ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

No Caricatures: ‘Heeramandi’ & ‘Dil Dosti Dilemma’ Defy Muslim Character Clichés

What the makers of Dil Dosti Dilemma and Heeramandi have done in today’s atmosphere is not insignificant.

Published
Hot Take
6 min read
story-hero-img
i
Aa
Aa
Small
Aa
Medium
Aa
Large
Hindi Female

Dil Dosti Dilemma’s Asmara (Anushka Sen) is the quintessential gauche teenager who believes the world revolves around her. Dressed in fashionably cropped tees and shorts with perfectly tonged hair, she flounces around Bengaluru with her best friends Tania and Naina. Life for the ‘Awesome Threesome’ is all about fashion, partying, cute boys and spending their parents’ money. Asmara is all set to spend her summer vacation with her parents in Canada, and there’s also talk of an ‘Awesome Threesome‘ reunion in Toronto. That is until her mother Arshiya (Shruti Seth), frustrated by her spoilt daughter, packs her off to her maternal grandparents’ home on Tibbri Road, a fictional but congested and dilapidated part of the city.

What the makers of Dil Dosti Dilemma and Heeramandi have done in today’s atmosphere is not insignificant.

A still from Dil Dosti Dilemma.

(Photo Courtesy: Amazon Prime Video)

An adaptation of Andaleeb Wajid’s 2016 novel 'Asmara’s Summer', Dil Dosti Dilemma is Prime Video’s latest YA romcom. Directed by Debbie Rao, the frothy series has been on the platform’s Most Watched since it dropped at the end of April. Personally, it was the perfect watch after bingeing on Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s sprawling-but-middling Netflix offering, Heeramandi.

Set in pre-Independence Lahore’s infamous Heeramandi (Diamond Bazaar), the period drama is centered around the Shahi Mahal where Mallikajaan (Manisha Koirala) lords over her coterie of tawaifs (courtesans). This is where young nawabs of the city are sent to learn the art of conversation, tehzeeb (etiquette) and, of course, love. Even as a rival courtesan ruffles feathers and a young poet finds love, the rumblings of the independence struggle reach a crescendo through the progression of the eight-part series.

What the makers of Dil Dosti Dilemma and Heeramandi have done in today’s atmosphere is not insignificant.

A still from Heeramandi.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

Heeramandi & Dil Dosti Dilemma's Characters A Far Cry From Caricaturised Muslims

Heeramandi, much like its Prime Video counterpart Dil Dosti Dilemma, has consistently featured on Netflix’s India Top 10 list since it dropped. In one, curtains keep the world and its secrets out while the other uses it as a backdrop to keep a lie alive. Also common to both is that they are populated almost entirely by Muslim characters.

What’s different though about both these shows, is that their characters are a far cry from the stereotypical and often caricaturised Muslim characters we have become used to seeing on our screens in the past decade or so.

From Padmaavat (2018) and Tanhaji (2020) to The Kashmir Files (2022) and The Kerala Story (2023), our films have been projecting Muslims as violent, barbaric and hypersexual for some years now. It’s not uncommon to have visuals of blood n’ gore to be intercut with those of men in beards and skull caps.

0

Idea Of Secularism Vanishing From Our Films

We’ve come a long way from 1959 when the late Yash Chopra directed Dhool Ka Phool, a film that revolved around a Muslim man called Abdul Rashid (Manmohan Krishna) adopting an abandoned child he names Roshan. Early in the film, he sings to him, ‘Tu Hindu banega na Musalman banega, insaan ki aulad hai, insaan banega’ (You will neither become a Hindu nor a Muslim; you’re the child of a human being, you will become human). Newly independent India embraced the idea of pluralism and secularism and this reflected in our cinema giving us blockbuster period films like Mughal-e-Azam (1960) and classic Muslim socials—an industry term for movies with predominantly Muslim characters—like Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960), Mere Mehboob (1963) and Pakeezah (1972).

What the makers of Dil Dosti Dilemma and Heeramandi have done in today’s atmosphere is not insignificant.

Newly independent India embraced the idea of pluralism and secularism with films like Mughal-e-Azam.

(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

It's this balance that has steadily been vanishing from our screens in recent times, thanks to the changing political atmosphere in the country.

When bigotry is given a license to thrive on our news channels, it really comes as no surprise that our films soon followed. And it’s been particularly nasty in the past few years.

Most recently in Sandeep Vanga Reddy’s Animal (2023), Ranbir Kapoor’s Ranvijay orders Zoya (Tripti Dimri) to lick his shoes to prove her love. This deeply uncomfortable visual—a Muslim woman submitting to a Hindu Alpha Male—is an often-seen meme on semi-pornographic pages run by Hindutva incels on Instagram. The film’s antagonist, Abrar Haque (Bobby Deol) is said to have converted to Islam only so he could have three wives. He sneers, devours meat, and rapes his wives. In comparison, Annu Kapoor’s forthcoming film Humare Baarah about over-population might be a small project but seems to be pushing the same agenda. In its just released poster, we see Kapoor wearing a Karakul (or Jinnah cap) surrounded by pregnant women whose hands are tied and lips stitched shut. The two most prominent women on the poster, standing right behind the actor, are wearing burqas.

One out of seven Indians is a Muslim but they rarely find agenda-free space on our screens. When they aren’t actively vilifying a whole community, our filmmakers have been falling back on visual and behavioural stereotypes.

A Muslim character on our screens almost always wears surma (kohl) in his eyes and a taabeez (amulet) around his neck. He will be a voracious meat eater who randomly drops janaab and bhaijaan in conversations. The Muslim woman, on the other hand, is oppressed and needs to be saved from her father, brother, or husband. If she’s not wearing a hijab, she’s definitely dressed conservatively and her head is covered.

Shows Like Heeramandi & DDD In Today's Atmosphere Aren't Insignificant

There are very few ‘normal’ Muslim characters—an equivalent of say, a Raj or a Simran. In the last few years, of course, this has only gotten worse. This is where Dil Dosti Dilemma scores big. You’ll be deep into Season 1 before you even clock the religion of its protagonists. This doesn’t mean there’s erasure, but there isn’t caricaturisation either; not even when the story shifts from a tony Bengaluru bungalow to the narrow by-lanes of Tibbri Road and the artfully dilapidated house of Asmara’s Nani, where conversations are punctuated by salaams.

What the makers of Dil Dosti Dilemma and Heeramandi have done in today’s atmosphere is not insignificant.

In Dil Dosti Dilemma, you’ll be deep into Season 1 before you even clock the religion of its protagonists.

(Photo Courtesy: Prime Video)

Bhansali’s Heeramandi, on the other hand, comes at a time when there have been attempts to rewrite history. The series is also a reminder that the courtesans of not just Lahore but also Kanpur, Lucknow, and Calcutta (now Kolkata) contributed to the struggle for India’s independence. There are countless legends around Begum Hazrat Mahal, a courtesan who rose to become Begum of Awadh and was integral to the first war of independence in 1857. Years later, Gauhar Jaan, possibly one of the most famous and richest courtesans of her time, raised money for Gandhi’s Swaraj Fund. While some used their influence and resources to support the freedom movement, others hid revolutionaries in their homes. This meant that they were often targeted by the British and their kothas were raided. Aditi Rao Hydari’s Bibbojaan, in Heermandi, echoes the story and spirit of Azizan Bai, a courtesan from Kanpur who donated to and supported the Revolt of 1857.

What the makers of Dil Dosti Dilemma and Heeramandi have done in today’s atmosphere is not insignificant.

Taha Shah as Tajdar in a still from Heeramandi.

(Photo Courtesy: Netflix)

What the makers of Dil Dosti Dilemma and Heeramandi have done in today’s politically charged atmosphere is not insignificant. These shows have characters that are written as human beings first—devoid of any religious markers as their primary identities. They lie to their friends when they’re ashamed; dream of a different life; fight for what is important to them; and are reprimanded by their parents. Some wear intricately embroidered farshi ghararas and sherwanis while others have to deal with a grandmother’s disapproval on their choice of ‘chhote chhote kapde’. Just like you and I and the daughter of that uncle on the Whatsapp family group.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Read Latest News and Breaking News at The Quint, browse for more from neon and hot-take

Speaking truth to power requires allies like you.
Become a Member
3 months
12 months
12 months
Check Member Benefits
Read More
×
×