cookies and kodubale and chakkulis being stacked inside tiffin boxes. Cinematography by Rahul Roy never makes you feel like you’re watching Abachur as an outsider, you become part of the proceedings. Navaneeth Sham’s music and Swasthik Karekad’s sound design add to that feeling.
The film breathes well and immerses you in its world, and even at about 2 hours and 30 minutes, does not really lag — it has been edited by Rahul Roy, Sharath Vashisht and Harish Komme. The end is bittersweet, but you know Musthafa has done his job.
In many ways, the country is also Abachur. We all need a Daredevil Musthafa to help us find the goodness and kindness in ourselves so we can emerge from the morass we’ve been pushed into. And if young filmmakers listen to their conscience, we can hope for Kannada cinema to be a healing balm for fractured spirits.
Subha J Rao is an entertainment journalist covering Tamil and Kannada cinema and is based out of Mangaluru, Karnataka.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film’s producers or any other members of its cast and crew.
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