When my maternal grandmother was born, early in the 20th century, her parents named her Meherunnissa, a beautiful Persian name for an extraordinarily beautiful girl who happened to be Muslim.
In 1935, when she was about 20, she changed it to Ashalata. Her reason for changing her name was professional. She had got a role in a movie called SAJIV MURTI. And like for many of the Muslim (and Christian) actors of the time, a Hindu name was considered more acceptable to the public, especially if they wanted to play lead roles. This is how Ruby Myers became Sulochana, Yusuf Khan became Dilip Kumar and Mehjabeen Bano became Meena Kumari. To be sure there were others who did not change their names. Through the 1930s and 1940s, there were Zubeida, Billimoria, Fearless Nadia, and Patience Cooper among others.
But it’s also true that after India became an independent nation, the names that toplined a film, the ‘hero’ and ‘heroine’ – were rarely Muslim names and this did not really change until the 1970s, when Zeenat Aman, Parveen Babi, Feroz Khan and others acted under their real names – although Sanjay Khan chose a more intriguing combination with the Hindu first name and Muslim last name.
It was different behind the scenes. The credits of the most abiding films and songs, especially of the 1950s and 1960s and till the early 1980s, are full of Muslim names and all names to be reckoned with, heavy hitters who straddled the world of cinema, literature and theatre – Sahir Ludhianvi, Khayyam, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Mehboob Khan, K. A. Abbas, Kamal Amrohi, Abrar Alvi, Shakeel Badayuni, Saadat Hassan Manto, Ismat Chugtai, Mohammed Rafi, Talat Mahmood, Shamshad Begum and more recently Salim-Javed.
What does this shadow play of name and fame, visibility and identity, these twists and turns in the way Muslims and Muslim-ness have inhabited the cinema tell us about the mini-republic of the Mumbai film industry and the larger republic it often represents, India?
Perhaps before we think about that we could ask - how should we talk about minorities in the ‘Bombay cinema’? One way would be to talk about how Muslims and Christians were represented in films. It is practically a stereotypical, though fair, response to say that they were presented as a tableau of stereotypes – the comic and harmless, therefore useless, makapao drunk or the fast Catholic secretary. With Muslims there was the benign Rahim Chacha figure, the moonh boli, or bespoke, sister languishing in wait for a suitable match, sometimes rescued from this distress by the Hindu rakhi brother. Occasionally we encountered the devout and loving nanny who brought up the orphaned or lost Hindu hero.
Muslim characters of this sort were the stock repertoire of many Hindi films until the 1970s. But one could argue that popular Hindi cinema worked almost uniformly by stereotypes – including the Hindu protagonists, who usually signaled an unspecified North-Indian and upper-caste identity. The difference though, was that they were always the centre of the story, the central protagonists, the hero and heroine. Their religious-cultural identity was not underlined, but rather, was considered the norm.
Characters from minority religious communities tended to be “side characters”. They were the lesser relatives of the supposedly harmonious Indian family; smiling planets circling a Hindu sun/son. We thought of the Rahim chachas and Ruksana behens as Muslim and not much else. But we thought of these North-Indian upper-caste Hindu heroes and heroines as simply Indian.
With the exception of a few films such as BAZAAR and GARAM HAWA, when Muslim characters did take centrestage, it was usually in a genre called the Muslim Social. These films unfolded in an almost exclusively Muslim world, with no characters from other backgrounds. The Muslim-ness of this world was primarily an ornamental one, all ghararas and chilmans, sherwanis and naqabs, shayri and andaaz. Stories did not necessarily deal with the dilemmas or specific concerns of Muslim communities, but sprang from quite the same sort of sentimental world as many other Hindi films, with similar tropes of tragically mistaken identity, fortuitous coincidence, instant and obsessive love which must overcome the obstacles of class, tradition, misunderstanding or family feuds – it was almost never inter-religious love.
But what’s important to note is that these films were not made for an exclusively Muslim audience as is evident from the tremendous hits and fashion sensations that were MERE MEHBOOB, DIL HI TO HAI, CHAUDVIN KA CHAND and even the unremittingly morose NIKAAH, which dealt more directly, if problematically, with the issue of triple talaq.
Despite all the stereotyping, popular Hindi cinema has often encompassed several competing, even contradictory elements. It has been able to be simultaneously stereotypical, formulaic or crude and nuanced, progressive and poetic. In a story choc-a-bloc with cruel zamindars/ industrialists, scheming villains and virginal heroines spouting clichéd dialogue at crude plot turns with terrible cinematic continuity you might also find the most nuanced songs about love expressed in superior music and lyrics, shot poetically and movingly. The heroine might be the soul of sacrifice and virtue and bad girls who got pregnant out of wedlock might get their just desserts through death, but the viewer could leave more entranced by Helen’s fantastical, shimmering costumes and diamond eyelashes, the fun and flamboyance of the Sandra from Bandra back-up dancers whose dresses whirled as they jived, the suggestions and undulations of the mujrah dancer. Long after the films are forgotten, these feelings – the songs of ambivalent love, the glamour of those who refuse to fit in, the feeling of the cinema, not just its stated message, stays with us, subtly shaping who we are, as much as the incessant drumming of stereotypes.
In short, cinema works not only by the logic of the obvious narrative and what is spoken, but by its texture, the unspoken intensity and passion of its images. Perhaps this is the more magical and important thing about cinema, and it is necessary to take into account when we speak about Muslims and Muslim-ness in Hindi films.
For, whatever the ratio of Muslim names in the cinema, the thing that was really a strong, almost fundamental part of Hindi cinema was a texture of Muslim-ness.
How do we define this texture? Through language, for one. Language unites an entire cultural experience. It is the encyclopaedia of all that we know together as people. It is a describer of emotion, sense impression, politics, history, urban legend, storytelling rhythm, presentation, formality and informality. And the language of Hindi films was Urdu in its many existing usages. Persianised and difficult, as in the song ‘Chalo ek baar phir se ajnabi ban jaye hum dono…’ from the film GUMRAH or in its more accessible, mani-coloured coat of Hindustani.
There were various reasons for this. Urdu had been the language of the court and was a strong part of North Indian cultural life. In fact it remained a medium of instruction until the 1950s, which is why actors like Sunil Dutt always had to have their dialogue written out in the Nastaliq script of Urdu, rather than the Devnagri of Hindi. This relationship with the language meant there was also an intimate relationship between the emotional landscape of much Indian urban life and Urdu, a relationship with the literature that seeped into Hindi cinema. The writers may have been both Hindu and Muslim, but they partook of this Urdu literary culture. Through this route a kind of non-religious, socio-cultural Muslim-ness made up every Hindi film viewer’s emotional vocabulary, aesthetic rhythm, and way of being.
Urdu had also been a strong language of the Parsi theatre, where the roots of the Bombay film industry lie and from where some of Hindi cinema’s early stars like Sohrab Modi, famous for his Urdu grandiloquence, and Patience Cooper came.
The Parsi theatre companies, were owned by Parsis, but employed people of every religion, community, persuasion and gender. Parsi theatre made a major break with traditional theatrical forms where which actor played which role was important – for instance only a particular caste could play Ram or Sita in mythological plays. But the Parsi theatre, like its descendant HiFI (Hindi Film Industry), had Muslim actors play Hindu gods and Hindus play Muslim figures, with secular abandon. It also had something for everyone – Urdu fairy stories, Hindu epics, urban comedies conducted in many languages, but most prominently Urdu. It had songs, dialogues, dances and dramatic plots, combining the high-brow and low-brow into a merry melting pot of entertainment. Hindi cinema inherited and took forward this commercialism and cosmopolitanism, and this Urdu-influenced language and culture. In fact as the writer Kathryn Hansen tells us, older Parsi theatres like Gaiety and Novelty became cinema halls, like Capitol and Excelsior respectively.
Other influences too shaped these films, such as the sensual thumris, dadras and ghazals that came from the tawaif cultures of the North. In fact many dancers and ‘vamps’ of the Hindi screen, were rumoured to have come from tawaif families, although they obscured these origins.
The Sufi Muslim form of quawwali too was a staple of Hindi film elements. Not so much in its religious form but in the more secular, romantic form as practiced by Jamila Bano Bhopali and Jaani Babu Qawwal replete with paeans to shabab and sharab and sparkling with nonk-jhonk, the back-and-forth flirtatious rejoinders exchanged in couplets between the men’s qawwali party and the women’s qawwali party. While many famous qawwalis – ‘Nigahen milane ko ji chahta hai…’ (DIL HI TO HAI) or ‘Sharmake agar yunh pardanasheen…’ (CHAUDVIN KA CHAND) – featured in Muslim Socials, they were equally to be found in other kinds of films, like ‘Pal do pal ka saath hamara…’ (THE BURNING TRAIN) and ‘Na toh caravan ki talaash hai…’ from (BARSAAT KI RAAT).
We may have identified the Rahim Chacha figure as a Muslim, but these words and rhythms and textures of Urdu in the Hindi cinema, we claimed as part of our Indian or South Asian selves, in the way that is fundamental to the syncretic, amalgamating love marriage that is culture. When we think of Zohra Bai in MUQADDAR KA SIKANDAR, it’s not her Muslim identity that rises to the surface of our consciousness. Rather, she is everything most intense about romance – she is sequins and sex, mujrah and longing, fantasy and suffering, the very embodiment of a certain way of Indian love, viraha, a female counterpart of Devdas. These concepts of deewangi, mohabbat, izhaar and ikrar central to our films owed much to the Urdu or Islamicate tradition as Mukul Kesavan calls it.
This texture has gradually disappeared from the Hindi film. Ironically, at the very historical moment when the surname of most of the top actors in Hindi films is Khan, the films themselves display not even the stereotyped variety of earlier times but rather, a non-specific consumer identity; the brand-victim, sharp-haircut citizens of malls, inside which films now play.
The language of Hindi cinema is now an anodyne characterless so-called Hindi, stiff from a clunky journey of translation of a script originally imagined in English, rather than the melting pot Urdu and Hindi of Hindustani.
Muslims and Muslim-ness have been imagined out of this world quite in the same way they are imagined out of the world of economically liberalized India – or perhaps re-imagined. In theory, commerce sees all customers as equal. In truth, we have all heard stories of how Muslims cannot get credit cards, home loans or pizza delivery, because of their last names or their addresses.
In December 2006 a defining moment occurred in the way Muslims have been represented in popular culture. In the small North Indian city of Meerut, TV cameras followed the police as they did a ‘sting’ on lovers canoodling in a public park, by beating and abusing them before the cameras for their “ashleel” or obscene acts.
The incident acquired the name of “Operation Majnu.”Later it emerged that the police were partly acting on the anxiety of some Meerut citizens that Muslim boys were luring Hindu girls in a “love jihad”. Thus they were Majnus – named for the famous lover from the West Asian love story of Laila and Majnu.
So in just a switch of the camera on-off button, Majnu went from being the word we’d always used for boys gone a bit silly and crazy with love, who wasted their time doing nothing but languishing in love, filmi style, to being a predatory Muslim boy.
This story of how the word Majnu changed in the popular imagination, mirrors the journey of the Muslim presence, direct and indirect, isolated and sycretic, in Hindi films. It is a journey from the Muslim Social to the Muslim Political.
Most big-ticket Hindi films – even those whose names, like ZINDAGI NA MILEGI DOBARA are Urdu mouthfuls – do not feature any Muslim as even minor characters like friends or neighbours. Muslim characters in Hindi cinema now appear only in the context of “political” or “hard-hitting” films where they are presented either as bad Muslims – terrorists, extremists or gangsters – and good Muslims – Muslims who have to underline their patriotism by hating the bad Muslims enough to kill them, vigilantes of the nation, as in the disturbingly lauded A WEDNESDAY. These films, which can imagine no other life for Muslims except in relationship to ideas of terror and fundamentalism, are a new genre, which I would term the Muslim Political.
In the Muslim inflected worlds of these films, Muslims have no social life, no romances, no personal conflicts. They exist only in a never-never land of false political detail. These films claim authenticity and importance for themselves through the labels of “realistic”, “hard-hitting” and “gritty.” Shot in styles using realistic or documentary elements, they nevertheless traffic in several stereotypes: the disgruntled, Muslim youth, who is a potential threat to the nation, the namazi terrorist, the inciting madrassa teacher. A typical example would be the critically acclaimed AAMIR. Here, a Muslim man is informed by an anonymous phone caller from a radical mafia group, that they want him to carry out a bombing and so they have kidnapped his family. The caller leads Aamir through Muslim areas which are uniform cesspits of squalor and resentment as a justification for the violence. Aamir refuses, proving himself a good Muslim.
As a fallout of these narratives so concerned with the Muslim man, Muslim women characters have all but retreated from the Hindi screen, a forcible purdah, with the notable exception of Khalid Mohammed’s frequently moving trilogy, ZUBEIDA, MAMMO and FIZA.
The odd trace of texture shows up, but just about. There are the ambiguously named, but Muslim in flavour streetwise Munnas – Aamir Khan in RANGEELA and Sanjay Dutt in the MUNNABHAI films. They speak with a certain Bambaiya tapori-ness which emerged from the mostly Muslim localities of Byculla and Nagpada – whose angst, coolness and sarcastic poetry we first heard in Saeed Mirza’s SALIM LANGDE PE MAT RO. There are the obsessive lovers Salman Khan plays in TERE NAAM and WANTED which channel the sentimental, misogynistic songs of Altaf Raja, which further hark back to popular, sentimental Urdu novels of an earlier time.
The qawaali and ghazal have been replaced by the Sufi pop song, popularised through Vishesh Films’ erotic thrillers, the wholesale Moroccan beats used by Himmesh Reshammiya and Pritam, and the Arabic belly dancing of Abbas-Mustan films. But the provenance of these musics is not Indian. They are firmly identified as belonging outside Indian borders – the Sufi singers all being Pakistani and the other popular rhythms all being West Asian, from the Arabic speaking world. It’s as if when Hindi cinema became ‘Bollywood’, it also became relaxed with Muslim elements only if they were not Indian. In the many films about love marriage, made in the 1950s-’60s, we haven’t got a significant example of a film where the lovers were Hindu and Muslim. Even in less polarised times, the sense of distance and difference between Selves and Others was a defined one. But the journey from the Muslim Social, which could see Muslims identity as a cultural identity, to the Muslim Political, which can only see Muslim figures in terms of religion and politics, reveals a relationship where these differences and distances have sadly hardened.
And still one can hope that it might not always be so. These vanishing worlds remain like little coded messages, scattered through contemporary cinema, a thread that unravels an eclipsed history. The persisting popularity of older films and songs, whether remixed or not, reveals that somewhere in our souls, we still want a more complex cultural experience, that these polarised narratives are not enough for us. The rise of the item song, and in fact its centrality in a commercial HiFI film, is just a symptom of this deeply felt lack and also a little time-capsule of these memories of other times.
Now the heroine may be an item girl, having eased out the vamp. But it’s worth remembering that she owes this sensual liberation to all those sexy Christian cabaret dancers and the sinuous Muslim mujre walis who opened these doors for her. Without those worlds, this careless freedom would not have been possible.
Maybe, one day when the Hindi film industry comes out of the smoke and mirrors hall of marketing culture, it will find its way to a more resonant cinema, one that plays back the many ways of being, feeling and seeing that are part of our richly heterogenous society and traditions.
Read more in the December 2012 issue of Cine Blitz - India's most loved hindi film magazine.
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