Bollywood mirrors India, so goes the saying. If any one wants to see the real face of India, all one has to do is to randomly pick up few flicks of a decade and see the changes taking place in India over a period of time. In this context the representation of Muslims is something interesting to focus at as this succulently portray the changing face of the community since independence of the country.
The movies in fifties and sixties portrayed Muslim characters mostly as Kings, Nawabs or Feudal lords. Films like Shah Jhan, Mumtaz Mahal, Anarkali, Mughal-e- Azam, Mere Mehboob, Bahu Begam, Chadvin Ka Chand were all mainstream movies. With refined language and soul rendering music, these movies depicted the rich cultural tradition of the Indian Muslims. Such movies scaled the charts of popularity with Muslims as central character testifies that the entire nation accepted them as an integral part of the Indian society. The key was Muslims were a thrive community in India.
However, as we move to seventies, a distinct change in the characterization of the Muslims started emerging in the Bollywood films. The characters though for some time continued to remain aristocratic were pushed towards hedonist pursuits. The indolent Nawabs chewing betel nuts and splurging their money on the natuch girls characterized Bollywood Muslims. Mere Huzoor, Pakeezah, Umaro Jaan are few movies for illustration.
Seventies was also an era of parallel cinema. Movies like Elan and Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro critiqued the aimlessness of the lower middle class Muslim youth. Garam Hawa was another fine movie that grippingly captured the human tragedy of India’s Partition.
In the mainstream cinema, two movies stand out in the seventies. They are Nikah and Bazzar. A Muslim social melodrama, Nikah was rich in content but negative in message that Muslims male divorce at will pronouncing the word ‘talaq’ three times, leaving their spouse in a helpless situation. Baazar on the other hand highlighted the real life story, how poverty stricken Muslim parents in Hyderabad married off their under aged daughters to the old Arabs. Both these movies had high dose of Muslim social milieu but subtly attempted to ‘differentiate’ Muslims in the Indian society.
The important development in the seventies was that Muslim characters were being pushed to the margin in the three-hour time slot, claiming just fifteen minutes of fame on the silver screen. Zhora Bai in Mukadar Ka Sikander and Rahim Chacha in Sholey are classical examples.
During this genre, Muslim men were shown wearing Aligarh cut Sherwani, chewing betel nut and reciting Iqbal or Ghalib’s poetry at the drop of their cap. The women would either dress in Borqua (veil) or wear heavy Lehngas and Ghagras with jarring makeup on their faces. The old ladies or Ammi jans were either seen offering prayers or chewing beetle nut with much aplomb. Such caricatures the moment appeared on the screen, audience knew that its time for a Quawali, Mujra or Gazal. Muslim culture became synonym with Quawalis and Mujras.
Another interesting development in late seventies and eighties was the portrayal Mumbai's underworld characters mostly Muslims in Bollywood films. Although, they did not bore Muslim names on screen, the spectators knew who the protagonist was in the real life. The Muslim characters since then also stated becoming negative in Bollywood movies. Smugglers wearing Arab robe puffing cigar, carrying briefcases became a common sight since in the eighties. This trend became more direct in late eighties and nineties. Movies like Gulam-e -Mustafa and Angar could be cited as examples.
If Bollywood was to be believed normal Muslims were becoming extinct in India. With a cap here and rosary there, Muslims at best could be accommodated for tokenism in Bollywood films. No wonder they were shown offering prayers or singing Quawalis at religious tombs where hero or heroine would come with their wish list.
Parallel to all this there was also some halfhearted attempts made to address the issue of Hindu- Muslim communal divide through Bollywood films. The sixties song “Tu Hindu banega na Musalman Banega, Insan in Aulad hai Insan Bega” was powerful narrative for such a theme. Several movies that preached communal harmony like Iman Dhram and Karantiveer were spread over the decades.
The movie Bombay in 1995 redefined the contours of the characterization of the Muslims in Bollywood films. Set in the backdrop of 1993 Mumbai bomb blast, this movie had strong message for communal harmony even as it showed the protagonist a Muslim girl, eloping with a Hindu boy. This was a watershed of sorts as it also depicted the changing face of the Indian society.
Bollywood since eighties also herald a whole arsenal of unexamined prepositions about Muslims and their religion. Islam means Jihad, Muslim means terrorists. Roja was the climactic film in the eighties that depicted the ideological conflict between the nationalist victim and the jehadi terrorist. It opened the floodgate for a number of flicks with much louder in such tone and tenure. Sarfarosh, Maa Tujhe Salam, Pukar, Gadar, Fiza, Mission Kashmir, Border, LOC and the latest Faana all forms the long list of such Bollywood potpourris
With the political agenda coloring the Bolywood, the portrayal of the Muslims characters too metamorphosed since nineties. There developed a symbiotic relationship between Kashmir- Pakistan and Muslims. The villain was shown mouthing slogans against India, fighting for the cause of Kashmir. All the henchmen were gun totting bearded guys, wearing salwar-kamiz with a scarf over the shoulders. They were shown with blood shot eyes bursting at the seams with irrational anger. In contrast, the ‘boss’ would be dressed in typical priest attire, a skullcap and a rosary in hand. He would first mouth some Arabic words and then demonstrate his senseless itch to destroy India. In an unflinching commitment to Jehad, he would soberly deliver the punch line; “Jehad Zaroori hai.”
In the mad rush to have the cash registers ringing, Bollywood movies started creating imaginary Muslim images to the frightening level. The audience unwittingly was forced to share the overloaded perspective of the filmmaker. If Bollywood movies are to be believed, all Muslims are anti national and their faith was an extremist ideology.
To say that cinema in India is mere escapist entertainment would be a poor understanding of the wonder that’s India. It’s a staple diet in the country on which every Indian thrives, a passion that has no diminishing returns.
Bollywood might be coming good in reaching out to the world but when it comes to creating Muslims on screen its closed to a dangerous time warp. Cinematic subtleties, community’s sensitivity and societal realism are all thrown overboard. What quickly lapped up is, dirty stereotypes and reckless clichés while sketching Muslim characters.
According to Bollywood movies that are currently made, Indian Muslim doesn’t go to office, they don’t smile and their career graph does not follow the usual arch of human endeavor. Such factious images of Muslims inadvertently have started sounding real in the contemporary life. Before such blinkered vision could sync into the people’s mindset, this dangerous development needs to be checked. More movies should be made with Muslim characters that are positive in their narration. This would not only instill confidence in the Muslim community but also take the entire nation on the path of peace and harmony.
If Hindi cinema means wholesome entertainment, it has to break away from its clichéd presentations of Muslims on screen. Indian Muslims are normal human beings. They attend office, listen to music, drink coffee, read newspapers, laugh and cut jokes. They are reasoning thinking achieving and even failing human being. They are much part of the mainstream Indian society as anyone else. Their religious identity is only a part of their consciousness that others come across only by their names. Their aspirations are the same as any average Indian.
A middle class Muslim family wants to have his own dream house, marry off their daughter to a nice loving family, give highest education to the son, so that he immediately finds a job and support them in their old age. These are the Indian family values, which are common to all irrespective of religious leanings. And it’s around these vales that Bollywood cast its magical spells, selling dreams, aspirations to the teeming millions and in the process making pots of money.
However Bollywood seems to have limitations on churning out a few slick films with Muslim as its central characters that has all the trappings of a blockbuster. The reasoning is even though Muslim identity remains paramount in Indian cinema, no one likes to disturb the apple cart of set formulas that Bollywood mindlessly follow while making movies. The political and social context of the country too makes such idea a risky proposition to sell.
What ever may be the limitations for the Bollywood to cast Muslims as its central character, the fact remains that the day, the King Khans Indian cinema would give blockbusters like “Dil wale Dulhaniya Le Jaenge,” “Laagan” or “Hum Aap Ke Hain Kuan” not as ‘Raj,’ ‘Vijay’ or ‘Ajay’ but as Shahruk, Aamir or Salman, Bollywood that day may come to an age!
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai, India. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org