Consider this. There would have been no
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge
(1995), if its director Aditya Chopra had stuck to his resolve — of narrating a love story about a boy-meets-girl in the midst of communal riots.
Turns out that their families are more incendiary and unreasonable than the rioters during the 1993-94 conflagrations in Mumbai.
Evidently, Chopra discarded his original script because he didn’t want to gamble with an iffy topic at the box office. Moreover, Mani Ratnam was already about to outrace him to the screens with Bombay (1995), a sit-on-the-fence account of the riots carnage.
Today, Chopra’s much-vaunted Yash Raj banner is studying white collar terrorism in a film titled New York which has just completed principal shooting in the US. On another plane altogether, with the sleeper successes of Khuda Kay Liye (imported from Pakistan) and A Wednesday, as well as the critical laurels gathered by Aamir and Mumbai Meri Jaan, terrorism has become a desirable theme on Bollywood’s storyboard. In addition, Muslims have also been associated with D-Company godsons and god-bhais who squat in dimly lit ghetto interiors designed by Ram Gopal Varma.
Is this what we are? Without attempting to understand the Muslim psyche or why lumpen elements are spawned, screenplays are setting up despicable stereotypes. Muslims in films today, are out to kill in the garb of assassins and assorted bozos who have emerged from a limbo land.
In this, Indian cinema is not alone. The Muslim as the terrorist lunatic is everywhere, be it in a Die Hard blockbuster, giving Bruce Willis a run for his bullets. And the infallibly bearded and shifty Muslim is a staple in every hijack ‘entertainer.’ In the recent rush of Hollywood war movies, the Muslim is by contrast faceless but as dreadful. Although these movies critique the US involvement in the Iraq war, the recalcitrant American soldier is canonised as the war hero. As for the other’s dead? Hopefully they art in heaven, inshallah.
More than any other cinemas of the world, ours has to deal with a multiplicity of communities. Like the Parsis, too often reduced to air-gulping clowns. As for Christians, they are portrayed as ‘Kya bolta hai, men?’ rum guzzlers or are represented by Janet of Fashion who must choose between unhappiness and marrying a gay at a church wedding. None of us has come a long way baby.
Minorities just cannot be heroic. Custom has made it a must for the hero to be a Rahul or a Rohit and the heroine to be a Sapna or Suman. In any case, beyond the same old naming ceremonies, how many of the ‘now’ generation’s film makers are even remotely interested in breaking the norms or in doing something — anything! — through a populist medium?
Entertainment, it is presumed, doesn’t gel with purposeful stories. It is argued that mainstream cinema, by its very nature, isn’t realistic or relevant to the conditions around us.
Periodically, demographic statistics have affirmed that the Indian Muslim is the most fervent and passionate filmgoer. In most metropolitan cities, after the Friday afternoon namaaz, sizeable numbers make a beeline for the new movie in town. Lose them and you lose a huge slab of the ticket vote-bank. Indeed, in a bid to appease this section of the audience, there was a time when films would add a sympathetic Chacha Rahim, a qawwal Altaf, or a sacrificial goat who takes the bullet for Hero Rohit at the end.
Today, though, there is something downright crude in the representation of Muslims in the movies. For instance, there was neither head nor tale to the Salman Khan clinker, Tumko Na Bhool Payenge (2002), in which a Muslim gadabout goes amnesiac, is adopted by a Hindu family, retrieves his memory and fetches up at the Haji Ali dargah. If any point was being conveyed it was entirely lost on the audience. Maine Dil Tujhko Diya (2002) exhibited Sanjay Dutt as a Muslim don with a heart of gold; Dutt repeated the act as ‘Iqbal Danger’ in Annarth (2002). Nothing can be done. We have been painted by the bhai brush.
Even in films that are notches above the commonplace, there have been transgressions. Example: Sarfarosh (1999). The bad guy, Naseeruddin Shah, is a ghazal singer from Pakistan. As if to redress the balance, a cop is depicted as a nationalist Muslim victimised by his superiors and by the world at large.
Most filmmakers care a dried fig for what sub-texts and subterranean messages are being bleeped out to an audience that is largely unlettered and impressionable. If Muslim bashing is on, so be it.
Still, any purist (idealistic?) filmmaker will tell you that characters emerge from the plot — caste, creed and religion no bar. It doesn’t matter if you’re black, brown or white, Hindu, Muslim or Christian. As long as the filmmaker believes in a story, as long as there is conviction that the story must be told, that’s cinema.
Otherwise, you might as well play the anorexic stock market, the loaded roulette or the iffy horse races. Playing with cinema and communities may pay... but for how long and, at whose expense?