Muslims in the Movies: The Good, the Bad, and the Khilji
“They’re stabbing everyone in the back, literally, visually, taking women forcibly, tearing meat off bones, doing tribal dances, dirt and blood on the face. Brutal, barbaric.”
That’s a WhatsApp message a filmmaker friend sent me while watching Padmaavat. No, he isn’t a Muslim. No point disclosing his name. The estimable Swara Bhasker has already faced furious flak for her V-word response. Why shove a friend into the troll-la-la-land with those backstab-brutal-barbaric words?
In waking memory, Muslim potentates (okay invaders), aam aadmi log, and Samaritans – from the Rahim Chacha of Sholay (1975) welling over with the milk of human kindness to the Alauddin Khilji of Padmaavat, a cocktail of Attila the Hun - Gabbar Singh – have been the constant other. If we have been sugar-coated, we have been equally demonised. C’est la cinema.
We’re at a point when school text books are being rewritten, history is being re-chronicled in line with the the presiding ideology. And the Darwinian theory of humankind is being debunked with the logic that no ape has been seen to turn into a man. So, what in the name of Tarzan or Godzilla did you expect really?
This is not to deny the honourable Sanjay Leela Bhansali of that fundamental right of dramatic licence, freedom of expression and interpretation. In the same breath, viewers cannot be denied the licence of criticism, which Bhansali like most of his ilk, cannot tolerate.
Right, he has not personally responded to the scant naysayers. A couple of his writers have. More importantly, his labour of love (and hate?) is poised to be a box office smasher, signifying audience approval. Also pre-release, he has kindled every sane person’s empathy. He has gone through fire and brimstone, he has been threatened, physically abused, subjected to censorship obstacles and more.
For what? For depicting the Rajput royalty of yore - adapted from an epic poem which could be fiction -- as unwaveringly virtuous and the Khilji as unapologetically bestial.
That Ranveer Singh as the Big Beastie, has been fulsomely praised for his full-throttle performance, has only compounded the confusion. Was this hyper-ventilation of the character, in its conception, warranted? Or was it short-hand? I rest my case on Padmaavat there, with the footnote here’s a parochial polemic, unintended or otherwise.
The depiction of Muslims in Bombay cinema, in fact, has now come to full circle ever since the silent film Kabir Kamal (1919) looked at the saint-poet revered by both Hindus and Muslims.
Intermittently, scholastic studies have sought to understand the Islamic content of Hindustani language cinema, noting the ascent and lamenting the extinction ever since the invention of cinema of the Muslim historicals, socials, courtesan musicals, New Wave cause dramas.
That the subject of Muslims in cinema has been so dauntingly nettled, has per force confined the studies –the most lucid one being Islamicate Cultures of Bombay Cinema (2009) by Ira Bhaskar and Richard Allen -- to cherry-pick films, justly extolling Pukar (1939) and Mughal-e-Azam (1960), Pakeezah (1971) and Umrao Jaan (1981), Chaudhvin ka Chand (1960), Mere Mehboob (1963) and Garm Hawa (1973) as among the best examples of the genres.
Indeed, a selective survey of 41 films had concluded that 75.60 per cent of them portrayed Muslims negatively, 12.20 per cent positively, and the rest were ‘mixed.’ Be that as it may, Muslims are no longer Rahim chachas, rib-tickling Hyderbadi chefs (Mehmood, Gumnaam, 1963), kindly daai maas ( the daijaan nanny of Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, 2001). Instead, largely, they’re shown as terrorists without delving into the reasons why. In my book, Kurbaan (2009) has been the worst B-Town offender of the clutch, because of its sweeping generalisations and dismaying divisive tenor. Or Muslims are caricatured as bomb-chucking lumpens and dons seated on throne-like chairs in dimly lit ghettos.
Does this mirror the nation’s minority? Sorry, no way. Neither do filmmakers tend to take into consideration the demographic that Muslims form, an essential core of the movie-ticket buying public, who are said to be game to go for repeated viewings.
Traditionally, the minority audience can’t be alienated but of course they can be overwhelmed by their predilection of A-list stars (case in point: Rizwaan the booze don enacted by Shah Rukh Khan in Raaes, 2017), lavish production values and catchy music scores. We have become bhais, Mr D himself or gun packers from his company, be it in Once Upon a Time in Mumbai (2010), its sequel three years later, or D-Day (2013).
There are the forgotten oddities, too. The Salman Khan caper Tumko Na Bhool Paayenge (2002), about a Muslim gadabout who goes amnesiac, is adopted by a Hindu family, and fetches up by a sleight of the script at the Haji Ali durgah. And there’s Maine Dil Tujhko Diya (2002) which featured Sanjay Dutt as Bhaijaan, a Muslim don with a heart of gold. In the same year, the act was repeated by Dutt in Annarth to no effect.
Once in a crescent moon, a hero can be Muslim, especially if a top star elects to do the honours. Prime instances: Amitabh Bachchan as Iqbal in Coolie (1983), SRK in My Name is Khan (2010). Or it can be Iqbal (2005) an unconventional, thematically-strong film platforming the then-newcomer Shreyas Talpade.
Incidentally, there would have been no Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), if its director Aditya Chopra had stuck to his resolve of making his debut with a story of a young couple who meet in the midst of the communal riots of Mumbai, 1993-’94. The couple is unaware of their separate religions. Later their families’ objections to their marriage prove to be as if not more unreasonable than the rioting mobs.
Evidently, Aditya Chopra discarded his original script presumably because he didn’t wish to gamble at the ticket windows. Moreover, Mani Ratnam could have outraced him to the screens with Bombay (1995), a fence-sitting account of the repercussions of the riots.
In quite another vein, the conflict of Karan Johar’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) was intended to be between a Muslim family of Chandni Chowk and the upper crust of New Delhi. Aah, the films which could have been.
All viewed and remembered, though, two films still stand the test of time for making a difference in the majoritarian scheme of things. One: Manmohan Desai’s Amar Akbar Anthony (1977). Despite its topsy-turvy logic, here was one straight-off-the-cuff voice for secularism.
And two, Yash Chopra’s Dhool ka Phool (1959), in which Abdul Rashid, an overtly benevolent chacha type – adopted the abandoned child of a well-heeled Hindu family. Even Alauddin Khilji’s stone-cold heart would have melted if he had heard the Sahir Ludhianvi lyric: