There is today a world-wide resurgence of the politics of identity, separateness and divide. This has been spurred by declarations of an ongoing global ‘war on terror’, consummating in bloody military enterprises that have casually decimated vast helpless civilian populations. Religious texts as well as democratic principles have been reinterpreted to justify violent reprisals and to deny democratic rights. Democratic governments have felt it fit to label, place under surveillance and, in many cases, detain, torture and even exterminate people held in suspicion primarily because of their religious faith. But the greatest battle of all has been in the hearts and minds of people, in the everyday discourse of homes, classrooms and work-places, where the people of one faith have been demonised globally for their allegedly violent histories, and their alleged pervasive contemporary sympathies for terrorism.
It is inevitable that this battle would spill over also into the songs we sing, the poetry we recite, and — in particular in this part of the world — in the films we make. This cinema is notoriously unrealistic in its literal depiction of people’s lives. But because of the special emotional resonance of films with people in South Asia, they are often authentic as reflections of popular consciousness. It is, therefore, instructive to observe the evolution of the depiction of Muslim people in Indian cinema. In the relatively idealistic early decades after Independence, Muslim people were an essential element of the ‘formula’ of popular Hindi cinema, homogenised as gentle, friendly, benign neighbours, or people of exceptional culture, grace and poetry. In more recent times, their metamorphosis was precipitous, into shadowy, sinister figures: mafia, criminal, traitor, regressive, people who always initiate riots, are fundamentalist, violent. But many recent films have challenged these troubling, false stereotypes, and several have received enthusiastic audience endorsement.
Important among these is a popular Pakistani film, Khuda Kay Liye. Although flawed as cinema, it is a moral document of unusual humanism. The film attempts a brave, searching exploration of the struggles that people of faith in Islam are embroiled in, as they strive to sift right and wrong in a world which holds them responsible for the reprehensible crimes of a few who claim to defend their faith. It tries to make sense of the teachings of some leaders of their faith, who interpret its texts in ways that deny its syncretic humanist traditions, and who justify the oppression of women and the bloody often random extermination of not just people of different faiths but even liberal and progressive political persuasions. It also tries to understand the compatibility of Islam with Western sensibilities of dress and music.
The film endorses one of the most profound truths of our times: that the central battle is not of Islam with other faiths. The real war is between humanist and liberal interpretations and practices of faiths, and versions that advocate division, patriarchy, hate and violence. This war is by no means restricted to Islam, but people of Muslim faith in every country are forced more than any other to constantly make public choices about which side they stand on in this battle, because much of the world assumes that they are on the side of loathing and shedding of the blood of innocents. They shout their dissent, and sometimes pay for it with their lives, but few hear them, as they find themselves condemned because of the faith to which they are born.
The film has the quality of anguished honesty: as it tracks this turmoil within Islam, it holds up its own truths for scrutiny by the rest of the world. And yet the truths it captures are universal. The film is not a portrayal of contemporary Islam alone; it is a mirror to fundamentalist resurgence in every major faith today. The bids of the Muslim cleric in the film to ‘rescue’ women who wish to marry outside their faith by abducting them and forcing them into weddings with men of their own religion could be the mission of a Babu Bajrangi in Gujarat. The endorsement of retributive violence against ‘other’ peoples echoes Bush’s doctrine of ‘collateral damage’ and his and Blair’s frequent reference to ‘crusades’, or Modi’s resort to Newtonian physics to justify the post-Godhra massacres.
The cleric’s mocking of NGOs in the court scene of Khuda Kay Liye could have been Modi caricaturing ‘five-star’ NGOs or K.P.S. Gill’s indictment of human rights groups. The harrowing portrayal of cruel torture of a Muslim man under police detention after 9/11 in Chicago resonates chillingly with many testimonies of torture and illegal detention of Muslim youth in Gujarat after 2002, or in Hyderabad after the bomb blasts last year. It is not the truth of Islam, of the ‘other’ out there that the film recreates; it is the picture of all of us, if we have the courage and compassion to see and hear it.
My main quarrel with the film is its resolution. In its climax, the services of a ‘good’ cleric are recruited, as he offers his interpretation of Islamic scriptures, not just to justify music and Western dress and culture (which it could be argued was legitimate), but also to affirm that a woman cannot be forced to marry and have sex with her husband against her will. I feel troubled that judges of the court in the film rely on his interpretation of scriptures as clinching evidence, rather than reference to the undisputed facts, to reason and the secular law of the land; to gender equality, tolerance and the respect of adult choice.
The court is dealing with a grave crime, of clerics motivating a young man to abduct, marry and rape his cousin to prevent her from marrying a white Christian man. By subjecting this crime to interrogation by faith rather than law and secular notions of justice, the film in the end compromises its universalistic, liberal and modernist premise. There is an attractive finale of the young protagonist back in his jeans and jaunty cap, defiantly confronting the disapproval of the hardline cleric by delivering the call to prayers in the mosque. But before he does that, I would have felt reassured to see him jailed for abducting and raping his cousin.
There have been some as honestly introspective films about Hindu fundamentalism in India. The best recent example is Parzania, which tracks the heart-breaking search of parents for their child who disappeared in the 2002 carnage in Gujarat. It is as agonisingly scrupulous in its portrayal of Hindutva politics, and ends far more reassuringly, with the resolve of the survivors to fight against all odds for justice in the courts of law. Equally important is Shaurya, which courageously admits to communalism in the armed forces, and to human rights abuses against children in Kashmir. The Muslim officer who defends the civilians against the atrocities by his brother officer in uniform is viewed with suspicion because of his faith. The ‘loyalty’ test that Muslim citizens often find themselves subjected to was also illustrated in one of the most popular films of last year, Chak De! India, in which a Muslim hockey coach is believed to have deliberately thrown a match against Pakistan. In both films, audiences backed the Muslim who was unfairly labelled.
All these films revive hope, that ultimately in the battle of hearts and minds — that rages in the name both of global crusade against terror, and the political mobilisation within India around religious identity — justice, truth and compassion still have a chance.
Harsh Mander is the convenor of Aman Biradari