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10 November 2011

Muslim themes in Bollywood

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By Ishtiaq Ahmed

There is no doubt that the Bombay cinema has on the whole played a very progressive role in upholding the vision of India as a multi-religious, pluralist society

The Bombay film industry or Bollywood is the biggest producer of dreams on celluloid in the world. Such dreams define standards of beauty and aesthetics, good and bad, identity — historical and contemporary. Considering the fact that Islam and Muslims have been present in the Indian subcontinent for at least 1,300 years, and the Muslims constituted one-fourth of the Indian population till 1947 and now some 15 percent, it is not surprisingly that Bombay cinema has a long history of probing themes that focus on the imprint of Islamic culture (Islamicate Cultures of Bombay Cinema, New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2009).

Ira Bhaskar and Richard Allen have tried to identify landmark Bombay films dealing with Muslim themes. In doing so, they draw upon the notion of ‘Islamicate’ to conceptualise the phenomena they study. Following Marshall Hodgson who originally coined the term, they understand it to mean “the social and cultural complex historically associated with Islam and the Muslims, both among Muslims themselves and even when found among non-Muslims” (Islamicate Cultures of Bombay Cinema, pg 3). In other words, it is not Islam as a religious system but as a cultural framework that Islamicate seeks to capture and shed light on. Thus for example, wine-poetry is not Islamic, but there is a long tradition of using such imagery in Islamicate poetry.

The authors identify four genres of Islamicate cultures taken up in Bombay cinema: the Muslim historical, the Muslim courtesan film, the classic Muslim social and the new wave Muslim social and after. The authors theorise that Bombay cinema has explored these genres in the light of the secular-nationalist state project associated with the Congress-led freedom movement, which came to be known as the Nehruvian state project. This assumption is cogent and legitimate in that the film industry like other forms of popular culture and opinion-making and opinion-building media normally uphold the national project and reflect adherence to it as well as deviations from it.

Proceeding thus, the authors present a selection of films that represent the four genres they have identified. The Muslim historical has been noteworthy for presenting Muslim rulers of India as patriotic Indians, notwithstanding the foreign origins of their dynasties. This was especially a view that the Congress Party tried to foster. Another characteristic they symbolise is justice. Films such as ‘Pukar’ (1939), ‘Mirza Ghalib’ (1957), ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ (1960) and ‘Jodha Akbar’ (2008) represent both the Indian-ness of the rulers and their sense of justice and propriety. The authors mention A R Kardar’s ‘Shah Jahan’ (1946) but it is not discussed in their select list.

With regard to the Muslim courtesan genre, ‘Pakeezah’ (1971), ‘Umrao Jaan’ (1981), ‘Tawaif’ (1985), ‘Sardari Begum’ (1996), and ‘Umrao Jaan’ (2006) are presented. I wish a favourite of mine, ‘Zindagi Ya Tofaan’ (1958), had also been included, but the authors went for the more spectacular portrayals of a culture form that gained fame/notoriety for contradictory peculiarities — on the one hand, a manifestation of fine manners, elaborate etiquette and exquisite aesthetical sensibilities as well as a decadent system of female oppression — the courtesan being the perfect embodiment of these two qualities.

The classical Muslim social explores contemporaneous themes — focusing on the tensions and contradictions between a conservative cultural ethos and opportunities and possibilities that modern society offers for change and progress. The plot revolves around tensions within the family, especially the Muslim women living in purdah (seclusion) and the promises that education holds for them, as well as the larger question of the Muslim community partaking in the creation of a modern Indian nation — secular, composite and pluralist. The emphasis in the classical Muslim social is on the predicaments of the upper and middle classes. ‘Najma’ (1943), ‘Chaudhvin ka Chand’ (1960) and ‘Mere Mehboob’ (1963) are the three films that are discussed in this study.

The fourth genre, new wave Muslim socials and after, is a very useful genre that the authors have devised. Although it is a continuation of the Muslim social, the emphasis shifts markedly from an idealised nawabi culture concerned with the honour and status of a landed elite to the issues of “social discrimination, economic deprivation and communal violence that ordinary Muslims faced on an everyday level” (pg 91). It represents the tensions and contradictions that evolved in the Nehruvian nationalist project as a result of two major developments: one, the partition of India that dealt shattering blows to the notion of a composite Indian nation comprising all religious and ethnic communities, and two, the deviations from that project by mainstream politicians willing to pander to populist majoritarian sensibilities. The net result has been an accentuation in the alienation of minorities, especially of Indian Muslims. For this genre or category of films the authors have chosen ‘Garam Hawa’ (1973), ‘Salim Langde pe Mat Ro’ (1989), ‘Mammo’ (1994), and ‘Fiza’ (2000).

It would have been interesting to learn what the authors think about the limitations of the Nehruvian state project in a society where conservative religious and ethical principles render inter-religious love hot potatoes and marriage a taboo. As far as I can recall, even the mainstream new wave cinema that emerged in the late 1960s as a form of stark realism and was noted for a radical critique of the sordid social and economic conditions, police brutality and rampant corruption of the political class shied away from such subjects. This is of course not surprising because the film industry cannot but tread with great caution when probing subjects that society is not yet ripe to accept as normal behaviour. Cinema is a good measure of social trends.

On the other hand, there is no doubt that the Bombay cinema has on the whole played a very progressive role in upholding the vision of India as a multi-religious, pluralist society. In that context the four genres that Bhaskar and Allen identify are testimony to the continuing presence and importance of the Muslim community in a secular-democratic India: a challenged and assailed nationalist project, but resilient and steadfast, and hopefully in the long run stable and norm-setting in South Asia.

Indian films have been crossing the border quite successfully. Pakistani film enthusiasts are likely to have seen all or most of the films discussed in this study. For them, this excellent commentary should be a most welcome contribution to a subject on which very little has been written.

[Ishtiaq Ahmed has a PhD from Stockholm University. He is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He can be reached at billumian@gmail.com]

(Courtesy: Daily Times, Pakistan)

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