Credit: Film at Lincoln Center
by Luke Gorham Film

Nasir | Arun Karthick

December 17, 2020

Nasir is a delicate, disquieting film that opens up into something far grander than its brevity and slice-of-life template would at first suggest. 

What’s immediately striking about Nasir, Arun Karthick’s sophomore feature, is the ebb-and-flow rhythm of its slice-of-life portraiture. Karthick immediately and consistently trains his camera on the toil of hands, maestros of daily drudgery; characters’ heads, meanwhile, often extend beyond the frame, as if to suggest their peripherality with regard to life’s grind. In the world of Nasir, bodies are made to work, to seek purchase on rocky ground where only quickly-smoked cigarettes can provide momentary respite from life’s Sisyphean struggle. Thanks to Karthick’s delicate direction and attention to detail, otherwise tedious tasks, like the hawking of saris in the clothing shop where the eponymous character works, become thrilling. In one sequence, the camera cuts between the various employees’ respective counters, blurring the line between salesperson and auctioneer in a flurry of transactional repartee, the scene’s wash of vibrantly colored fabric punctuating the everyday hysteria of commerce and providing a counterpoint to the film’s hardscrabble core.

Soon, however, as it becomes marked by rippling disquiet, Nasir opens up into something far more sobering than merely cinema of the quotidian. Nasir’s daily routine and small scale endeavors are slowly enveloped within menacing external discourse; radio reports and fringe characters recount growing unrest with the Muslim population, of which Nasir is a part, in the Hindu-majority region of Tamil Nadu where the film is set. These bandied bits of foreboding establish a clear tension between bottom-rung Maslowian needs: what does the struggle to get by (or, more idealistically, the struggle for upward mobility) look like when it exists alongside the ever-looming, existential threat of prejudicial violence? Adding to the film’s particular understated horror is that Nasir is an obviously soft soul, a man who takes care of his developmentally-challenged nephew and devotes his limited free energies to a love of poetry — in this way, the film’s early movements recall Paterson, only replacing a bus’s relative calm with the freneticism of street vendor work. All of this builds to Nasir’s bruising crescendo, where the whisperings of violence at last and tragically turn tempestuous, Karthick’s camera unmoored and caught in the chaos as it collides with and then bounces off bodies as if in pursuit of safety, before a cut leaves viewers with a final, startlingly static shot of the shape of Nasir’s final peace.

Published as part of New Directors/New Films 2020 — Dispatch 3.