Zaigham Imam’s Nakkash follows his previous efforts Dozakh in Search of Heaven (2015) and Alif (2017) in trying to carve out a middle path between heightened religiosity and inter-faith tolerance. Like the previous films, Nakkash is set in Varanasi, the ancient city by the Ganga river where age-old traditions are being altered by recently acquired bigotry.

Alla Rakha (Inaamulhaq) hails from a family of artisans who carve images of Hindu gods and scenes from the epics for temples. Alla Rakha is proud of his talent, as is Vendanti (Kumud Mishra), the head priest of the temple where Alla Rakha works.

However, one of the frequently heard lines in Imam’s screenplay is, “Things have changed.” Allah Rakha faces opposition from his community, who decries his tacit support of idolatry and the faith of his employer. Vedanti has to regularly defend his decision to hire a Muslim craftsman. Alla Rakha leads something of a double life, altering his appearance before entering his place of work, but that isn’t enough to protect him from prejudice and finger-pointing.

Matters come to a head when Alla Rakha is accused of stealing jewellery from the temple. Vedanti’s politically minded son Munna (Mayank Tripathi) leaps into the picture, while Alla Rakha’s son Mohammed (Siddu) and second wife Sabiha (Gulki Joshi) also bear the brunt. A sub-plot revolving around Samad (Sharib Hashmi), a friend of Alla Rakha’s, takes the movie into a predictable direction.

The idea is highly topical, given rising communal tensions in the country, and the movie takes a decent bash at tackling a deeply complex subject. Some of the attempts to depict a culture of amity in Varanasi are forced, such as the sounds of the Muslim prayer intercut with Hindu chants. Imam doesn’t have enough layers to weave around a threadbare plot, and the double life that Alla Rakha leads, which is the most interesting aspect of the story, gets drowned by the melodrama.

There isn’t enough raw material for a 125-minute movie, and the idea that humans are largely tolerant of each other until they are provoked by outside forces is as naive as it is hopeful. While the performances are mostly workmanlike, Kumud Mishra exudes authority as the priest who tries hard to restore Varanasi’s reputation for tolerance before it all went under.

Nakkash (2019).