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Bollywood and minorities: Progressiveness at work or just an opportunity to milk?

For every Fanny, there is a Mr Almeida and for every Rocket Singh, there is a Balle. Has Bollywood really been kind to the minorities?

bollywood Updated: Apr 30, 2017 10:48 IST
Nirupama Kotru
Pankaj Kapoor, Dimple Kapadia and Deepika Padukone in a still from Finding Fanny.
Pankaj Kapoor, Dimple Kapadia and Deepika Padukone in a still from Finding Fanny.

Remember the film Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year (2009), in which Ranbir Kapoor played a salesman who is struggling to break the monotony of his job and maybe start a business of his own? Ranbir played a Sikh in that film and wore a turban, too. Remarkably, his religion had absolutely nothing to do with the plot.

Now rack your brains and try to think of one more film in which the lead character is an average, educated member of the middle-class from one of the minority groups in India, who faces common problems like the rest of us, such as unemployment or lack of housing.

A character who doesn’t have to carry his/her religious identity at all times, like a millstone around his/her neck. Chances are, you won’t be able to name one. Mainstream Hindi cinema has never bothered to portray its minority characters as normal Indians struggling to earn their daily bread like the rest of us. Tokenism, stereotyping and caricatures are the norm in Bollywood when it comes to minority characters.

Our films have often caricatured minority communities for creating mirthful situations. One can argue that the whole point of a funny film is to generate laughter. Indeed, comedy is serious business, and it is often more difficult to make audiences laugh, than to make them cry. It does irk, however, when the mannerisms of someone from a particular community are exaggerated to create crass comedy, e.g. a Sikh character breaking into a ‘bhangra’ at the slightest provocation and insisting on hugging strangers without any hesitation whatsoever.

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Johnny Lever’s depiction of a character called “Balle” in Raja Hindustani (1996) was one such inglorious example (The fact that this Dharmesh Darshan blockbuster made a mockery of its LGBT characters, is another matter for concern). In contrast, despite a few murmurs about incorrectly tied turbans and wrongly trimmed beards, few found Singh is Kinng (2008) offensive; perhaps because the film maker’s heart was in the right place, even if the plot was outlandish and far removed from reality.

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Coming to the largest minority group in India, Muslims, one would think that their representation in our films would have been progressive, considering that there have been so many talented writers and lyricists from that community who were active in Bollywood right from the 1930s onwards. Alas, the economics of the box office has dominated and even dictated the content of our films. Anything and everything goes in the name of entertainment, as long as it sells tickets. On screen, this demand for entertainment translates into Muslim characters who are never really shown to reflect the changing socio-economic realities of India. Their presence in a film is usually meant as a feel-good token, a nod to national integration. Of course there have been noteworthy exceptions such as Garam Hava (1973), but these exceptions hardly add up to double digits.

At first, in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, we had the quaint and charming world of Nawabs, mushairas (musical gatherings) and ‘purdah-nasheen’(veiled) ladies, as depicted in Mere Mehboob(1963), Mere Huzoor (1968), Mehboob Ki Mehndi (1971), Pakeezah(1972) and umpteen such films, sometimes referred to as “Muslim socials”. Arguably, these films had some charming dialogues and lyrics in Urdu, and depicted a ‘tehzeeb’(refined culture) that was on its last legs in India.

With rapid urbanization and modernization, ‘tehzeeb’ took a back seat and caricatures became a norm. The typical Muslim character in a Hindi film was now either a butcher, a wastrel or a don , and displayed his religious identity at all times. ‘Achkans’,‘Sherwanis’ and ‘Chooridars’, dress code of Muslim gentry in pre-independence era, gave way to the ubiquitous lungi-kurta , prayer beads and skull caps. There were some exceptions; film makers such as Sai Paranjpe and Ramesh Sippy gave us delightful supporting characters such as the friendly neighbourhood paanwala (Saeed Mirza as ‘Lallan Miyan’ in Chashme Baddoor,1981 or a beggar-cum-informer (Mazhar Khan as ‘Abdul’ in Shaan,1980 ) who wore their religious identity lightly. But such characterizations are few and far between.

As for lead roles, these were always a rarity. Check out the filmography of all the leading men in Hindi films right from the holy trinity of Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor to the Khans and beyond. With notable exceptions like Shahrukh Khan playing psychiatrist Dr.Jehangir Khan in Dear Zindagi (2016), it is rare to find a leading actor play a Muslim protagonist with a normal job or life even today.

Parsees are another community considered “exotic” by our film makers, only fit for creating amusement. Actor-producer-director Feroz Khan had a standard comedy track in many of his films such as Qurbani (1980) , which consisted of a harassed Parsee man driving an antique vehicle, wife and brood of kids in tow, holding up the hero’s car and getting into an altercation , until the poorly built Parsee ‘Bawa’ finally realizes that he is no match for the brawny hero, and withdraws in haste.

It took a fine director like Basu Chatterjee to make India’s first mainstream film about a middle class Parsee family, Khatta Meetha(1978). Ashok Kumar plays a widower who decides to marry a widow, played by Pearl Padamsee. At first, their respective, grown-up children can’t stand each other, but later they start getting along well. The film had a charming ensemble’ cast which included Rakesh Roshan, Bindiya Goswami, Deven Verma and Ashok Kumar’s daughter Preeti Ganguli.

There were some standard parts written for Christian characters in our films. In the 1950s and 1960s (and occasionally in later decades ,too), Lalita Pawar was often called upon to play the kind- hearted Christian landlady Mrs.D’sa/Mrs.Gomes etc. who wore a big cross around her neck and muttered dialogues like “Hum aaj apne God say poochhega …” whenever there was a dramatic moment in the film, such as in Anari (1959) and Naseeb (1981). Raj Kapoor’s Bobby (1973) popularised the perpetually drunk, Goan fisherman character Jack Braganza (played by Prem Nath).

Such roles were common in films in which ‘unity in diversity’ and national integration were the underlying themes. For example, Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) had all the usual clichés in place about Muslims and Christians, but at least the film tried to give equal footage and treatment to all three leading men who are brothers separated at birth. Julie(1975) was another film that had a young Catholic girl as its protagonist; then again the film itself was about two families, on Hindu and one Catholic, coming to terms with the affair between their respective children, and the child born out of wedlock to them. In both these films, the religious identities of the leading characters were emphasized throughout the film.

Another Basu Chatterjee film, Baton Baton Main(1979) swam against the tide. The film dealt with a young girl of marriageable age, played by Tina Munim, whose mother, played by Pearl Padamsee, is desperately trying to get her married. The suitor who finally wins her hand is Amol Palekar. The protagonists only happen to be Catholic Christians living in Mumbai. Similarly the lonely widow and widower of Khatta Meetha happen to be born into the Parsee community. Neither film made a big deal of the religion of the protagonist(s).

There are some films where religious identity is important to the plot, but the director did not try to milk religion with the sole purpose of exploiting the audience’s emotions. Take Chak De! India (2007), for instance. It was a biopic of Kabir Khan, former member of Indian hockey team, who faced religious bigotry after the team’s loss to Pakistan (Shah Rukh played the lead). Director Shimit Amin did a fine job of showing Khan’s religious identity without letting it overwhelm the film. Similarly, Mr. and Mrs.Aiyar(2002), directed by Aparna Sen, dwelled upon the religion of the two protagonists only to show how they had to cast their religious differences aside when faced with a crisis situation. Pestonjee(1988) depicted the mores of the Parsee community with great sensitivity laced with humour. Such explorations are more than welcome; it is completely out of place tokenism in blockbusters that is not.

It is time to give our filmi Salmas, Abduls, Frenis, Nancys and Tonys their rightful place on screen. Time to accord them the dignity of being depicted as normal Indians with normal lives, who face the same issues and challenges, and have the same aspirations and dreams as a Rahul, a Raj or an Anjali. Time to ensure a deeper engagement of such characters with the film , going beyond usual ‘feel good’ tokenisms.

For the longest time, our minority characters have been cursed with carrying the proverbial cross of their religious identity on their backs, with overt symbols like clothing and accessories marking them out as different from the protagonists. Films like Little Zizou(2008) , Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year(2009) and Finding Fanny (2014) are a breath of fresh air in this mad landscape. The need of our changing times is more progressive roles in films for our minority communities. Is that too much to ask for?

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