Vishwaroop kickstarts like a comic book. The ditsy slapstick routine in the midst of gory villainy in NY tells you: don’t take this seriously. But only for a brief while. As the scene shifts to bleak Afghan landscapes and Al Qaeda training grounds, the stereotype “Islamic terrorist” embedded in our collective consciousness post-9/11 gets reinforced onscreen—the brutality, orthodoxy, obduracy, it’s all there. It’s a cruel world where “zubaan koi bhi ho, boli jehadi hi honi chahiye”. Severed limbs, lifeless bodies, spurting blood—you wonder why you are seeing these killing fields images all over again, in yet another film. Meanwhile, our hero Taufik finds Buddha-like enlightenment. He is the one good Muslim taking on the many rogues from his community to save New York from the “dirty bomb” even as the rather daft FBI agents ask him, “Jeez man, who are you?” He is the one good Muslim who “redeems” the many who have gone astray.
Cut to Hansal Mehta’s Shahid. Based on the life of activist-lawyer Shahid Azmi, who was allegedly killed for defending Mumbai bombing accused Fahim Ansari, this too begins with protracted sequences of Shahid in jehadi camps. But unlike Vishwaroop, it settles down to focus on the dilemmas of a lower middle-class Muslim family. No demonising, exoticising or romanticising. “My attempt was to humanise,” says Mehta. After a few devastating episodes—riots, jehadi camps, jail—Shahid prefers the path of the law, fighting for the accused in court, to going on Taufik-like revenge mode. The gentle Shahid stands on the fringes, and Vishwaroop shows how the heavy-handed, sweeping Muslim stereotypes dominate our mainstream cinema.
The Salaam Slam
The Muslim evolution in Bollywood
Now one way to rationalise this is by brushing the criticism aside. After all, this is the way we tell our stories. So for every cliched Muslim, we also have flat Christians—Sandras from Bandra, the good Catholic priest. What’s more, it’s endemic to popular cinema the world over. “Ethnic groups, communities get exaggerated everywhere,” says Rachel Dwyer, professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at SOAs, University of London. Witness the unidimensional Chinese or Hispanic in Hollywood. But our filmic Muslim stereotype hasn’t stayed static. You had the historicals and Muslim socials of the ’50s and the ’60s—the refined nawabs, eloquent shayars, elegant tawaifs of Mere Mehboob, Chaudhavin Ka Chaand, Mehboob ki Mehndi, Pakeezah.
Then there was the small, significant role. Pran’s loyal Pathan in Zanjeer, A.K. Hangal’s good-hearted Rahim Chacha in Sholay, Mazhar Khan’s trusted informer in Shaan. A token gesture, an ethnic flavour, an integrative desire. The last was significant in Amar Akbar Anthony, says Ravikant, associate fellow, CSDS. “Saibaba became the secular, neutral space where they came together.” Even into the mid-’80s, the integration motif was being underlined in Coolie, where Amitabh Bachchan wears a Billa No. 786.
It was the gradual movement from the Haji Mastan phase (symbolically, gangsterism with the honour code intact) to the Dawood Ibrahim phenomenon, its brash mafiahood bleeding into modern jehadism—with the rest of Indian politics blanked out—that proved decisive. Bollywood got a succession of new Muslim villains: Lotia Pathan in Tezaab, Majid Khan in Angaar, the new-age, cold-as-steel drug-dealing Rashid in Sarkar, the hyper-inflated Rauf Lala in Agneepath. “These cliches have reflected changing mindset and perceptions,” says Hansal.
Of late, the Muslim stories have come uniformly laced with violence. The shadowy terror of Pankaj Kapur in Roja was the first foray into Kashmir. With the Kargil war, “Pakistan became an absent presence,” says Ravikant. In fact, by Gadar, quite the present presence.
Post-9/11, it’s been all about global Islamist terror. “The word terrorist has been misused and become exclusively attached to Muslims,” says Shohini Ghosh, of Jamia Millia Islamia. Interestingly, there are hardly any narratives of “Hindu terror”, but for perhaps a Govind Nihalani’s Drohkaal. “Good Muslims proving their loyalty has been a running theme in our cinema. It’s now reached a critical point,” says Ravikant. An offshoot of this: films like Chak De India and My Name Is Khan, secular, modern Muslims again having to prove their allegiance to country. It’s the “terror narratives that don’t understand terrorism” that Shohini finds “complicated”. “No one denies the rise in Islamist terror, but our films look at it from the standpoint of the terror attack, not what went into its making,” she says.
Old films too have explored interesting layers within the cliches. Dhool Ka Phool had a Muslim bringing up an ‘illegitimate’ Hindu child (it had the classic song, “Tu Hindu banega na Musalman banega, insaan ki aulaad hai, insaan banega”.) In Dharmputra, the theme was reversed with a Hindu family bringing up a Muslim child. Author-filmmaker Nasreen Munni Kabir says story-telling works best when Muslim identity is not an issue. “When it becomes the issue, the stereotype gets more acute,” she says. So Nagesh Kukunoor’s Iqbal works because the young hero just happened to be a Muslim who wanted to be a cricketer. “I liked how the intelligence officer in Kahaani was a Muslim,” she says. For Rachel Dwyer, Zindagi Milegi Na Dobara was interesting in the way Farhan Akhtar’s character wore his Muslim identity lightly. Parallel cinema offers many examples—Garam Hawa, Naseem, Saleem Langde Pe Mat Ro, Black Friday or even the recent Gangs of Wasseypur. However, the most interesting of these has been a forgotten but landmark V. Shantaram film, Padosi. The 1941 film about Hindu-Muslim neighbours who squabble but eventually come together pre-empted the Partition and feels relevant even today. But for now, there doesn’t seem to be any let up in the terrorism sagas.
Apropos the article Keep the Beard On (Feb 18) on the depiction of Muslims in Hindi cinema, how did you miss out on Garam Hawa? It sensitively addresses the question of how toxic and demeaning an environment of suspicion can be.
Arvind, on e-mail
Cinema is a reality projection of our thoughts. A Muslim redeemer among Muslims is in fact an Indian way to see a post-9/11 world.
Abhishek Sharman, Delhi
How come no one complains of stereotyping when the Hindu sadhu in a film invariably turns out to be a villain and his ashram a den of evil.
Rakesh Mehra, Delhi
There are similarities and there are differences. And Bollywood stereotypes everything anyway, doesn’t it?
Jasjeet Shergill, on e-mail
I read the article on Muslim characters in Bollywood (Keep the Beard On, Feb 18) with interest. I found it entirely simplistic. The figure of the Muslim in Indian cinema is wide-ranging and numerous enough to deserve at least a scholarly volume. The space afforded by Outlook is pitifully inadequate and leads to bizarre generalisations. For example, note that Rahul Bose’s character in Vishwaroopam and Naseeruddin Shah’s character in Sarfarosh both articulate a ‘national’ stereotype (Afghan and Pakistani, respectively), and not a religious one. Even the more kitschy examples (say in Sunny Deol’s Gadar) resort to a nationalistic, not communal, jingoism. I fail to understand how the figure of the Muslim in Indian cinema can be reduced to the reductive concept of a stereotype.
Note that Rahul Bose's character in Vishwaroopam, or Naseeruddin Shah's character in Sarfarosh - both articulate a *national* stereotype (Afghan and Pakistani, respectively), not a religious one. In fact, even the most kitschy examples (like say, Sunny Deol's Gadar) resort to nationalistic, and not communal jingoism. Again, I simply fail to understand how the figure of the Muslim in Indian cinema (ranging from Jitendra's camp 'Hatim Tai', to the visual poetry of Muzaffar Ali's oeuvre, to the naive propaganda-tinged idealism of a Mission Kashmir, to the searing intensity of Firaaq, to name a few examples not mentioned above) can be reduced to the reductive concept of a stereotype. I seriously hope some scholar (maybe Rachel Dwyer, whom the author quotes so enthusiastically, if selectively) comes along to write the book on the subject that is just crying out to be written.
This is an entirely simplistic reading. The figure of the Muslim character in Indian cinema is wide-ranging and numerous enough to deserve something at least as long as a scholarly volume, if not an encyclopaedia. The space afforded by a weekly magazine article is pitifully adequate, and leads to these bizarre, enormous generalizations. I seriously doubt the subject can be reduced to the claustrophobic dimensions afforded by the idea of a 'stereotype'.
Atul.. I agree with most of your points except your inference on caste system. When an invader arrives society generally tries to mobilise its strength by uniting rather than divide into further fragments. In this case i am afraid you are confusing the effects for the cause. Our society became week because of the caste system and not the other way around.
My apologies if i am digressing from the main topic.
Atul Chandra sahib,
Salutations for your wonderful reasoning in Post D-72/14 .
MUSLIMS insist on dressing and doing everything different than rest and complain when treated differently. 20 years back hardly anyone was seen in BURQUA in Assam but presently, there are large number of women wearing BLACK BURQUA in the sweltering heat of Assam. Sadly it is the educated, well off Muslim families that have forced their women into BURQUA. --------------------------------------------- The contribution of BOLLYWOOD to increse the caste divide amongst Hindus have been no less - THAKURS & BANIYAS were the permanent villians of 50's & 60's and early 70's and people suffering at their hand were Hindus- mostly lower caste Hindus. (the vivid dipiction of lecherous BANIYA of Mother India is apt example). BUT there was no protest from PSEUDO- SECUS when Hindu society was divided on caste lines- because supporting Hindus is not secularism.
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