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Painting a truer picture

Shoma A Chatterji |

There was a time when Hindi cinema created a Muslim ethos in a given category of films that came to be labelled “Muslim Socials.” Historical films such as Pukar,Mughal-e-Azam,Anarkali and Laila-Majnu were fictionalised slices of history glamorised to pull in the mass audience. Muslim Socials were almost always box-office hits — Chaudhvin Ka Chand and Mere Mehboob being a couple of examples.

Then there were the Muslim tawaif genre films like Pakeezah,Umrao Jaan and Benazir. Such films were aimed purely to entertain, trigger the tear ducts and for the mass audience to hum the tunes of the lovely songs and go home happy.

The Muslim Social is defined as a genre within the Hindi mainstream as narratives that portray but rarely critique the Muslim identity within partitioned India. It flourished in the 1950s and 1960s and lasted till the early 1980s.

The women in such films were exquisitely beautiful, their beauty enhanced and enriched by elaborate costumes, jewellery and heavy make-up with emphasis on the eyes and lips. Early representations of the Muslim woman were seen in films like RS Choudhury’s Anarkali (1928), Noorjehan (1923), Humayun by Mehboob Khan (1945), and Shahjahan by A R Kardar (1946). This trend continued into the 1950s with the production of films like Baiju Bawra by Vijay Bhatt (1952), Mumtaz Mahal and Nandlal Jaswantlal’s Anarkali (1953).

But all those films treaded on fictionalised representations of Islamic history in India wrapped in glamour and rich music. The woman was the focus mainly for her exquisite beauty. Mehboob’s Elan (1947) was banned. It appeared to be a harmless kind of rich man-poor man fable.

But at the heart of it, there was a kind of message of “Islamic socialism” that offended the authorities. BR Chopra’s Nikaah (1982) arrived and changed the cultural map of the Muslim Social for good. The genre came to be classified, a bit ambiguously however, into two classes.

On one hand was the “Classic Muslim Social” that described the nawabi and Badshahi culture mapping the luxurious lives of the aristocratic class, settled mainly in Lucknow and old Delhi. And on the other, came the “New Wave Muslim Social” that portrayed the metamorphosis in the lives of middle class and lower middle class families caught within the trap of the ghetto —dividing them from the elite Muslim families as well as the Hindu majority.

The two landmark films in the history of Muslim representation in Indian cinema are Nikaah directed by BR Chopra and MS Sathyu’s Garm Hawa. In two different ways, these two films — one mainstream and a box office hit and the other an offmainstream venture focusing on the tragedy of the Muslim who refuses to go over to Pakistan after Partition — laid down the foundation for significant films portraying the tragedy of being a Muslim.

In the late 1980s and early 90s, several films within the Mumbai mainstream began showing Muslims as villainous characters — N Chandra’s Tezaab (1988), Priyadarshan’s Gardish (1993) and Shashilal Nayar’s Angaar (1993).

The women were not really fleshed out enough to reflect the reality in society. Seemin Hasan who teaches English at Aligarh Muslim University, writes, “The projection of Muslims as uneducated, misguided and ruthless communalists reflects anxieties.

Beginning with Wasim Khan’s character in Mani Ratnam’s Roja to films like LOC. Kargil (2003) and Mission Kashmir (2000), the Muslim identity is trapped in the image of the terrorist. The last decade of the 20th century signals an important departure as a new stereotype of the Muslim has been created —as a ruthless stranger with an anti-nationalist agenda.”

If the women are not portrayed as terrorists or villainous figures, they are either silenced completely or marginalised in films like Black Friday or remain purely decorative figures like in Once Upon a Time in Mumbai.

That said Nandita Das’ Firaaq is a game-changer in this context. It is sprinkled with touching moments captured by almost a caressing camera that takes its time to drill in the shocks without losing out on the dynamic pace of multiple narratives and characters. Aarti, a middle-aged, Hindu-Gujarati housewife is haunted by deep guilt for not having opened the door to a Muslim woman crying out for help during the carnage.

Flashes of a screaming woman banging on her windowpane keep coming back, and as a form of retribution, she keeps branding herself with a hot ladle while cooking. On the other hand, there is a montage of shots where the camera closes in on the bewildered expression on her face, as she looks out of the auto rickshaw at a city she cannot recognise anymore.

“From the bearded Muslim terrorist who could readily be associated with bomb blasts, our understanding of terrorists has become more complicated,” says filmmaker and academic Shohini Ghosh, reader at the media centre of Jamia Milia Islamia University.

“Films such as Fanaa and Pukar have demonstrated that contrary to the idea of terrorists merely being enemies from outside the nation, it is also possible for the enemy to be within,” she says. “Some films have tried to show that terrorism is often brought on as the result of the state’s disrespect for non-violent protest. They have tried to show how democracy has failed its citizens, spurring them towards violence, and that is perhaps the reason why the image of the terrorist has undergone a change with time”, Ghosh says.

Clichéd representations of the Muslim woman have been challenged down the years by films like Nikaah, Bazaar (1982) Bombay (1994), Fiza (2003) and Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017). The women in those films, as well as in several others like Mammo,Sardari Begum and Khamosh Paani, are not abstract, ideal or the product of incredible fantasy but demand acceptance, dignity and respect from the society they live in.

They refuse to be sentimental women who accept the tragedies of their lives as a given — quite removed from Umrao Jaan, Pakeezah, Benazir or Mughal-e-Azam.