The Muslim maa, bahen, biwi in Hindi cinema


Notes from a personal diary

Experience is a double-edged knife. Neither can you have too much of it, nor can you have too little of it.

Experience has different connotations for every individual. For me it is a sum total of knowledge, the accumulation of facts and an ongoing process of storing moments of pleasure and pain, consciously but most of the time subconsciously, in the memory.

Inevitably there are limitless aspects to one’s experience. Most of these aspects are personal. Some of these are selectively applied to one’s profession. Whether you’re an artisan, a manual worker, a writer, painter, performing artist or filmmaker, your views, values and innate abilities are dictated considerably by what you have gone through, felt, related to, disconnected from, endured and assimilated.

Fortuitously, almost like water finding its own level, after several attempts, I found myself the job of a journalist. At first reluctant to specialise in the area of film journalism – still considered a mug’s game or an inferior offshoot of mainstream newspapers – I aspired to apply my formal education in political science and philosophy to my daily beat. This proved to be futile. I may have had a theoretical grasp of realpolitik but scant exposure or comprehension of state governance and its machinations.

Feverish attempts to bury the experience of watching cinema regularly and evading its myriad grids, signs and meanings amounted to denying one’s instinctive and perhaps only legitimate calling.

The informal education in cinema viewing – at the alarming rate of a junkie throughout one’s growing years and more – hurtled me towards the ghetto slot of a film reviewer, reporter and commentator. If those tags sound grandiose, do excuse me, because the work and appreciation of film writing was anything but during the 1970s and ’80s when mainline newspapers gave cinema and the arts a grudging amount of space, on page 30 instead of the current page 3, or even the front page.

Willy-nilly, one’s experience, partaking of or the exposure to cinema intensified, simultaneously on personal and professional planes. It became vital to incorporate the element of objective distancing to subjective likes and dislikes. It became vital to discard the in-built residue of bias. Bias had to be replaced with an acceptance and estimation of the multiple dimensions of creativity, ranging from the good and the excellent to the bad and the ugly.

It became abundantly clear that every film for better or worse is in a way an articulation of the director, writer or even the producer’s ethos and principles, be they hyper-commercial or alternative or a blend of both. Every film had to be seen within its context, and above all, in terms of how far it came to honesty or truth telling, never mind the outer trappings. The inner core, or let’s say the emotional heart, was paramount, as it is in any work of literature, painting, poetry, dance and theatre.

One grappled initially, not to be ruled by the age-old divisive lines, that commercial was reprehensible and the artistic was supportable. Every film has its own life and its own reason and has to be considered accordingly; the purest form of reaction being the objectively emotional, a tough task, but it has to be performed if one aims to be responsible, professional, analytical and informative.

That task is tougher since reviews have to be formatted within a prescribed word limit, averaging at 500-600 words a piece generally in the set column of a newspaper, surrounded by a plethora of advertisements.

The task was facilitated, I would like to think, because of experience, of having seen, heard and absorbed cinema of every hue and stripe, at the local cinema halls and at film festivals, most significantly, the festivals of short films and of French and Czech cinema organised by the once flourishing film society movement in Mumbai during the 1970s. There was much to see and much to reflect upon. Which brings me to the central point of the discussion.

The representation of the minority community, which has largely been cartoonish, patronising and often fantasticated. Christians and Parsis are the butt of ridicule and jokes while the Muslims are either benign Rahim Chachas and Rahima Chachis, or alarmingly in recent years, terrorists from across the border.

If there was caricaturing once, it was at least devoid of malice and politics. Indeed, during the 1950s there were sub-genres of Hindi-Urdu cinema like the Muslim mythological, the prime example of this being Hatim Tai, and the Muslim social, which found patronage specially with Muslim audiences of the urban mohallas. Not surprisingly, with changing fads, time, taste, and commercial compulsions, the Hatim Tai genre died and so did the Muslim social, the last successful one being Mere Garib Nawaaz and on a bigger-budget scale, Mere Mehboob, Mere Huzoor and Nikaah.

The male miyan protagonists were either indolent nawabs, often revealing a less-than-seven-year itch for another shariq-e-hayaat. Or they were college campus romantics a la Rajendra Kumar in Mere Mehboob and Rajesh Khanna in Mehboob Ki Mehndi. The supporting characters were more often than not equipped with quivering goatees, piety and tears, as they played good samaritans like the poor man played by the ever suffering Manmohan Krishna who raised an abandoned illegitimately born child in Dhool Ka Phool, on secular tenets. (‘Tu Hindu banega na Musalman banega’, the refrain still rings in the ears.)

Muslim women also represented patented types, which is perhaps inescapable because custom and movie tastes want them that way. For instance, the ammi jaan was expected to be snow-haired, unbending and a model of tolerance, a kind of a Mohammedali Road Ammi India. In effect, she was like every other mother in the movies, only her costumes and hair tints were different. She did namaaz the way the Hindu woman went to the temple, there was a certain grace and commonality in the representation of the mother figure.

The sister, the aapa was like the normal screen didi, peppy, innocent and frequently seduced and ravished by the villainous elements. Also, the biwi or the beloved was slotted into a groove from which there seemed to be no escape. The Muslim heroine found ancestral roots in Anarkali, the classic cinema courtesan. She was the dancing girl, the nautch girl, the tawaif, the raqassa… in countless films… till this reached some kind of apotheosis in Pakeezah. Enough?

Meena Kumari, the contradictory chaste and sullied woman, had portrayed it all. Or that’s what you thought till the shimmering, singing Umrao Jaan, aka Rekha, mesmerised viewers. Interestingly, a movie corporate baron recently asked me to write a courtesan script. The reason? His logic was, Aishwarya Rai would look very well as an updated Umrao Jaan of Lucknow. It is another story altogether that the mujra mahals of Lucknow have all but disappeared today.

Reality, a contextual base or credibility are not the issues here. Flexibly, cinema lends itself to fantasies, concoction and fictionalisation. Yet even while spinning a yarn about say extra-terrestrials or imaginary courtesans, there has to be a relation to our real anxieties, fears, wishes and dreams. Take Mughal-e-Azam, the black-and-white version that is, it is an apocryphal love story of a Mughal prince and a courtesan who did not exist according to the history records. Nevertheless, the film was made with such immense power and conviction that we tend to suspect that maybe, just maybe, Anarkali was real.

On the flip side, the maa, bahen, biwi of popular Hindi cinema were believable only intermittently. Otherwise they were theatrical, relentlessly melodramatic ammi jaans, aapas and bahu begums given to abject suffering without raising a whimper against the feudal order created by males. Whenever the women protested against subjugation, they either died or failed miserably at the cash counters, an example being the Bimal Roy produced Benazir.

Of course, melodrama, gross exaggeration and distortion are not exclusive to the representation of Muslim characters. To strike a connection with viewers from different strata, the tradition has been to avoid subtlety and restraint in order to underline matters to the nth degree.

The representation of the minority community, which has largely been cartoonish, patronising and often fantasticated. Christians and Parsis are the butt of ridicule and jokes while the Muslims are either benign Rahim Chachas and Rahima Chachis, or alarmingly in recent years, terrorists from across the border

Hindu characters have also been stereotyped without any let-up, a trait that has found further expression on TV soaps and serials. Only, they aren’t made marginal characters hanging around on the fringes of the script.

This much was obvious to me during the early years of film watching; in other words a child could tell that there was a facetious shorthand in the portrayal of Muslims. That many of the stalwart writers, lyricists, producers, artistes and directors belonged to the Muslim faith was strange, to say the least. Stranger still, I have not been able to quite understand why Yusuf Khan chose to give himself the screen name of Dilip Kumar. Was it to strike a chord with the larger segment of the audience?

Be that as it may, as one started reviewing films circa the late 1970s, one made it a religion not to lose one’s innocence and emotional bearings while watching films, even while synopsising, analysing or reconstructing them in the journalistic mode. In the ’70s there was a trend to glorify parallel or off-mainstream cinema while disparaging the commercial or the mainstream. In principle, one had to be supported and the other attacked. This I found to be an Achilles heel in some of my senior colleagues. In effect, they were setting up borders in cinema that were unnecessary and unfair. So if one raved about Manmohan Desai’s Amar Akbar Anthony or Naseeb or the films of Raj Kapoor, one was considered a bit addle-headed. Eclectic tastes in cinema were suspect. Today, mercifully, eclecticism has become the norm.

Desai’s ironical entertainer about three lost and found brothers weaned on different religions was a joyous laugh riot. Manmohan Desai continued to push the secular envelope further, not with the same impact though. Coolie, with its incredibly absurd finale – in which the hero survived about a thousand bullets – at the Haji Ali shrine is unforgettable for sure, but finally far too fantasticated and over-the-top. The same goes for Allarakha, which he produced and piloted. Manmohan Desai was a child-like adventurist and there’s little doubt that his unashamedly absurd adventures were the best of their kind.

While looking for valuable signs and meanings in the big-budget movies, it was also rewarding to discover sensitive and lastingly significant portrayals of the Muslims in alternative cinema, the most important one being MS Sathyu’s Garm Hawa. It dealt with a Muslim family faced with the prospect of losing their moorings in India because of the Partition. Several attempts have been made to tell Partition stories, but Garm Hawa remains the most emotionally moving since it touches on the central truth of a political tragedy.

An underrated film, Bazaar, was Sagar Sarhadi’s expose of the selling of young brides. For some of its truth-telling moments, the earlier black-and-white Dharamputra is important too, more as a socially conscious streak in Yash Chopra’s oeuvre before he flew off to discover the scenic vistas of Switzerland.

Of the other films that have been valuable for their treatment of minority issues, Aparna Sen’s Mr and Mrs Iyer comes instantly to mind. It took a stand, and indeed was a corrective on Mani Ratnam’s Bombay, which strove to perform such a balancing act that it was neither here nor there. Govind Nihalani’s Tamas and Dev have their hard-edged moments, while Saeed Mirza’s Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, and Naseem point to a filmmaker whose humanism was more palpable than the films’ political content, which tended to get dogmatic.

In recent times, the Muslim woman has come out of purdah but is still hidden behind a mask of tinsel and glamour, as in Veer-Zaara, which was so politically correct that it was sterile. In Gadar, too, the Muslim woman was in dire distress and served as a Barbie doll being saved by a superman. By contrast, the helpless mother of Khamosh Pani, in recent times, stood out as an authentic portrait of a woman who has no choice but to convert to another faith during Partition. Also more convincing, by the strength of her portrayal, was the character of Tabu in Maqbool, caught in the crossfire of the underworld and savage ambition.

Over the decades, critiquing the pitfall of popular cinema has been common. The question is: is this critiquing to any point? On asking this despairing question some years ago, it was filmmaker Kumar Shahani who answered, "The accumulation of criticism is the point," encouraging me to continue with my, dare I say it, love. I say love because I see it as a faith in itself rather than an occupational preoccupation or hazard.

Of this accumulation, of criticism and concurrent life experiences, came my effort, first at film script writing, an opportunity given to me by Shyam Benegal, and then film direction, a purely accidental visa to another realm altogether stamped for me by the selfless support of cinematographer Santosh Sivan, and actors Jaya Bachchan and Karisma Kapoor. They were of the opinion that if I had a story to tell, in a cinematic framework, I should go ahead and do it.

The scripts for the Shyam Benegal-directed triptych Mammo, Sardari Begum and Zubeidaa were extremely personal, drawn from the lives of my maternal family. Mammo was a grand aunt who was living in Pakistan but longed to return to India as she considered it her home. Sardari Begum was her younger sister, who rebelled against family orthodoxy to become a flamboyant thumri singer of the 1930s ultimately to end up lonely and meet with a tragic end. Zubeidaa was the story of my mother whose second marriage to a Rajasthani Maharaja precipitated scandal and her death, at the age of 19, in an air crash.

The scripts drew on anecdotes, investigation and real-life events. Without having the base of close-to-the-bone reality none of these three stories would have been possible. Ornamentation of the real stories is what I tried to avoid. In fact, downplaying the inherent melodrama in the stories is what I aimed for, whether successfully or unsuccessfully is not for me to say or even remotely guess at. All I can say is that the task of re-telling the real stories of three Muslim women, of some substance and nostalgia, was a therapy, a means of coming to terms with the women I’d known to a degree, always searching for the missing pieces in the puzzle of their stories.

To come to Fiza. I directed Fiza simply because filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma, for whom the script was researched and written, suggested far too many alterations. The catalyst for Fiza were the restless and eternally watchful lives of several families in Mohammedali Road. Sons, brothers and husbands had vanished after the ’93 communal riots in Mumbai. Were they dead, or alive or… ? The immediate reaction of the film industry and a section of journalists was: how can he dare to make a film when he’s been critiquing them?

The reaction didn’t affect me to the extent of giving up what I’d ventured out to do, because I saw filmmaking as an extension of journalism. If I was straying into another medium of reportage, comment and storytelling, there were no written codes or laws to prevent me from taking the step. Perhaps the sudden popularity of Hrithik Roshan, who has been cast as the missing brother, before he became hugely popular with the release of his debut film Kaho Na Pyaar Hai, evoked inordinate curiosity. But it did help me considerably in getting the sub-text of the film across to a large audience. The sub-text was simply this – the ruination of human lives caused by political self-servers.

A sequence showing the Muslim girl, Fiza, dancing up a storm to the lyric ‘Main nachoo bin paayal’ elicited a horde of negative reactions. This was a compromise, an item number, how could a Muslim girl do this? That was exactly why the sequence had been in the original script, it wasn’t an afterthought tagged on because of commercial compulsions. A sequence in Sarhadi’s Bazaar had shown Muslim men and women dancing and drinking at a party. I wanted to echo that – a Muslim girl need not be a closeted, shrivelling lily. She could enter a disco and dance up a storm. In real life they do, but on cinema this was believed to be taboo.

Next, I directed Tehzeeb, a look at a troubled mother-daughter relationship, inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata, a work of tremendous literary quality in the writing. The sub-text here was to depict a Muslim family like any other, unencumbered by shararas, burkhas or serving sheer-korma at Id festivities. The point was missed; the film was marketed haphazardly and received lukewarmly, to put it mildly. Too heavy some felt, too slow others said. The only silver lining is that women audiences seemed to relate to it.

If there are two questions that I feel wary about, they are, "Why do you always make films about women?", "And why are they all about Muslims?"

What can one say but to emphasise that one narrates stories one feels strongly about and concerned with? I have just completed filming a third film titled Silsilay which is about women again, and one of the three women portrayed is the character of a Muslim housewife.

I may be absolutely wrong, I may be partially right. But cinema, like other art forms, has firmer roots when it draws from the real and the experiential.

While searching for the identity of the Muslim woman, I hope to find my own identity, if not today, then some day soon.


Saajan se jo naina milein
Naina milein, naina milein, naina milein,
Saajan soh jo naina milein
Toh man ki pyaas bhuje…

(So I gaze into my love’s eyes,
So I gaze into my love’s eyes,
And quench the thirst in my soul…)

The sultry sounds of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan echo through the black and white landscape. By a fountain in the moonlit gardens of the palace, Prince Salim, resplendent in brocade and jewels, uses a large white feather to gently caress the beautiful face of the woman sitting before him. Hers is a face of incredible beauty framed by the chiffon and zari of her dupatta. Their gazes are locked. Anarkali’s smiles are bashful, yet laden with passion. His look conveys a myriad messages as her eyelashes flutter, her lips part. He strokes her gently, carrying the feather from her lips to his. Their eyes speak volumes, clouded by desire. As he leans forward to kiss her, the feather shields the embracing couple.

In the distance, Sultana watches.


A motley collection of passengers sit dead still in the interior of a bus as fires are seen raging outside. It is late evening; the scene is tinged in deep earth colours lit by flame. To the eerie tom-tom of drumbeats, two mobsters enter the bus menacingly, asking each passenger their name. The gang-leader is dressed in a loud printed shirt, a saffron tilak on his forehead, while his colleague sports a saffron headscarf. A traditionally dressed South-Indian Hindu woman clutches her baby to her breast as she and her neighbour exchange looks. Two Sikhs sit frozen in their seats.

The gang-leader grabs a young man by the collar and pulls him out of his seat.

Rioter 1: Tell me your name!… Didn’t you hear what I said? Tell me your name!

Youth: Sohail.

Rioter 1: Sohail what? Sohail what?! …What is your father’s name?…Tell me your father’s name, Sister-f****r!

Youth: Sohail Rai… son of Samir Rai.

Rioter: Drop your pants! Drop your pants!

Rioter 2: Abbe, drop your pants you a******e!

The passengers wait in trepidation. The young man takes down his trousers; the mobster gives him a cursory look and throws him back into his seat. The rioters move on. Neighbours clutch at neighbours. Every passenger is paralysed by fear.

A man says: "We are all Hindus here. All Hindus." Another adds: "All Hindus. All Hindus." From the rear of the bus a bespectacled man rises to interject (in English): "No, not all. Not them (pointing at an elderly couple). They are Muslims – the old man and his wife – Muslims." The rioters stop in front of the old man and his wife.

Rioter 1: Your good name?
Old man: Iqbal.
The gang-leader restrains the other rioter as he lunges forward. è
Rioter 1: This could also be a Hindu name… Iqbal What?
Old man: Iqbal Ahmed Khan.
Rioter 2: See! Trying to pass himself off as a Hindu, the a*******e! B*****d! We’ll finish off your whole family! Get up!
Rioter 1 (to his colleague): Enough! Don’t talk rubbish! Get back! Get back! (Turning to the old gentleman) Come Iqbal saab, please come outside with us. We have something we’d like to discuss with you.

Old man: But we have to go to Calcutta…
Rioter 1 (baring his teeth): Why are you so afraid? Not in front of everyone, we need to make some inquiries in private. Come on.

The old man and his wife exchange looks and he gets up to follow the men, turning to ask her: Najma, my teeth?

His wife nods and gives him his dentures from the bag on her lap: Here… You’ll need your spectacles too (Handing him his spectacle case). As the three men move off, she stops them, holding out a packet of pills: He hasn’t been keeping well lately, it is cold, these tablets…

The gang-leader sniggers: Don’t worry; he won’t need them where he’s going.

They make their way out of the bus. As they are about to leave, a young woman in the front row starts wailing, pleading with them in English. Realising that her husband is in dire trouble, Najma calls out to stop them and starts to follow them. They drag her out of the bus as well. The young woman in front screams out to stop them. The gang-leader hits her and flings her on to the floor of the bus. As a co-passenger tries to intervene he is warned off.

At the rear, the young man, bristling with anger, jumps up in protest. Thrusting her baby roughly into his arms, his neighbour admonishes, "Just hold him!" Dumbstruck, swept up in the fear and the emotion of the moment, he is left holding a howling infant in his arms.


In a ceremonial ground by a flag post bearing the Pakistani flag, a young couple – an Indian Sikh, Tara Singh, his wife Sakina, a Pakistani Muslim, and their little son – are being grilled by sundry Pakistanis as a large crowd looks on.

Qazi (priest): You are fortunate, Tara Singh, as Allah has beckoned you to his fold, that he has given you the opportunity to become a Muslim. What do you think? Do you accept Islam?

Tara Singh: A man’s biggest duty is to protect his wife and child.

Qazi: Do you accept Islam?

Tara Singh: Kashi and Kaaba are one and the same.

Qazi (shouting angrily): Do you accept Islam or not?! (His voice reverberates menacingly in the surroundings, as the crowd waits with bated breath for Tara Singh to reply.)

Tara Singh: I accept.

Qazi: Maashallah, Subhanallah, then come to the mosque and proclaim this honestly and in all good faith… (He is interrupted by Sakina’s father, Ashraf Ali.)

Ashraf Ali: One minute, Qazi saab! Before he takes a single step into the mosque let us find out whether he is worthy of being a Muslim! (To Tara Singh) Fine, if you accept Islam, say Islam Zindabad! (The crowd shouts Islam Zindabad! Sakina looks at her husband and her father anxiously.)

Tara Singh: Islam Zindabad.

Ashraf Ali: Hmmm. Say Pakistan Zindabad! (The crowd shouts Pakistan Zindabad!) è

Tara Singh (glaring): Pakistan Zindabad. (The crowd cheers.)

Ashraf Ali: Now say Hindustan Murdabad! (Sakina looks at her husband and her father anxiously.)

Tara Singh (shouting angrily, his voice ringing through the ground): Ashraf Ali! We have no objection to your Pakistan living long but Hindustan has lived long, is living, and will always live long! (He advances, waving his fist in the air) Hindustan Zindabad! Hindustan Zindabad! (His young son echoes the words.) Hindustan Zindabad!

Ashraf Ali: Don’t talk rubbish! As long as you don’t say Hindustan Murdabad how will the people of this country believe that you are a true Muslim?!

Tara Singh: There are more Muslims in Hindustan than in this country. Their lips, their hearts all cry Hindustan Zindabad. Does that mean they are not true Muslims?!

Ashraf Ali: Stop your speechifying! If you don’t say Hindustan Murdabad you can’t take Sakina with you!

Tara Singh: Stop! That’s enough! If I can bow my head for my wife and child I can cut off everyone’s heads too!

There is an outcry as the Pakistanis surge angrily towards him. He then pulls a hand pump out of the ground and swings it around wildly, felling attackers with his blows.


A young boy in shorts and T-shirt and a burkha clad woman, Mammo, are walking along a city road.

Boy: What sort of things?
Mammo: Like seeing hell on earth.
Boy: You’ve seen Hell?
They stop in their tracks.

Mammo: Yes, beta. May God never show us those times again. Your Nana, God rest his soul, and I left everything we had in the dead of night, stuffing whatever we could in our hands, our pockets; we were leaving for Pakistan. We were taken to the border along with other refugees. From there, by foot … What a time it was! Doomsday, it was doomsday! Fire, bloodshed, plunder and pillage, bodies, screams. Our hair stood on end. (Scenes of fire and strife in the dark of night play on the screen. Gut-wrenching cries are heard.) We were about 400-500 of us going from this side to that side. There were an equal number coming from there. The people leaving here were Muslims and those coming from there were Hindus and Sikhs. But we were all in the same boat. Our country, our land, had turned into Karbala (the site of a great war in Islam), God! There was a young woman walking along with me. She had two little children clutched to her breast, the unfortunate. One boy died in her arms. Who had time for a shroud or burial? We came to a river and people said that the dead child should be thrown into the water. That poor hapless woman was not in her senses. She threw the live child into the water and clutched the dead child to her bosom. I can still remember her glazed eyes staring wildly. And that scream of hers…Ya Allah!

Stunned, the young boy asks: You saw all this with your own eyes?
Mammo: I saw this and much more…
Boy: Mammo Nani, I am going to write about all this one day.
Mammo: But who will read it? It isn’t good to cry about one’s sorrows…

Archived from Communalism Combat, February  2005, Year 11    No.105, Cover Story 2.



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