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From seamy bars to glittering Bollywood

Neelesh Misra narrates the story of a young Muslim woman, Shagufta Rafique, who transformed from a bar singer to a screenplay writer. Read her story in our special The New Muslim

india Updated: Oct 25, 2007 16:16 IST
Neelesh Misra

Two films opened side by side on a recent Friday morning, milestones of tragedy and triumph for Shagufta Rafique, the young Muslim woman who transformed from a bar singer to a screenplay writer.


The first film was Victoria No. 203, the remake of the hugely popular 1972 diamond theft movie of the same name. Back then, it was produced by Brij Sadanah – her sister Saeeda’s Hindu husband – who allegedly killed his daughter, wife and then himself after years of business and religion-related discord. The new film has been made by Sadanah’s son, Kamal, who survived the shootout.


The second was Pooja Bhatt’s Dhoka, a ground-breaking film about a female Islamic suicide bomber, written by Rafique – and a sign of her personal victory. The young woman struggled for years after the death of her sister Saeeda, who supported her. Shagufta was desperate to become a television or film writer, failed – so she sang in bars in India and overseas to support herself, until she recently made it in Bollywood.


Rafique, 41, shrugs off the label of a `progressive’ single woman – but her story mirrors that of thousands of urban Muslim women now trying to break out of traditional turf, and yet holding on to a deeply rooted faith in the Islamic tradition.


“Half of me is into religion, half of it is into what I am doing … This is the only thing I know,” she said in an interview at her Mumbai apartment.


Religion has long crisscrossed Rafique’s life. Her story probably began to be shaped on Bollywood movie sets in the 1970s, when her sister Saeeda Khanam, an actress who worked in about 15 films, broke religious taboo and fell in love with Brij Sadanah, an assistant director.


Both families were opposed to the relationship, so the couple ran away from their homes and got married.


Her sister had converted to Hinduism and assumed the name Sudha. Rafique and her mother visited her sister’s mansion – using the back door.


“There were kennels. We used to be jumping over dogs. We ran if he came home – our mother said if he saw us there, he would beat our sister,” Rafique said. “I will never forget this, it was very humiliating.”


Years passed. Just as Rafique had come to terms with the situation, a new turmoil was shaping up. Saeeda’s daughter, Rafique’s niece Namrata – wanted to marry a Muslim man she had fallen in love with, apparently against her parents’ wishes. Sadanah’s business was also failing – several of his films had done badly and he was under high stress.


It was 1990. Outside the walls of their home, across the country, national turmoil was shaping up. Hindu nationalist groups were spearheading a massive campaign to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya, at the site of the 16th century Babri mosque. Politics and religion were dinner table conversations in millions of homes. Rafique believes there were heated discussions at her Muslim-born sister’s Hindu home.


And then, there was the question of the daughter.


The complexity of problems finally became too much for Sadanah to handle. After midnight one day, the telephone rang at Rafique’s home, announcing that her life had changed forever.


“It was the day of the Dhanteras festival. He shot my sister’s daughter first, in the brain. My sister came out – she was in the bathroom. He shot her in the heart. Then he shot himself,” Rafique said.


“We came to the conclusion that while it was not the only reason, the religious divide did play a role. It was working in his head somewhere,” she said.


“Then I had to fend for himself. But I was not goping to sit helpless. I am not like that,” she said.


For a 25-year-old woman who had survived so long on her sister’s assistance, life had to begin all over again. She desperately sought work as a television writer, but could not get a job because she had no experience.


She met leading filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt, who was then making his film “Sir”. She finally got the job of an assistant director.


“But I realised I was the 12th assistant. I was an apprentice to an apprentice. I was not even allowed to come and stand next to him,” she said. Rafique quit soon.


Religion would touch her life again. She looked for jobs all day, and then, as she lazily flipped through television channels, she came across speeches by Islamic scholar Dr. Zakir Hussain. For the first time, she began getting interested in studying her own religion.


“I went to Bhendi Bazaar, I had heard you could get the best Quran translations in that area. I read a version written by Dr. Pithall – a Christian who read it and grew interested in Islam and converted,” Rafique said.


She went deeper and deeper into the study of her faith, though she also stepped into a profession considered un-Islamic. To support her family, she began singing in Mumbai bars.


“I had learnt basic classical singing. Someone said `you sing in the bars in the night and look for jobs in the day, you can get Rs 1,000 a day. So I did, but I still did not get writing work,” she said.


But the days of financial hardship were over. She began to get work overseas as well.


“I thought I am destined to be a bar singer. I started going abroad, made a lot of money, the kind of which I had never seen in my life. I just wanted to make money. I used my voice, went to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Muscat,” she said.


When she could no longer go abroad frequently due to her mother’s falling health, Rafique began singing in Bangalore bars three years ago. But police had started raiding bars in Mumbai and Bangalore.


On night, when a Bangalore bar was not shut down even after the midnight deadline, police swooped in. Dozens of people were detained – including Rafique. She sat in a remand home all night, and finally decided: she had to give up that life.


She returned to Mumbai, and went up again to Mahesh Bhatt. Slowly, she began getting some work, until she got to write two films, Who Lamhe and recently Dhoka.


Now 41, Rafique finds that over the years, she has transformed as a person.


“The way I look at my religion has changed completely. I have become much more religious by worldly standards – I pray five times, I keep my roza, there are a lot of do’s which I have turned into don’t’s,” she said. “I was a party-goer, I used to drink, I used to socialize very openly which I have completely stopped. I would not believe in charity, but I have started doing a lot of things.”


She says she would have even worn a burqa but she would probably get no work in Bollywood, where it would be out of place.


Like the protagonist of “Dhoka”, Rafique is also a woman who knows her mind. She holds radical views on religion – and terrorism.


“Every human being has a little bit of terrorist, a suicide bomber in him – it just has to be triggered,” she said. “If you push any community too hard, don’t give them justice, their due rights, push them to a point where they take up arms, then you punish them further – that community is bound to turn into a rebel community,” she said, sitting cross-legged on her bed.


At the same time, Rafique denounces what she called the “victim mentality” among many Muslims.


“Sometimes they lament too much which I don’t agree with. They say we are the only victims. That is not correct,” she said. “I am a survivor. If I could make it, any one can, take my word.”


Then she got up and walked from the room that defines one part of her life – with her computer, her treadmill and the books on screenplay writing – to the room that shapes her other self – where does her namaz five times every day.


But in the twin rooms of work and religion in her mind, there is really no partition. Religion is not a wall for Shagufta Rafique.


“People who hate those of other religion don’t really have a valid reason to hate you – they do so because they have been told to hate you,” she said.