India, the Netherlands, 2020
Directed by Arun Karthick
With Valavane Koumarane (Nasir)
On the face of it the feature looks like a lengthened short, a stretched observational effort that is carefully depicting the most mundane elements of the day in the life of a sales assistant in a big shop of clothes and fabrics in the big city of Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. There is no real plot around the titular character and no real evolution of his personality, just the capture of daily, intimate gestures, accidental encounters and usual interactions with his colleagues and patrons as the day goes by, hour after hour, task after task, from taking care of a teenage relative who is retarded to praying at a local mosque. The film is aptly shot in 16 mm with a 4:3 aspect ratio and the corners of the image slightly curved, conveying a home-made, basic, unassuming quality that dovetails with the diaristic contents.
The film opens on with a long take, the camera high above the lying lead character as he is still sleeping: image of stillness and quiet, the gaze of God on a simple man. Then he appears getting up and setting on a busy day defined by the departure of his wife for a trip, probably to visit other relatives. The small talks and the environment leave little doubt about the social rank of Nasir’s family, barely keeping their heads above the poverty line and struggling to belong fully to the lower middle-class.
Later anecdotes emphasize Nasir’s need for money: a chat with an old friend who offers him to get a job in Abu Dhabi, a request for an advance on his wages, the wish he expresses to help his mother to suffer less from a womb cancer and the teenager to access special education, hopes he reckons to couch down later on paper, for he is actually drafting in his head, as he comes back from errands late in the evening, the letter he is going to send to his wife. Indeed, the most wonderful revelation of the chronicle has been that Nasir likes words and to play with them: teased for still favoring snail mail over electronic messaging, he is also revered by his colleagues for his knack at writing beautiful poems – he recites one of them, creating a magical pause in the tedious description of this workday.
The soundtrack highlights other words, though, in an essential dissonance. Blared by public address systems and articulated by shrill voices they insist on religious duties and the import of faith as a factor of unity that should not be let threatened, first across the Muslim neighborhood where Nasir and his family live then in the big streets of the city where celebrating Hindu faith seem a paramount concern. Actually, the voices defending the supposedly endangered Hindu faith grow pervasive, adding another persistent sound to the constant hum coming from the bustling crowd. But at the end of the day it is shouts that upset the shop, as they warn of an incoming angry mob. And they do come.
The film’s final shot is a heartbreaking and depressing mirror of the initial one: taken from a distance, but closer to the ground, focusing on the lying body now lifeless, at the center of a wide shot that does not feature a vast and neutral space but the silent buildings along a square vandalized by the angry mob. The choice of a remarkably long take does not only compel the audience to absorb the full horror of what happened, it makes sense of the previous chronicle anchored in the life of Nasir: this simple film has been keen on showing and embracing the tranquility and also the vibrancy, the fragility and also the beauty which can be found in ordinary life during an ordinary day, pointing by contrast the cruelty of political and religious ideologies that claim to defend the identity and honor of the believers, folks like Nasir, indeed, but instead rush to crush innocent, decent people and wreak havoc. “Nasir” is a greatly effective denunciation of fanaticism, a moving portrait of the common man and a reminder that life is just priceless.