Aug 24, 2008

Entertainment - Beyond prisms of prejudice

The indignant can rest. The prejudiced have seen reason. The Muslims are no longer the whipping boys of contemporary Hindi cinema. Our filmmakers, who till recently seemed only too pleased to show Muslims as the new villains of our cinema – much like the Blacks in the years gone by in Hollywood – have had a fresh appraisal. The days of “Roja”, “Sarfarosh”, “Gadar”, “LoC” and the like are over. With saffron hues not visible on the political horizon, it does not pay to portray the Muslims in poor light anymore. Gone are the gun-toting Muslims, infiltrators and rabble-rousers. In come Muslims as helpless victims of terrorism or average middle class men with innocent dreams. Tulips are replacing cacti. Muslims and patriotism are no longer two irreconcilable identities.
Films like Subhash Ghai’s “Black & White”, Rajkumar Gupta’s “Aamir”, Samar Khan’s “Shaurya”, Mani Shanker’s “Mukhbir” besides earlier ones like “Chak De! India” and “Rang De Basanti” have all spoken up for Muslims, either as victims of terrorism, be it the State-sponsored one in Gujarat or the one inflicted by goons from across the border. Or as common, everyday Indians with a set of problems they share with all others. Indeed, our cinema has taken to new villains — who hail from all communities, caste and creed — just as a new general takes to fresh weapons. If Shimit Amin’s “Chak De” subtly talked of a Muslim’s sense of persecution, Khan’s “Shaurya” raised the spectre of discrimination and Gupta talked of them as helpless receptors of terrors. Like anybody else.
Stereotyped notions
‘There are Hindu fundamentalists, Christian and Sikh fundamentalists too. The fight today is between fundamentalists and modernists.’
Subhash Ghai
Notes seasoned filmmaker Aziz Mirza, whose film “Kismat Konnection” has reaped dividends this year, “Until recently, in Hindi films, the terrorist was a guy with a beard. But nobody tried to find out why he was a terrorist. ‘Roja’ and ‘Bombay’ were all politically pliant.”
Says veteran filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt, whose own film “Zakhm” touched a sensitive chord a few years ago, “It is the ideology of power that rules. It determines the way the wind blows in Bollywood. When Right wing parties ruled, then the movies articulated their world view in a shrill manner. There was demonising of Muslims under the cover of attacking Pakistan. Actually it reflected on to Muslims of India too who had nothing to do with Pakistan.” Indeed. Anil Sharma’s “Gadar”, a roaring success at the box office in 2001 when the NDA ruled, was a case in point. The hero in the film goes to Pakistan to fetch his wife, a Muslim girl. At the customary showdown between the hero, a Sikh, and the villain, a Muslim, the former is asked to pronounce the Kalima, the first basic tenet of Islam, then asked to hail Pakistan before the director rounds it off with the villain asking the hero to denounce India! Pakistan zindabad, Hindustan murdabad! The marriage of Muslims with Pakistan was implicit, the divorce of Muslims and India complete. The film, which reaped a harvest at the box office, was so destructive that it shook the faith of many in our cinema. “Gadar”, unfortunately, was the harbinger of films like “LoC”, “Indian” and countless others with one common element: Muslims as either villains or those denied a shot at heroism. Disturbingly, J.P. Dutta’s “LoC”, a tribute to 29 martyrs of Kargil, did not have time or space for a single Muslim hero. Never mind that in real life many like Captain Hanifuddin sacrificed their life in the war. Why war? Even in cross-religion love stories, Muslims only gave away the girl in marriage, never received a Hindu girl in marriage! All the films came when the saffron forces ruled at the centre, and even a documentary like Rakesh Sharma’s “Final Solutions” that exposed the truth behind the Gujarat genocide, was for long denied a Censor clearance!
Recalls Bhatt, “I had made ‘Zakhm’, which held a mirror to the hideousness of the Right wing. The film was autobiographical in nature. There was a dialogue in the film which went, “Tere baap ka mulk hai…” by Ajay Devgan. It was called an act of hara-kiri. However, it stemmed from the audacity of the filmmaker. I did not come out unscathed. In the footage of the film, I had to digitally colour saffron into grey to get a Censor clearance. It cost some Rs. 40 lakhs at that time. It was a glaring incident of the State stepping into the completed work of a filmmaker and compelling the filmmaker to change the colour of rioters to give a certificate. After all that, they gave it a National Award for the Best Film on National Integration. It was a clever double push.”
Political overtones
‘Until recently, in Hindi films, the terrorist was a guy with a beard. But nobody tried to find out why he was a terrorist.’
Aziz Mirza
Now of course, saffron is not the colour of power. So, our filmmakers have also opened their mind’s window. Says seasoned filmmaker Subhash Ghai, whose “Black & White” traced the origin of a terrorist to post-Godhra Gujarat, “Cinema projects the time and society. In the 1960s and early 70s, we used to have war films because we had wars. Why just us, even Hollywood used to have war films then. Now, we are living in times of harmony, so we show that. Why talk of Muslim psyche in films? We have projected human psyche in our film. There are Hindu fundamentalists, Christian and Sikh fundamentalists too. The fight today is between fundamentalists and modernists. Bollywood cannot afford to show Muslims in poor light any more as there has been an Internet explosion over the past 10 years. People have come together.”
Ghai had another reason to come up with a pacific film, whereby verses of the Holy Quran were used to project Islam as a religion that promotes peace. “I was fed up of doing the same kind of cinema. It was important for me to reinvent myself without caring about the box office.”
Fair enough. Unfortunately, the film did not set the cash registers jingling. Ghai’s failure has failed to dissuade talented filmmaker Mani Shankar from trying his luck at selling a Muslim as the hero of his film, the long-awaited “Mukhbir”. Importantly, unlike a period saga like “Jodhaa Akbar”, he is based in contemporary times. Says Shankar, “In my film, there are points which touch you. In the film a Hindu boy converts to Islam with all his heart because he knows only the truth will come out in the truth serum. He quotes from the Quran too. It is the first of its kind conversion on screen, from a majority to a minority community with no coming back. I found nothing untoward in having a central character as Muslim because I believe your story has to grip the audience. I am putting a wedge between terror and Islam with this film. ‘Mukhbir’ is a fight between a radical Muslim and a moderate one. And an attempt to show there is no sanction to terror in Islam.”
Rare confluence
‘“Mukhbir” is a fight between a radical Muslim and a moderate one. And an attempt to show there is no sanction to terror in Islam.’
Mani shankar
It is a thought shared by Rajkumar Gupta, whose film “Aamir” arrived unheralded at the box office, pitted as it was opposite the much-hyped “Sarkar Raj”. “Aamir” did not remain unsung, winning critical acclaim and reasonable commercial success. The film was, again, a departure from practice. It showed a Muslim as a victim of terrorism rather than a perpetrator. Says Gupta, “I looked at it from the point of a common man co-existing in a society. When I was writing this film, my inspiration was the times we live in. Any act of terror affects everybody. I never looked at the story from a sectarian point of view. Now I am glad the critics as well as the audiences have accepted the film. It is a rare confluence.”
Not so lucky was the Bhatt camp’s “Dhokha”, relating the story of a patriotic Muslim police officer. “In ‘Dhokha’, I looked into that ideology which clamours for militant expression. My films gave a voice to the Muslim moderate, usually ignored in films as in life. I showed a moderate Muslim’s story because in real life also many moderate Muslims are forced to be mute. They feel that whatever they do, they’d find themselves in trouble. If some had radical views that went against their own community, they were dubbed kafir. If they spoke for the community, they were accused of treason. The film did not sell tickets at the box office window but I would call it a document of courage,” says Bhatt. Much like Khan’s “Shaurya” which dared to expose the lid of discrimination in the forces. Two-film-old Khan desisted from diatribes against any community, instead focussing on the story of Captain Javed Khan, a man who had everything going for him except his name. And Khan asks a pertinent question: Why is the entire community painted with the same brush for the crime of one individual? It was not the case when the Mahatma was assassinated. Why should it be like that post-Ayodhya?
Changed ethos
Concludes Bhatt, “With glorious exceptions, filmmakers have always had to play the handmaiden of politics. Even Mani Ratnam many years ago faced something similar to what I experienced with ‘Zakhm’. Things have changed now, films reflect the secular ethos of the country. People are more open about the minorities and it is easier to make such films because of the colour of the government in power.”
And beyond political currents, there is a commercial reason why Hindi cinema is looking at Muslims anew. As Mirza puts it, “Muslims are a big majority of cinema viewing audiences.” Time to sample life as it is?

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