Two images

Minorities and Bollywood

Two images.


I am watching Black Friday (2007, dr Anurag Kashyap) in a Muslim-dominated area of the city in which the film is set, Mumbai. There is a tense silence as Rakesh Maria (Kay Kay Menon) tells Badshah Khan (Aditya Srivastava) what he thinks of him and those who were inveigled into the plot to set off bombs across the city. It is such a cold silence that I go to see the film again in a more mixed setting. The same scene evokes another response. There are cheers and jeers until someone from the audience shouts, "Yahaan bhi to hai (There are some morons here too)."


In a discussion group I led at a girl’s college in Mumbai, a young Muslim girl stood up to accuse Fanaa (2006, dr Kunal Kohli) of representing Muslims unfairly.

"They show [the character played by] Rishi Kapoor drinking," she said.

I was somewhat taken aback by that.

Did she mean, I asked, that no Muslim drinks?

"No, but why should they show like that?" she asked.

It was a good question and a bad question. Good because representation is increasingly important in a country where symbols have more power and potency than in many other lands. Bad because it inaugurates a process in which every maker of art will be called on to be responsible for every character she or he creates and will have to consider whether each character has the potential to hurt someone’s feelings.

This is perhaps not the place to discuss whether Bollywood is or is not art. But one has to admit that some creativity is involved in its creation and therefore perhaps it should have all the protection other art forms are offered at least in theory.

The question is: does the character played by Rishi Kapoor stand for the Muslim man? No one seemed to think so in the reviews. But then why did Kajol saluting the flag in the beginning seem to stand for the Muslim girl? It was mentioned often in the reviews, sometimes slightingly and sometimes with deference.

If Rishi Kapoor’s character is only a single heartsick character reacting to his circumstances, nothing can be wrong with that. But besides the intention of the filmmaker, there is also the way in which it is consumed. And today consumption patterns are no longer as predictable as they once were.


Our relationship with Bollywood has always been a complex one. It is only quite recently that we have begun taking it seriously or looking at the material with any attention. This is partly because of the remnants of our leftist-brahmanical contempt for anything by way of bread and circuses. All India Radio, as we all know, wouldn’t play Hindi film music and drove all the real comrades, the bhai bandhu of the mills of Mumbai into the arms of Radio Ceylon.

But now that there is a non-Indian academic turning up every week to study the films of Manmohan Desai, we have started wondering whether we should have been doing the spadework already. This is not to offer any disrespect to the non-Indian academic. Dr Rachel Dwyer of the School of Oriental and African Studies, for instance, knows Sanskrit and reads and writes Urdu and Gujarati as well. I don’t know any Indian academic who has done as much work in order to get to know Hindi cinema.

Everyone’s a Hindi film buff now that popular culture has become a ticket to a series of conferences in different parts of the world. This has resulted in much half-baked information and very little understanding of how Bollywood actually operates.

I believe Bollywood’s relationship to the minorities depends on commercial arithmetic of the most basic kind. Bollywood is an industry, even if it is a chaotic, ill-regulated and ignored industry. It produces a certain kind of product and it wishes to maximise profit on that product. Hindi cinema had no simple equation with the religious communities of India. On the surface, this should have been simple since it should not have mattered. The religious identity of a villain could scarcely matter; there would be bad eggs in every basket.

As I wrote in Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb (Penguin India, 2006),

"But the early filmmakers knew that they were not simply making films. As the only valid pop culture, they believed that they were creating texts to help build society. Since they were men, these texts were largely patriarchal, probably not out of enlightened self-interest but probably because they genuinely believed that benevolent male despotism was good for society as a whole. The theme of the ‘educated wife’, for instance, was oft repeated and each time disaster would follow her inclusion into the family. Later, this theme would change to become the ‘westernised wife’, anathema in her own right. However, in the fifties, the patriarchs were concerned about the nation that was being crafted. They often sought the blessings of political figures although a good word from Jawaharlal Nehru was not likely to increase ticket sales significantly.

[Gandhiji simply thought cinema was a waste of time; it might surprise the Mahatma to know how firmly his legacy is being appropriated both by art house and mainstream cinema.]

"They were aware as few others could be of the scars left by partition. Some had lost their families, their hometowns. Others had watched friends depart. Still others had arrived as refugees from the newly formed state of West Pakistan. They felt the need, as a community, to emphasise the importance of coexistence and of mutual tolerance, if not respect, of India’s diverse religious communities. Yet there were still some liberties that could be taken as long as these were taken with the communities who had no hand in deciding the fate of the product that Bollywood was making.

"If political secularism arises out of arithmetic, the secularism of cinema arises out of commerce. When Kaagaz Ke Phool flopped, Guru Dutt went out and made a Muslim social, Chaudhvin Ka Chand, although he did not do it under his own name. When he was asked why, he said that he needed a hit. Segmenting the market works. Think of Coolie and Pakeezah and Nikaah, all hits.

(As in everything that one says of Hindi commercial cinema, one might, on the other hand, point to Deedaar-e-Yaar, one of the biggest flops of 1982, but then it had Jeetendra playing a nawab.)

"However, there are certain limits to this secularism. For instance, Hindus and Muslims don’t marry on screen unless it is an overt act of political significance (Bombay). Too many people might be offended and secularism had to be measured against what the audience would accept. Since Hindi cinema, like most popular culture, is majoritarian, it also managed to maintain a subtle power balance within the caste system. When the hero was a romantic and a scholar, he could be a Brahmin, even if it was the Muslim, Dilip Kumar, playing him. When the hero turned into a warrior, his identity turned Kshatriya. Secular gestures had to be similarly calibrated since a sizeable proportion of the Hindi-speaking audience was Muslim. The Muslim characters were, therefore, rarely shown in an unfavourable light. They were honest friends, loyal soldiers, good policemen, bluff Pathans, friendly uncles. But unless it was a Muslim social (which was another kind of commercial gamble), there were no Muslim heroes."

Recently, we have had some discussion about whether Kabir Khan in Chak De India is a Muslim. It seems an odd moment in our history. Anti-Muslim hysteria is at an all-time high. In a personal conversation with the novelist, MG Vassanji, I was told that Gujarat continues to be a fascist state in which the Muslims are tense and even the moderate Hindus unwilling to speak for fear of being "overheard". This should have been no surprise to me for Communalism Combat arrives every month with more news from the war against ‘othering’. At the same time, we have four Khans (Aamir, Saif, Shah Rukh and Salman) who rule Bollywood. None of them has ever played a Muslim character except in a Muslim context.

With Hindus representing the mainstream and Muslims in the audience, there were two communities who could be mocked without any economic repercussions.

Again, if I may be allowed to quote from my book on Helen, these were, "the Christians and the Parsi. For one, they were perceived as ‘westernised’, which was tantamount to sleeping with the enemy. For another, they could be offended without upsetting the box office since they rarely patronised Hindi cinema anyway.

"So Parsis figured as stereotypical eccentrics with walk-on roles. Christians got more screen time but were used in strange ways. In the odd hierarchies that custom and power have established, a heroine could be Christian. Liz (Waheeda Rehman) in Baazi, Miss Edna (Madhubala) in Howrah Bridge, Bobby (Dimple) in Bobby, Jenny (Parveen Babi) in Amar Akbar Anthony and Annie (Manisha Koirala) in Khamoshi – The Musical all marry their men without trouble. In Bobby, the hero’s parents only object to her social standing and her lack of wealth. There is no mention of a different religion. There were some startling positive images of older Christian characters (Lalita Pawar and Nadira, both as Mrs D’Sa in Anari and Saagar; Premnath as Mr Braganza in Bobby; David as John Chacha in Boot Polish) but by and large the community was seen as degenerate. In Mome Ki Gudiya (1972) a Christian family has a mother played by the obese Tun Tun, the father played by a midget, and in order to win their daughter and to fit in with them, the hero’s sidekick claims that he has started drinking, smoking, going to mujras and even eating non-vegetarian food.

"But perhaps the classic encapsulation of Hindi cinema’s attitude to the morality of the young Christian community can be seen in a single song from Swarg Narak (1978). Briefly, the story deals with two marriages. The feminist, Shobha (Moushumi Chatterjee!) marries college lecturer, Vicky (Jeetendra), while the traditional Indian doormat, Geeta (Shabana Azmi!) marries playboy and businessman, Vinod (Vinod Mehra). The latter marriage fails from the very beginning since Vinod who, as an act of rebellion against a marriage into which he was forced, spends his wedding night dancing with an unnamed mistress (Komilla Virk).

"One night, when Vinod tries to go out, his mother (Kamini Kaushal) stops him. He almost slaps her, then pushes her out of the way. She runs after him and falls down the stairs. Vinod and his unnamed mistress go out dancing. Helen is the floor show, singing the ‘English song’ mentioned in the titles. The unimaginative lyrics include lines like ‘Love you, come hold me’ interspersed with some Aah-ing. However, this is enough to attract Vinod, who callously pushes Virk out of the way and makes his way to where Helen, dressed in High Arabian Fantasy, bathed in red light, is singing, ‘I am lonely, come hold me/ Life is so dreary, come, come, come.’

"Director Dasari Narayan Rao intercuts this sequence with scenes of Vinod’s mother dying, of the doctors giving up, of the dutiful daughter-in-law reciting the Bhagavad Gita. At the nightclub, Helen and Vinod are now in a clinch. The scene is bathed in red light as she pours alcohol into his mouth. A church appears in silhouette against the walls of the nightclub and church bells begin to ring. It is true that few filmmakers have gone so far in their association between degeneracy and Christianity but it was a statement they felt free to make."

So it was with villains. You could name the moll Lily or Rosy, you could name the henchman Robert, but where would your villain come from? It is no accident that many powerful villains have had no Indian caste identity at all. We do know where Gabbar Singh came from – we even know that his father’s name was Hari Singh – but we have no idea where Dr Dang (Karma, 1986, dr Subhash Ghai) came from or Shakaal (Shaan, 1980, dr Ramesh Sippy) or Loin (Kalicharan, 1976, dr Subhash Ghai) or Mogambo (Mr India, 1987, dr Shekhar Kapur) for that matter. They were villains who were free-floating signifiers. Dr Dang could be Chinese if you wanted him to be Chinese. He could be South-east Asian or even from a tribal belt in India. It did not matter because he could not be located and so could not become an insult to any community. Henchmen were also given ur-names: Jagga, Raaka, Kaalia, Saamba.

Things changed radically when Pakistan became a name that was allowed. It should be remembered that for very long we did not name names of other countries since our censor code actually had a clause stipulating that nothing in a film should harm the nation’s friendly relations with other states. We were so careful about names of other countries that From Russia with Love (1963, dr Terence Young) was only released in India when its distributors agreed to change the name to From 007 with Love and the title song was dropped. When Pakistan became a name that we could say, Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001, dr Anil Sharma) happened. It was a loud hysterical film and since the mood was loud and hysterical, it worked magically, becoming one of the top earners of all time. A spate of ‘Pakistan’ films followed, some of which were hits and some of which failed.

In some ways, Godhra proved to be a watershed for the Hindi film industry as it did for the country. (Now, if only Parzania (2007, dr Rahul Dholakia) had been a good piece of cinema instead of a film with good intentions.) The new verities were suddenly looking shaky. The Urdu title of the film name, missing in action for many moons, began to come back. Cynics might claim that this is the possibility of Pakistan as a legitimate market as opposed to being the place where Hindi cinema sells on pirated DVDs. Cynics might be right. It is still a product, still an industry.

Archived from Communalism Combat, August-September 2007, Anniversary Issue (14th), Year 14    No.125, India at 60 Free Spaces, Cinema



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