Real villains are the stereotypes

Cinema reflects reality and films will be made on Muslim terrorists. But the attempt to paint the entire community with the same brush hurts more and heals nothing

Representative image
Representative image

Khalid Mohamed

So, action king director Rohit Shetty has been crying himself hoarse about barbs that villains of his opus, Sooryavanshi, are Muslims.

“How come no one asked me such a question before?” he has retorted, going into a convoluted explanation that the Hindu characters of his franchise Singham, Singham Returns and Simmba, were “negative forces” too.

Fair enough. More pertinent to the point is the question, “Why the switch over now Mr Shetty?” Moreover, he conveniently forgets to mention that in his debut-making Zameen (2003), the antagonist was a bestial terrorist leader, Baba Zaheer Khan. So, let’s rest the case there.

To come to the here and now, it’s no secret that filmmakers and A-list actors have been bending themselves backwards to align themselves with the government of the day.

Blockbusters, by and large in the last three years, have maintained an agenda to promote the neonationalist ideology. And this at a time when what we as well as the rest of the world urgently require is cinema which communicates the ethos of inclusiveness and secularism.

Incidentally, the Muslim audience cannot be alienated since they form a key section of the ticketbuying public as they do the vote bank. The wizardly director Manmohan Desai had once even stated, “I’ve noticed quite clearly that Muslims comprise the bulk of the audience which sees a film repeatedly.” Not surprisingly, then, he had confected Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) which still stands out as an ode to secularism.

Quite ironically, Akshay Kumar, the foremost gameplayer in Bollywood today, had once rejected the role of an Islamic fundamentalist in Anil Sharma’s Ab Tumhare Hawale Watan Saathiyo (2004), set against the backdrop of the Indo-Pak war of 1971. That would have drawn a backlash from his Muslim fans, was his argument. In the event, his role was revised to that of a Prisoner of War in the enemy camp.

To be sure, as the Bollywood formula goes, sidebar virtuous and valorous Muslim characters are still planted in the screenplay, an echo of the vintage movies of the 1950s and '60s, which inevitably featured kindly Rahim Chachas and Zulekha Daai Maas as loyal household helps.

Naturally, cinema has to reflect the conditions of the times. If once mafia dons, smugglers of every hue, followed by elements of the corrupt police and acquisitive politicians were the main antagonists, it stands to reason that terrorists– either hyper-fictionalised or adapted from true events – have to be an intrinsic parts of movie storytelling today.

The snag is that often the entire community of Muslims is tarred with the same black brush. The use of jingoism, implausible and predictable narratives, have consequently merely exacerbated the divisiveness among the faiths.

Gratefully, down the decades there have been at least a fistful of filmmakers who have handled the subject with restraint and delved into the reasons which have led to the loss of countless lives. Among them, the most prominent examples are Mani Rathnam’s Roja (1992)--a superior work to his politically correct Bombay (1995) and the chaotic Dil Se (1998) --Gulzar’s Maachis (1996), Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday (2005), Nishikant Kamat’s Mumbai Meri Jaan (2008), Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday (2008), Vishal Bharadwaj’s Haider (2014) and Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk (2018).

Themes with Muslims as central characters, are rarely if ever, being attempted now. Even when they are, the walls of their homes are painted green, a ‘namaaz’ scene is a must, male elders must wear skullcaps while women cover their heads with a dupatta. Take Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy (2019): Alia Bhatt as a progressive Muslim girl was garbed in a demure hijaab.

To strike a personal note, after Fiza (2000) and Tehzeeb (2003), which hopefully presented contemporary Muslims as normal, beset by everyday dilemmas, I found it impossible to raise finance for my subsequent scripts. “Make your hero Riyaaz into a Rahul and your heroine Nilufer into a Neeta and then we’ll talk,” was the general rebuttal by the trade lords.

The reason was self-evident: ever since Muslim socials like Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960), Mere Mehboob (1963) and Nikaah (1982), to cite just three instances, went extinct, the Bollywood credo is that the genre is a risky proposal at the cash counters.

To rewind, indeed there would have been no Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) in its final shape, if its director Aditya Chopra had stuck to his original plan of making his debut with a story of a young couple who meet in the midst of an outbreak of the 1993-94 communal riots of Mumbai. The couple (Shah Rukh Khan-Kajol) are unaware of each other’s faith. Subsequently, their families turn out to be more incendiary and unreasonable than the mob of rioters they had escaped from.

Neither would there have been the frothy Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001), if director Karan Johar had stuck to his resolve of presenting the character of Kajol as a Muslim girl from the Chandni Chowk mohalla of purani Dilli. Her part was originally conceived as a ‘downmarket’ girl who is rejected from the folds of a Brahminical family.

But then that’s our risk-averse show business. It’s more than likely that without the drastic alterations, Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar wouldn’t have become the major market forces that they are today.

To give Karan Johar credit where it’s due, he did address the polarisation between the two communities in My Name is Khan (2010). However, it stirred an acrimonious political controversy, affecting its domestic box-office collections. The saving grace was that it performed excellently overseas. Grossing over 33.5 million dollars abroad, it became the highest-grossing Indian film overseas at the time.

Indeed, it amounts to stating the obvious that they don’t make them like Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah (1972) or M.S. Sathyu’s Garm Hawa (1973) any more, do they? Filmgoers of every generation are aware that in recent decades, cinema had deteriorated thematically. In fact, the current mantra is remake Telugu, Malayalam and Tamil blockbusters. And although much is made of our technical advancement, any comparison of the average Hindi film with its Asian counterpart – Korea and Japanese, especially – show us up in poor light.

Sorry to say, there has been something downright crude and unacceptable in the representation of Muslims on screen. Salman Khan may have been lapped up as the boxing champ Sultan (2016) in the eponymously titled film, but go back to Pankuj Parashar’s caper Tumko Na Bhool Payenge (2002). Here, the Muslim hero goes amnesiac, is adopted by a Hindu family, regains his memory and shows up at the Haji Ali durgah. If any point was being conveyed it was lost on the audience which thumbed the film down at the ticket windows.

And there was Sohail Khan’s Maine Dil Tujhko Diya (2002) which glorified Sanjay Dutt as a Muslim don with a heart of gold, an act which he repeated as ‘Iqbal Danger’ in Ravi Dewan’s Annarth (2002). Another downer.

John Matthew Matthan’s Sarfarosh (1999), an otherwise sensible film, depicted Naseeruddin Shah as a duplicitous ghazal singer. As if to redress the balance, a cop portrayed by Mukesh Rishi, was a nationalist Muslim being victimised by his superiors and the world at large. It almost seemed as if Aamir Khan was playing a good guy Hindu cop in the vein of the white Nick Nolte in Hollywood’s 48 Hrs, while Mukesh Rishi was the black underdog cop (a la Eddie Murphy).

Curiously or maybe understandably, Ram Gopal Varma’s Company (2002) didn’t want to alienate the Muslim constituency. The roles essayed by Ajay Devgn and Vivek Oberoi were clearly modelled on Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Rajan, but they weren’t given Islamic trappings or names. Clever, very clever.

Truly, instead of driving a wedge, cinema needs to be a panacea today. Characters must emerge organically from the plot-- caste, creed and religion no bar. It doesn’t matter if you’re Hindu, Muslim or Christian. As long as the filmmaker believes in a story, is convinced that it must be told, then he is on the right track.

Till then, alas rebuttals on the lines of “My earlier films had Hindu villains,” sound as empty as a preelection promises.

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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Published: 17 Dec 2021, 9:23 AM