Indian Muslims through Bollywood’s eyes

Earlier Bollywood was more liberal when it came to embracing the diversity, which is why many Muslim actors rose to prominence. However recently the depiction of Muslims has been very stereotypical

Photo courtesy: social media
Photo courtesy: social media


When Bollywood filmmaker Abhishek Kapoor made Kedarnath, a story of love between Mukku, a Hindu girl, and Mansoor, a Muslim pitthoo (porter) who ferries pilgrims to the historic Kedarnath temple nestled in the Uttarakhand mountains, he thought of a story of beauty and harmony that forms the essence of India. But, it was deemed as a means of promotion of 'love jihad' by a leader from a right-wing political party who sought a ban on the film. The film has now been banned in Uttarakhand

Speculations are rife about Aamir Khan being consumed by his next big project - a series on Mahabharat - the greatest epic ever told. The best part of the unconfirmed news is that the actor would himself play Lord Krishna. This was enough for right-wing trolls to get into action on social media and blatant ask: “Why a Muslim should play a part in the ancient epic?” They would be okay if he played Duryodhan, but not the godly Krishna or even, the heroic Arjuna. Had BR Chopra been alive, one wonders if he would have been allowed to make the iconic series on the epic, which had TV actor Feroz Khan play Arjuna.

For that matter, had the filmmakers of the yesteryears held on to the havoc created by Partition, we'd never have had Yusuf Khan, whose screen name is Dilip Kumar, play iconic characters that were more Hindu in ways and beliefs than Muslim. They would never have allowed Meena Kumari to play the ideal bahu of the Indian screen, or allow her to sing 'Jyoti kalash chhalke'. And we would, perhaps, miss out on Nargis giving a performance of a lifetime as Mother India.

Indian cinema was so comfortable with its diversity that Muslim-centric films flourished - as period films (Mughal-e-Azam) and as social films (Aarzoo, Gazal, Yahudi, Pakeezah).

What was once a celebration of a community has been reduced to being on the back foot - not just off-screen, but also on screen. The Muslim protagonist is either found being on the defence or racially profiled. And the objection to the Muslim pitthoo in Kedarnath is proof of how deep the prejudice runs. Let's take a look at the recent Muslim protagonists and films that left their mark on our desi screens...

While the above Muslim characters are making their way to bring back the lost glory of Muslim characters in Hindi films, the stereotypes continue

The nationalist Muslim

'Phir kisi Salim se mat kehna, yeh mulk uska ghar nahin' - this classic dialogue from Sarfarosh continues to reverberate in Bollywood, 20 years later. Call it a reflection of times, but the Indian Muslim finds him or herself proving his or her nationalism through characters like Sehmat Khan (Alia Bhatt in Raazi, 2018), an undercover agent, who will even get married to the enemy, a Pakistani, to be of service to the nation. Murad Ali Mohammad (Rishi Kapoor in Mulk, 2018) has to prove his innocence when a family member takes to terrorism. Who can forget the women's hockey coach, Kabir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan in Chak De! India, 2007)? Accused of giving away the game to the enemy state of Pakistan, the former hockey coach clears his name as he steers the women hockey team to international glory.

The oppressed Muslim

Personal battles or sexuality, a film set in an orthodox Muslim household, seems to serve the purpose of telling a story of freedom. One such being that of Insiya Malik (Zaira Wasim in Secret Superstar, 2017), who aspires to be a singer and uploads videos of her work while dressed in a niqab. A burkha and a lipstick becomes a symbol of oppression and rebellion in Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017) which addresses women's sexuality. The burkha is worn by characters, irrespective of the religion they belong to. Shabana Khan (Taapsee Pannu in Naam Shabana, 2017) overcomes an abusive past and becomes an able secret agent.

The modern Muslim

If Shahid (Rajkummar Rao in Shahid, 2013) turns his life around from being an extremist to a human rights lawyer, then Rizwan Khan (Shah Rukh Khan in My Name Is Khan, 2010) afflicted by Asperger's syndrome, goes around the world spreading the message - 'My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist' after 9/11. Psychologist Jehangir 'Jug' Khan's (Shah Rukh Khan in Dear Zindagi, 2016) religion hardly matters as he floors his patient Kaira (Alia Bhatt) and the audience with his wisdom. It is the same with Alizeh Khan and poetess Saba Taliyar Khan (Anushka Sharma and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, 2016). These modern and sexually aware women are not apologetic about their choices or their lives, even if it means leaving the men behind - Saba's ex husband Tahir Taliyar Khan and Alizeh's ex husband, DJ Ali (Fawad Khan). Wrestling champion Sultan Ali Khan and Aarfa Hussain (Salman Khan and Anushka Sharma in Sultan, 2016) carry their religion lightly.

The secular Muslim

The eternal quest and celebration of Ganga-Jamuna sangam continues. And the foremost film that comes to mind is the royal romance of Mughal King Akbar and Rajput princess Jodha (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Hrithik Roshan in Jodhaa Akbar, 2008). It is a historical drama based on Akbar The Great's fair and secular beliefs. It's a strain that continues in another historical film based on the passionate love story of Maratha Peshwa Bajirao and his Muslim wife, Mastani (Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone in Bajirao Mastani, 2015). Who can forget the staunch Hindu Bajrangi's (Salman Khan in Bajrani Bhaijaan, 2015) determination to help Munni (Harshaali Malhotra), a Muslim girl, reach her home in Pakistan? The bonding between people of two religions and two feuding countries met with resounding success at the box office as well as won numerous awards.

The stereotypes

While the above Muslim characters are making their way to bring back the lost glory of Muslim characters in Hindi films, the stereotypes continue. These include classic book adaptations set against terrorism in Kashmir (Haider, 2014 and Fitoor, 2016) and underworld (Raees, 2017; Haseena Parkar, 2017 and Gangs of Wasseypur series, 2012).

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