Wednesday, December 1st, 2021 09:28:18

The Muslim In Hindi Cinema

Updated: October 23, 2010 3:38 pm

Once upon a time, every now and then, there would be a film which sought to romantically reflect on the ethos of Muslim life and culture. Both historical as well as socials, and they invariably succeeded at the box office. But these films were almost never placed in a contemporary context, except in the last over a decade or so and highlighting the communal angle, be it art house cinema (forgive me Mr Shyam Benegal for largely ignoring your ‘sponsored, government propaganda’ endeavours which though bestowed with state honours hardly ever made the grade, if at all, in the theatres) or mainstream, the brightest example of that being Karan Johar’s My Name is Khan. The film deals with Muslim identity in the USA and the accusations and big question mark that is now irrevocably associated with it: terrorist or terrorism.

                If one takes a close look at terrorism-related Hindi films, whether directly in the context of Kashmir or otherwise, the individuals centre-stage are all Muslim. Fanna, Anwar, Fiza, Mission Kashmir, Tehzeeb, A Wednesday to name just a few. And they are at war with the world and in this war the identity or religion of the victims is irrelevant. But it had not always so. The actors with Muslim identities were always either the heroes, or golden-hearted characters, and they got these names largely from a sense of national integration. A Muslim was as much a nationalist as a Hindu, or Sikh. This was a clever cinematic devise that the scriptwriters and makers used to woo the Muslim audience. The late Manmohan Desai once observed: “If Muslims do not like a film, it flops. And Desai became a director with the post-partition saga, Chhalia where Pran as a Pathan migrates from the newly-established Pakistan to take his revenge with Raj Kapoor, a Hindu to settle unsettled scores.

                It is a Bollywood belief that films released soon after Ramzan, particularly with a Muslim hero, becomes a big hit because a majority of this audience abstains from the theatres during this period. Dabangg is a recent example even though the hero has a Hindu identity, and the film itself has nothing to tom tom about except the fact that Salman Khan is the hero. The unmerited film has posted unprecedented box office figures.

                Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Jodha Akbar, and before that Akbar Khan’s Taj Mahal: An Eternal Love Story and JP Datta’s remake of Umrao Jaan tried to re-herald the magic of Muslim historicals. In this context, one is not sure whether the failure of the last two, like Jahanara, Sultanat and some others in the past could only be attributed to the rejection of them by the Muslim audiences, or their failure to establish a connect? The failure of Taj Mahal was attributed to bad casting, and Umrao Jaan to lack of depth and intensity that was discernible in Muzaffar Ali’s 70s film with the same name. The fact that the various television channels show visuals from this rather than Datta’s version speaks volumes about the impact of the original.

                In their painstaking but somewhat flawed attempt to carve out the Muslim factor in Hindi cinema, Ira Bhaskar and Richard Allen in their profusely illustrated with black and white and colour pix 346-page endeavour, Islamicate Culture of Bombay Cinema (Tulika Books, Pg 346, Rs 995), have sought to provide through a peep into the window to a culture that is fast disappearing from the celluloid especially in the context of the prevalent turbulent times. The documentation that comes through is significant, and what does not, though important and relevant, can be given a slip. Classifying different aspects of Muslim ethos into historicals, conventional and non-conventional socials (with obvious political overtones, and the kotha culture or courtesan Bollywood cinema till date.

                According to the authors, the all encompassing term ‘Muslim social’ came into existence in the 1940s, and this stereotype has lingered on till date. But since that makes the task of a historian difficult, and an academic researchers even more, the twosome has redefined these films as Muslim historical (Pukar, 1939; Mirza Ghalib, 1957; Mughal-e-Azam 1960; Jodhaa Akbar, 2008), Muslim courtesan films (Pakeezah, 1971; Umrao Jaan, 1981; Tawaif, 1985; Sardari Begum, 1996; Umrao Jaan, 2006), classical Muslim socials (Najma, 1943; Chaudhvin ka Chand, 1960; Mere Mehboob, 1963), new wave Muslim socials and after (Garam Hawa, 1973; Salim Langde pe Mat Rao, 1989; Mammo, 1994; Fiza, 2000). These are, however, only reference points around which the larger equations have been sought to be explored.

                There is no estimate of a calculate the number of films, directly or indirectly, related to an exposition of the Muslim ethos in the various redefined genres, and in the absence of an index it is impossible (unless one sits with a toothcomb) to the number of the ones referred to. Suffice it to say, it is no mean achievement to do even that in a book which is “about the influence and impact of the forms of imagined history, social life and expressive idioms that are derived from and associated with Islamic culture and history, upon Bombay cinema. These include the historical imagination of the Mughal imperium, of nineteenth-century Lakhnawi courtesan culture and of Muslim aristocratic life”. Another articulated intent was to “focus on aesthetic idioms, whether these are questions of cinematic mise-en-scene or poetic forms like the ghazal and upon the nature and form of the stories that are told”.

                An interesting aspect of any further research or exploration of this genre of Hindi cinema would be, and somewhere hinted at in the book, to zero down on the contribution of non-Muslims who played a significant role in making some landmark films. Even randomly recalling, their number is too big to be enumerated here. And although the sizeable Muslim audience does play a role in the success or failure of a film, the appreciation of good entertaining cinema by the minorities or the Hindu majority of the ‘Muslim cinema’ has played no smaller role in the success of these and other landmark films.

By Suresh Kohli

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