Minority Reportby Khalid Mohamed May 24 2020, 5:18 pm Estimated Reading Time: 8 mins, 23 secs
Khalid Mohamed writes on the ceaseless ghettoization of Muslim characters in B-town’s mainstream movies, and now web series.
The zoom, cut or pan to the Eid moon in the movies is no more. As all over the world, cinema and web series have been by and large ghettoizing Muslims as terrorists, gangsters, anti-nationalists - brandishing guns and frowns, grimaces and all the nasty emojis, you can possibly think of.
In Bollywood, that quaint genre of Muslim passed away decades ago. Okay, so Mughal-e-Azam and Pakeezah are still cited as representations of a bygone royal culture. Urdu or even Hindustani dialogue has been replaced by the argot of today, riff raffish, ungrammatically and laughably pronounced.
Sign of the times, you might say. Practically every minority community rarely, very rarely, fetches up in B-town’s mainstream cinema. Stories, which revolved around Parsis and Christians, have gone extinct.
So, whatever happened specifically to Muslims on the wide and narrow screens? One obvious answer is that they’re no longer considered safe wagers at the ticket windows.
A few exceptions to the rule: of late, Gully Boys, Netflix film Yeh Ballet, Manto and Mulk (revolving around a family disrupted by suspicions of terrorism) have featured Muslims prominently, and in a manner they should be, treating them as an integral part of the nation.
Otherwise, ever since Karan Johar’s My Name is Khan (MNIK) in 2010, the big game-players have avoided touching stories hinged on the subject of the Muslim identity. Post 9/11 in the year 2001, MNIK stated that a heartbreakingly autistic Shah Rukh Khan had to bus, train and hotfoot to Washington D.C. to meet President Obama.
That’s the blockbuster image you have left of a topic that has to be dealt with some maturity and seriousness. But none enough, is enough. Suggest a project which hinges on Muslim characters now in India and the potential financiers look the other way. No need to turn the camera on Islamic issues, no need to delve into the complexities of what makes a terrorist or doesn’t. “Go for a simple, fun, entertaining movie,” is the credo. My Name is Khan sold because of Khan, is the argument, but do remember the Saif Ali Khan-Kareena Kapoor thriller of sorts, Qurbaan, was an unqualified disaster.
“Yashraj banner ka New York directed by Kabir Singh? Okay woh film chal gayee… Pakistan se… Khuda ke Liye… somehow that was imported to Indian multiplexes… hanh us mein dum tha… but Firaaq, sirf film festival types ne dekha”… end of conversation.
Even the media, dependent on marketing (read ads), breaks into cartwheels over an asinine Housefull. So, why stop for a minute and even bemoan the fact those today topical subjects are more about love, sex and dhokas, than about the complexities of rajneeti (unless of course it is star-packed)? Corporate film players as well as traditional producers advance the notion that cinema should not delve into communal issues. So what if these issues stare us in the face?
Indeed, Muslim characters rarely if ever occupy the main berths in a movie. They are side dishes, hardly ever the main course.
By the way, in this context, just consider these two little known or practically unknown facts:
One, there would have been no Diwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, if its director Aditya Chopra had stuck to his earlier resolve - of making his debut with a story about a young couple who meet in the midst of communal riots. The couple is unaware of each other’s faith. Later, their families prove to be more incendiary and unreasonable than the mob of rioters they escaped from during the 1993-94 riots of Mumbai.
Second, there would have been no Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, in the way it finally emerged on the screen, if Karan Johar had stuck to his concept of making the character of Kajol a Muslim girl from the Chandni Chowk mohalla of purani Dilli. It’s a down-market Muslim girl that the character of the patriarch essayed by Amitabh Bachchan was scheduled to disapprove of and reject from the folds of his Brahminical family.
Presumably, both Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar lost their nerve before the films commenced shooting. Chopra discarded his original script completely maybe because he didn’t want to gamble at the box office, while Johar incorporated some quick-fix changes, converting Kajol from a Salma into Anjali, the daughter of a pundit halwai. For that pseudo-secular element, a neighborhood friend enacted by Simone Singh was foisted into the screenplay. Quite easily done.
Another question: Can Bollywood-wallas really be blamed for staying away from the Muslims? If the main characters – be it the hero or the heroine are Muslim – then contentious issues have to be grappled with. And how many of the now generation’s filmmakers even know about the cataclysmic details of the country’s Partition - or are interested in doing something constructive through the medium of cinema?
Entertainment, it is presumed, just doesn’t gel with purposeful stories. Certainly don’t expect a Garm Hava today, which lingers in the heart and mind.
Okay, it may be argued that mainstream cinema isn’t meant to be realistic, serious or relevant to the conditions around us. Yet, even through the genre of fantasy romances and action capers in the past, the so-called commercial producers of Mumbai have tackled an infinite number of issues in a gloriously palatable way… or should that be Bombay? Like it or not the ghosts of Raj Kapoor, V.Shantaram, Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt will continue to haunt generations of cinema aficionados to come.
No filmmaker has had the nerve to comment strongly on the Babri Masjid episode in some detail. As much to the point, such frank speak wouldn’t be permitted by the Censor Board eager to muzzle any kind of strong political statement.
In such a scenario, the very concept of a Muslim hero or heroine is as absurd as asking for the movies to give up on songs and prances. Custom has made it a must for the hero to be a Rahul or a Rohit and the heroine to be a Sapna or Suman.
Only the rare socially aware film has featured central Muslim protagonists like the beleaguered couple, Manisha Koirala and Arvind Swamy, in Mani Ratnam’s Bombay. Although the outcome was vital for at least foraying into an area where cameras fear to tread, the film was marked by too many balancing acts, almost as if Ratnam was scared about alienating either section of his audience.
Piquantly, the Muslim audience is believed to be the most fervent and passionate section of filmgoers. Lose them and you lose out a major slice of the ticket vote bank. Which is why Salman Khan has since years targeted his film release in sync with the Ramadan Eid festival. It’s only because of this anxiety to please a section of the audience that once films insisted on adding a sympathetic Chacha Rahim sort of character or a supporting actor who sacrifices his life for his Hindu friend at the end. Or there would be a daai ma, a nanny, oozing over with the milk of human kindness.
In addition, that rich genre of Muslim socials – prime examples: Mere Mehboob, Mere Huzoor, Nikaah - featured chocolate fudge heroes in sherwanis and marzipan heroines in ghararas and burqas. For social commentary of a kind, Kamal Amrohi opened up the life of a reluctant courtesan in Pakeezah, which was effectively poignant, with its evocation of an era of poetic romance and gilded cages.
Come to think of it, there is something downright crude and patchy in the representation of Muslims in the movies. For instance, there was neither head nor tale to the Salman Khan caper Tumko Na Bhool Payenge, in which the hero, a Muslim goes amnesiac, is adopted by a Hindu family, retrieves his memory and fetches up at the Haji Ali Masjid. If any point was being conveyed it was entirely lost on the audience which nixed the film at the turnstiles.
Sohail Khan’s Maine Dil Tujhko Diya showcased Sanjay Dutt as a villainous Muslim don with a heart of gold; Dutt repeated the act as Iqbal Danger in Annarth.
The underworld has become the hangout for Muslims for quite a while now. Witness Sarfarosh, an otherwise sensible film. The bad guy, Naseeruddin Shah, was a ghazal singer from Pakistan. As if to redress the balance, a cop played by Mukesh Rishi, was shown as a nationalist Muslim being victimized by his superiors and the world at large. It almost seemed as if Aamir Khan was playing an earnest good guy Hindu cop (like say Nick Nolte) while Mukesh Rishi was the black underdog cop (a la Eddie Murphy or Danny Glover).
Cleverly, Ram Gopal Varma didn’t want to alienate the Muslim ticket vote back with Company. Although his main protagonists were clearly modeled on Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Rajan, the characters played by Ajay Devgan and Vivek Oberoi weren’t given Islamic trappings or names - clever, very clever.
Vishal Bharadwaj’s adaptations Maqbool and Haider from Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hamlet respectively, have been quality conscious. Interestingly, though, both were set within the Muslim milieu.
The bottom line is that a film’s characters must emerge organically from the plot - cast, creed and religion no bar. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, Hindu, Muslim, Parsi or Christian. As long as you believe in a story, as long as you’re convinced that the story must be told, then you’re on the right track.
Otherwise, you might as well play the stock market, the roulette, the horse races - whatever, as long as it’s not cinema.