More 'Iqbals' And Less 'Fanaas': How Bollywood Can Take On Religious Intolerance

14/10/2015 8:10 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
Photo Hat tip goes to Meena (a.k.a Meanest Indian) for this. She has done an entire series of them - here - here -

India and the US are similar in many subtle ways which we don't easily recognise, for example, the cinematic portrayal of non-majority communities. While the typical Hollywood protagonist has overwhelmingly been White and male, the typical Bollywood lead has majorly been Hindu and male: Devdas in Devdas, Raju in Guide, Anand in Anand, Vijay in Bachchan-starrers, and Prem in Salman-starrers. I casually asked some friends to enlist five female and five male "greatest" Hindi film characters, and out of 57 responses only three were Muslim (one female and two male). Of course this is reflective not of any particular disinterest in Muslim heroes and heroines, but of a fundamental paucity of Muslim lead characters in the mainstream cinema of a country with 172 million Muslim persons.

"[I]magine Bollywood films predominantly portraying a young Hindu as someone sporting a tilak on his forehead all the time... or as someone going to temples and doing pooja constantly..."

While the reasons for this scenario might be innocuous -- no need to think of conspiracies here -- it is important for the film industry to acknowledge and address it. Much of the Islamophobia in India stems from the fact (in addition to history-related non-facts and skewed "facts") that many non-Muslims have internalized certain stereotypes about Muslims which have been hard to break down, especially as, in usual social settings, they rarely come in meaningful contact with a regular Muslim person. Mumbai Meri Jaan (2008) explored this element expertly through the character played by Kay Kay Menon. I had Muslim (and Buddhist and Christian) friends and neighbours as a child, and grew up with an effortless understanding that religious identities are immaterial while interacting with people. I was fortunate to witness such a vibrant and diverse community early in life, but many Indians don't get to experience that in their immediate neighbourhood. And that is where Bollywood could chip in.

If mainstream Hindi movies increasingly portray Muslims as regular Indians leading a "routine Indian life", it would immensely help in overthrowing the stereotypes that some politicians, extremists and their ilk project. But the depiction of Muslim leads in most of the few recent flicks which do have them -- Chak De India (2007), New York (2009), Haider (2014), etc. -- is heavily focused on identity issues. While such head-on tackling of Muslim identity crises is necessary and welcome (the 2006 Sachar Committee Report noted that 'Muslims need to prove on a daily basis that they are not anti-national and terrorists' and that they 'live with an inferiority complex as "every bearded man is considered an ISI agent"'), it should also be liberally supplemented by portrayal of Muslims as simply people rather than Muslim people.

To apply this "your religion is your identity" formula to Hindu leads, imagine Bollywood films predominantly portraying a young Hindu as someone sporting a tilak on his forehead all the time (Atul Kulkarni in Rang De Basanti, 2006) or as someone going to temples and doing pooja constantly (Sharman Joshi in 3 Idiots, 2009), or as a woman who loves fasting and doing rituals for her husband (endless list) -- instead of the great variety in characterisation, reflecting the true state of affairs, which we are rightly treated to: from Wake Up Sid (2009) to Piku (2015).

However, India is nothing if not a land of towering hope in the midst of despair and shimmering positivity in the midst of gloom. There have been several films, though mostly non-mainstream, where the leads were Indian Muslims leading a routine life and facing the same challenges that Indians in general face (rather than what Muslims in India face). Three such remarkable films are: Garam Hava (1974), Iqbal (2005) and Dor (2006). Garam Hava deals with the trajectory of a Muslim family in post-Partition India. The main characters are Indian Muslims who opt not to emigrate to Pakistan because for them Hindustan is home, and the film deftly illustrates the challenges they face following this decision. The sensitive and poignant portrayal of their hardships is universal, something which can also be applied to Hindus and Sikhs who decided to stay back in, say, Lahore during those days. It won three Filmfare Awards including Best Story and Best Screenplay.

"Queen (2014) would essentially be the same if Kangana Ranaut played Rahila instead of Rani..."

Iqbal also depicts a Muslim household: a strict father who is a proud farmer; a wise mother; and a smart little girl who has a cricket-crazy brother. This could well be any other rural Indian family: there's no overt focus on their being Muslim. If we weren't so bombarded with falsified political portrayals, Iqbal would perhaps have been a widely recognised sketch of the rural Muslim. Dor goes one step ahead and successfully breaks the stereotype of the Muslim woman.

It is interesting to imagine how our populace would have generally perceived India's Muslims had movies like Dor and Iqbal been numerically and financially more powerful than those like Mission Kashmir (2000), Fanaa (2006) and My Name Is Khan (2010). One might get a useful clue by imagining how the world would have perceived India and Indians had only films like Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) and Dabangg (2010) reached them instead of also the likes of Swades (2004) and Lage Raho Munnabhai (2006).

Long story short, Bollywood is a powerful and peaceful medium of change, and considering its unique capacity to influence society, it can vastly contribute to a stronger, happier, and more integrated India by broadly revamping its portrayal of Muslim characters and specifically reversing its non-portrayal of regular Muslims as lead characters. After all, Queen (2014) would essentially be the same if Kangana Ranaut played Rahila instead of Rani, and Gol Maal (1979) wouldn't have been any less hilarious had Ram Prasad and Laxman Prasad been Abdul Rahman and Abdul Latif.

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