Hindi films missing the elephant in the living room

Notwithstanding the ‘good Muslim’ and the ‘ bad Muslim’ in Hindi films, they by and large have ignored the lives, hope and despair of Muslims in this country

Photo courtesy: YouTube
Photo courtesy: YouTube

Javed Akhtar

The experience of the partition of India went hand in hand with the euphoric celebration of freedom from colonial rule. The tragedy of the partition was deeply overwhelming with the wounds of separation and violence still raw and alive. It was as if cinema was unable to comprehend or express this experience. It seemed to lack the language or grammar to communicate the horrors of the partition. The elephant was in the living room but no film character was willing to talk about it. Cinema refused to deal with the issue of minorities particularly since the memories of the Partition remained powerful at a subterranean level.

Muslims and Islam seemed to not exist in any specific way as filmmakers decided to look at the birth of the Indian nation around other issues of social conflict, particularly that of class. If Raj Kapoor celebrated the dreams of the new nation, Guru Dutt presented us with a melancholic critique of the nation and its failure to live up to its promises. Nationhood and its imagination were thus central to the period of the 1950’s.

In post-independent India the first major attempt to deal with the Indian Muslims in films is expressed in the form of the “Muslim social” and the first film in this genre is Guru Dutt’s Chaudhavi ka Chand (1959) followed by films like Bahu Begum, Mughle Azam, Mere Mehboob, Pakeezah and so on. The Muslim social created a world of Islam that was aristocratic and cultured, steeped in music, poetry and ghazals. In this world, Islamic tradition and culture was revered through detailed architectural decor, costumes, marriage practices and rituals. Reading the namaaz and the sound of the Azaan had to play an important role in these films.

Enclosed as a world of the Muslim community where manners (Tehzeeb), daily habits and beautiful veiled women adorned the screen, Muslim socials created an imaginary landscape of what it meant to be a Muslim in India. The world of the aristocratic Muslim was elevated and made to look very different from the vast majority of Muslims who live in the country. Romance and its ups and downs became the dominant theme of these films, which largely existed as vehicles that showcased a nostalgic grandeur associated with Islam in India.

It is my belief that the cultural iconography associated with the Muslim social has played a crucial role in marking the Muslim in a way that perpetuated the constant replay of his/her identity through religiosity. After all in the world of melodramatic representation, we deploy methods to mark people as different through their outward presentation. Thus in films like Deewar, Sholay and Zanjeer – all co-written by Salim Khan and myself, we created an iconic place for the “good Muslim”. Although I must confess that we were blissfully unaware of its larger ramifications then – I can only analyse this in retrospect today.

This “good Muslim” was religious, read the Namaaz and adhered to the good values of the protagonist. He was willing to sacrifice himself for a larger ethical cause and would do so by drawing inspiration from his religious practice. The constant recurrence of the good Muslim seemed to draw its legacy from the former genre of the Muslim social. If on hindsight this seems like a patronising image, it also captures the Nehruvian dream of national integration where multiple identities are allowed to coexist under the sign of the Nation. One of the pitfalls of isolating Muslim iconography as a cohesive, unified and internal world has been that while a secular Hindu would keep a token of 786 or visit a mosque, no secular Muslim has ever been shown playing holi or lighting a traditional lamp. While films were made against Hindu traditions of untouchability, child marriage and dowry, we have yet to see a film that interrogates the world of Islamic rituals and practices.

The decade of the 1980’s saw great social upheaval. These were the times of Babri Masjid- Ram Temple controversy at its peak. In this charged atmosphere of communal politics in the public sphere, the Muslim appeared for the first time as a villain in N Chandra’s Tezaab. Tezaab mobilised a popular Maharashtrian right wing perception of Bombay as a city contaminated by Bihari, UP and Muslim immigrants. The film systematically develops this theme particularly around the figure of the villain.

Lotia Pathan as the villain in Tezaab evoked a new world of Islamic villainy and treachery hitherto not seen in Hindi cinema. The iconography associated with Lotia Pathan was that of the street where he survives with his gang through extortion, bootlegging and gambling. Pathan virtually has a township from where he conducts his illegal activity. In stark contrast to the Islamic world of the Muslim social, Tezaab unabashedly articulates a certain anti Muslim sentiment through a portrayal of pure villainy. It is as if a dominant ethos of aggressive right wing politics created the legitimacy for the film industry to create figures like Lotia Pathan.

Secular iconography is also mediated through a very marked gender politics. In the history of popular cinema, caste and community issues have been expressed through stories of inter caste and religious marriage. The story of love between a Hindu Indian boy and a Pakistani girl, Veer Zara promotes the idea of eternal love and its ability to withstand the obstacles that come in the way of romantic fulfilment. What binds films lake Bombay, Sujata and Veer Zara together is their marking of the female protagonist as Muslim and lower caste, and the male protagonist as Hindu.

The journey of the women through marriage seems to bring them into closer contact with the husband’s Hindu identity. Since the woman’s adoption of the husband’s social and cultural identity is the way patriarchal culture inaugurates assimilation, the use of the woman as Muslim seems to operate like a strategic device. I wonder if a reversal of this order would generate the same response from audiences. These are questions and issues that cast a shadow on the narratives of harmony produced by cinema. Clearly we are dealing with a form that suppresses certain social and cultural codes in order to move towards a resolution leaving us with an ambivalence about the value of sentimental love and romance in the healing of communal sentiments.

The history of Muslim identity in Hindi cinema provides us with a complex lens to view not only Indian politics but also the nature of secular identity. Despite the complexities and ideological nature of Muslim representation, the world of cinema has produced some landmark films that have dealt with this topic in novel ways.

Garam Hawa made by MS Sathyu in 1972 was based on Ismat Chughtai’s short story. Narrating the decline of a Muslim family who did not leave for Pakistan, Garam Hawa became a significant film that for the first time attempted to squarely confront the issue of Partition. Garam Hawa’s honest portrayal and sensitivity to the hardships faced by Muslims who did not leave for Pakistan makes it a powerful cultural document even today.

We have also seen some interesting films made on the periphery of the film industry. Iqbal is one such film that offers us a genuinely new kind of cinema. Iqbal is the story of a deaf and mute Muslim boy whose passion is cricket. He wants to be a cricketer. Narrating the difficulties encountered by the protagonist to make his way finally into the cricket team, the director of the film Nagesh Kokunoor makes a significant departure from the iconography usually associated with Muslim families. The overwhelming narrative of the film is an ordinary boy’s desire and aspirations. It is the story of cricket and a boy’s dreams to make it in this sport. The film does not foreground religion as the hallmark of the boy’s experiences. Instead the film journeys through the protagonists struggle without resorting to religion as the only source of a Muslim man’s social and cultural inspiration.

A genuinely secular iconography may seem difficult to create but it is not impossible. The secular iconography of Nagesh Kokunoor’s Iqbal clearly points to the possibilities of Hindi cinema. Iqbal is a film where the Muslim father is neither a poet nor a Nawab but just a regular guy.

I had hoped we see more films like Iqbal where Muslims are not labelled as ‘them’ or us and other young directors will also explore the possibilities of cinema in the future, to create a genuinely secular iconography but somehow in spite of offering a huge variety of stories which is almost unprecedented Hindi cinema is shying away from certain relevant social issues, perhaps once again Hindi cinema is missing the language, grammar or the courage to tell you the story of the elephant in the living room.

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Published: 08 Jul 2017, 12:37 PM