Why Should Urmila’s Religion Matter If Hema Malini’s Doesn’t?

How come Hema Malini’s dalliance with Islam hasn’t come in the way of her overt Hindu-ness and proximity to the BJP?

6 min read
Image used for representational purposes.

Urmila Matondkar, the Rangeela (1995) star who blazed across Bollywood through the ‘90s and after, is contesting as a Congress candidate from a difficult seat in Mumbai – Mumbai North. The area comprises a mixed population of linguistic and religious communities, uber luxe towers and swathes of slums, old East Indian gaonthans and suburbs, which have witnessed an exponential growth in the last decade and a half.

When Matondkar was negotiating Bollywood, BJP stalwart and present Uttar Pradesh governor Ram Naik represented Mumbai North in the Lok Sabha. Subsequently, her colleague and Bollywood star Govinda Ahuja, contesting on a Congress ticket, defeated Naik in 2004.

His party colleague Sanjay Nirupam sneaked ahead of Naik in the subsequent election by 5,700 votes but was trounced by BJP’s Gopal Shetty with a margin of 4,45,000 votes in 2014.

Aspersions Cast On Urmila Matondkar For Her Religion & Inter-Faith Marriage

The saffron dominance here is such that the Congress was hard put to find a candidate. Matondkar picked up the gauntlet. No sooner did she step into the electoral akhada, than she became a target. The usual litanies were thrown her way: what does a Bollywood actor know about politics, what does she know about the constituency, she has been chosen for “her face”, her glamour will not get her votes, so on and so forth.

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There was an added line of attack – on her marriage and religion. Matondkar was trolled for marrying a Kashmiri Muslim, abused for having converted to Islam and taking on the name ‘Maryam Akhtar Mir’ when in reality, she had not, and dragged to a police station for having ‘insulted’ Hinduism in an interview, which, again, she had not. Some trolls even went to the extent of saying that Urmila’s husband – businessman and model-actor – Mohsin Akhtar Mir, was a Pakistani.

“I knew it could be an issue in the current climate. I was prepared, but the abuse, lies and trolling was of a shockingly low level, and tremendously disturbing,” Matondkar told The Quint,

I’m Urmila Matondkar, and Hinduism is my religion. I’m proud of it and have embraced its tenets of non-violence, vasudhaiva kutumbakam and ahimsa parobrahma. It’s the Hinduism of Swami Vivekananda and Vinoba Bhave that I’ve grown up believing in, not the Hinduism which preaches hate against others. And I must say that there was absolutely no pressure from my husband or in-laws to convert or change my name.
Urmila Matondkar to The Quint

‘Complete Turnaround of the India I Knew’: Urmila Matondkar

Even if Matondkar had converted to Islam and taken on a Muslim name, how would it have made her less of an Indian, or disqualified her from contesting an election, or being in public life? Marriage, religious beliefs, conversion are personal decisions, and ought to be left at that. However, conversion of Hindu women to Islam after their marriage to Muslims, has acquired antagonistic undertones in the current climate of majoritarianism and Hindutva which demonise Muslims, and propagate the false construct of ‘love jihad’.

Turning Matondkar – falsely – into a Muslim, subliminally sends a message that a Muslim can’t contest from Mumbai North. It is targeted to push her into a corner to boost BJP’s chances in a polarised fight, but it reflects a mindset in which a Muslim is somehow not a ‘full citizen’ of the country. “This is a complete turnaround of the India I knew,” said Matondkar, “and I want to push it back.”

At the other end of the spectrum is another Bollywood star, yesteryear’s ‘Dream Girl’ Hema Malini, who is seeking re-election from Mathura, Uttar Pradesh. She had defeated Rashtriya Lok Dal MP Jayant Chaudhary in 2014 by a large margin of 3,30,740 votes. This time, Kunwar Narendra Singh, as joint candidate of SP-BSP-RLD, is challenging Hema Malini.

‘Dream Girl’ Hema Malini’s Dalliance With Islam

Since she filed her nomination in end March, Hema Malini has been going around villages in her constituency, posing for photographs and videos in various faux farmer avatars – harvesting wheat with a sickle poised in her hand, standing next to a village woman who has a head-load of wood, “driving” a tractor, and giving interviews asking why should she not indulge in any of these given that “I’m an actor, I’m a celebrity”.

In her interviews, Hema Malini has repeatedly spoken of her involvement with Mathura – “I feel some divine connection, I have been playing Radha and Meera throughout my life, and I was in a temple when my candidature was announced,” she told PTI – and how she felt pained when asked why she had not spent more time in her constituency than in her home in Mumbai. “In the last five years, I’ve come here more than 250 times…I really feel hurt when someone asks 'aapne kya kaam kiya?' (what work did you do),” she reportedly said.

Buried in that is the affront that a star, a celebrity, a multi-dimensional person like her, should not be asked questions about her work as an MP. Of course, no one dares question her repeated references to the divine connection with Lord Krishna, her mention of the work around Braj Teerth Vikas Parishad, and so on. For all purposes, she is – and comes across – as Hindu.

Except that she is not, or was not for a brief while. In a most cynical misuse of religion, she and actor Dharmendra had converted to Islam to marry in August 1979. Hema Malini was/is Aisha Bi and Dharmendra was/is Dilawar Khan, as the well-known story goes.

The dalliance with Islam seems not to have come in the way of her overt Hindu-ness and proximity to the BJP.

She seems to not have even an iota of embarrassment, as her party turns Islam – her adopted religion – into a curse in India, and Muslims into second-class citizens of the country.

Why Does the ‘Muslim Tag’ Not Haunt Hema Malini aka Ayesh Bi?

The Muslim tag does not shadow Hema Malini; rivals and trolls do not drag her to a police station for that. Questions had been raised when Dharmendra contested the Lok Sabha election from Bikaner – and won – in 2004. He initially denied the conversion, but documents were released, presumably by his rivals, including his nikahnama which stated that he, “Dilawar Khan Kewal Krishn (44 years) accepted Aisha Bi R. Chakravarty (29 years) as his wife on 21 August 1979 at a mehr of Rs 1,11,000 in the presence of two legal witnesses”.

Dharmendra was already married and could not have married a second time without divorcing his wife. Divorce was not an option. So, conversion to Islam, which allows up to four wives, became a convenient route for the Bollywood couple. The hypocrisy of it all stands in sharp contrast to the natural way in which Matondkar deals with questions about her inter-faith marriage.

BJP’s Agenda to Make this Election About Bajrangbali-Ali, India-Pakistan, Hindu-Muslim

No one should be questioned or made to feel apologetic about the religion she/he identifies with, marries into, or converts to. It was not, and should never be the basis of her/his ‘citizenship’ in India. But it speaks volumes that India’s largest and dominant political party strategises its campaigns based on its opponent Rahul Gandhi’s gotra or janeu, cynically dog-whistles about Muslims as “Ali”, turns a blind eye to repeated instances of lynching of Muslims – and at the same time, embraces a couple who had converted to Islam for personal gain.

The nudge-nudge wink-wink campaign against Matondkar’s Hindu-ness is part of this utterly deplorable matrix. It is continuously kept on the boil.

BJP member Suresh Nakhua lodged a police complaint on Sunday last accusing Matondkar of making “anti-Hindu remarks”. This now threatens to overshadow the energy and purposefulness with which she has embraced electoral politics, and the clarity with which she speaks on issues of hate politics, murders of rationalists Dr Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare, housing for slum dwellers, facilities for railway commuters and so on.

Matondkar is not shy of occasionally drawing upon her “Marathi mulgi” (Maharashtrian girl) status, and she is unafraid of her opponent’s “giant killer” status. This is a difficult seat to win, but she insists that she is not fighting a losing battle.

What gets her down sometimes are the canards about her being a ‘closet Muslim’ – or that her religion – any religion – should matter at all in a general election.

Unfortunately, the BJP has made the 2019 general elections about Hindu-Muslim, Bajrangbali-Ali, India-Pakistan.

(Smruti Koppikar, Mumbai-based independent journalist and editor, has reported on politics, gender and development for nearly three decades for national publications. She tweets @smrutibombay. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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