Akshay Kumar's 'Sooryavanshi' and the Criminalisation of 'Normal Indian Muslims'
The 'Good Muslim-Bad Muslim' binary is the key theme in Akshay Kumar's 'Sooryavanshi'.
Alert: This article contains spoilers.
"Iss desh mein jitni nafrat Kasab ke liye hai, utni izzat Kalam ke liye (In India, APJ Abdul Kalam is as respected as Ajmal Kasab is hated)" – Akshay Kumar's dialogue in Sooryavanshi neatly encapsulates the binary that this recently released film tries to promote. A Muslim can either be Kasab or Kalam, there's nothing in between.
Director Rohit Shetty may have presented Sooryavanshi as part of the Singham-Simmba cop universe but actually its link with this series is only superficial and restricted to the guest appearances by Ajay Devgn and Ranveer Singh. Sooryavanshi is more on the lines of Rohit Shetty's first film, Zameen, that was released in 2003 when the previous NDA government was in power.
Zameen had a smaller canvas (and smaller budget) and slightly fewer cars tumbling around. But its political message was no different from Sooryavanshi. Besides pushing a certain muscular nationalism, Zameen like Sooryavanshi focussed a great deal on themes like "the enemy within", "sleeper cells that could be anyone around you", and, of course, "who is a good Indian Muslim?".
The 'Good Muslim' – 'Bad Muslim' Binary
In Zameen, the "Good Muslim vs Bad Muslim" narrative was pushed through a token Muslim character played by Pankaj Dheer, the Captain of a hijacked Indian plane who lectures the hijackers on what "true Islam" is.
In Sooryavanshi, the lecture isn't even given by a Muslim character but by Akshay Kumar's character who tells the "Bad Muslim" about the "Good Muslim" in a number of scenes.
In one scene, his "Good Muslim" is former colleague Naeem Khan (Rajendra Gupta), a retired policeman with over three decades of service and one who has just returned from Ajmer Sharif (a subtle sub-sectarian angle to what's a good Muslim).
In contrast to the clean-shaven former policeman with zero religious markers is the "Bad Muslim" Kader Usmani, played by Gulshan Grover. Usmani is shown as the stereotypical topi-wearing Muslim cleric – with a long beard, upper lip shaven, prayer mark on his forehead. He's depicted as running a charity foundation and holding sway in a stereotypical Muslim ghetto.
It's funny that Kumar should mention the way Kalam is respected. Recently, Kalam was called a "Jihadi" by Hindu cleric Narsinghanand Saraswati. And he's not a fringe voice as he went on to become the Mahamandaleshwar of the largest Akhara of Sadhus.
So, it seems even Kalam isn't good enough as an Indian Muslim for some.
Do Only Terrorists Pray?
The problem isn't just the binary. It is the fact that many things that a large number of Indian Muslims feel, say or do in their daily life are associated with terrorists in the film.
For instance, the only Muslims shown offering namaz are the terrorists. The only ones engaging in religious acts – such as reading the Quran or having a tughra in their homes – are the terrorists.
On the other hand, the two occasions where skullcap wearing Muslims with markers are shown as good is when they are assisting the police or when they are helping their Hindu neighbours carry a Ganesh idol to safety. It's almost as if to say that helping the cops or helping Hindus are the only ways a visibly Muslim looking person becomes non-threatening.
Then the only Muslims speaking about the atrocities against Muslims in India are again the terrorists.
"Iss mulk mein Musalmaano ka kya haal hai jaante ho? (Do you know what Muslims have to go through in India?)" is something many Indian Muslims feel, but in Sooryavanshi this question is raised by a terrorist.
The regularity of attacks on Muslims in today's India is there for all to see. It seems it's the makers of the film who are unaware or choose not to be aware.
"Zulm ke khilaf awaaz uthane waale ko terrorist kahaa jaata hai (Anyone who raises their voice against oppression is called a terrorist)," says the leader of the terrorists, at a time when people in real life have been booked under UAPA just for tweeting about the anti-Muslim violence in Tripura.
The Hindu vs Muslim Contrast
Strangely, the 'Good Muslim' trope is actually a relatively moderate part in Sooryavanshi. At some points the binary becomes between Hinduism and Islam. In one scene, the cremation of a deceased policeman is immediately contrasted with a shot of the terrorists offering dua.
Then in another, the "normal life" of a sleeper cell terrorist is depicted through a visit to the temple while his "sinister or secret" life is shown immediately after that – of him offering namaz in private.
If this wasn't enough, the climax has terrorists being thrashed with Hindu shlokas playing in the background.
Filmmaking in the Age of Islamophobia
Now, it's no one's contention that one shouldn't make films about terrorism or that having a Muslim antagonist is itself sign of bigotry.
But Shetty's Sooryavanshi and Family Man (whose co-director happens to have co-written the screenplay of Zameen discussed above) are examples of filmmakers trying to ride on the prevalent anti-Muslim sentiment and make films that reinforce these fears.
Because if people take Sooryavanshi at face value they would be left distrusting Indian Muslims who:
Wear religious markers
Have religious markers in their homes
Speak out against atrocities
Basically, it is the criminalisation of a normal Muslim.
Now, it is probably too much to expect Bollywood to address the elephant in the room – Hindu majoritarianism, despite the fact that many in the fraternity have been at the receiving end of hatred and threats from this section. Though some in the OTT universe have engaged with it in shows such as Sacred Games, Ghoul and Leila.
The safest pushback that filmmakers can give Islamophobia is to show 'normal Muslims' doing normal things. One of the nicest examples of this in recent times are two characters portrayed by Aparshakti Khurana – in Pati, Patni aur Woh and Luka Chuppi.
As the protagonist's best friend, his Muslim-ness is neither overstated nor denied completely.
In Luka Chuppi, he even says "Haan Musalmaan hun, doosre grah se nahi aaya (Yes, I'm a Muslim, I haven't come from another planet)".
Maybe the makers of Sooryavanshi should ponder on this line a bit.
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