In his book “Cinema That Heals” Ashok Raj scrutinises the role of cinema in reconciling differences

In the aftermath of Partition, a cinema hall in Delhi stood a helpless witness to the goings-on. Every day, the railway station next door had hundreds of nervous passengers whose life depended on boarding the next train to Pakistan. At the same station, every day, trains arrived from Pakistan with loads of dead bodies and wailing survivors, some assaulted, others robbed, all suffering unimaginable torture. Within no time, the demography of the area underwent a complete overhaul. Understandably, the cinema that often played Muslim socials until Independence stayed quiet for a while. Then, the business resumed with the cinema now concentrating on showing Punjabi flicks as most new residents spoke that language.

For a while, cinema ceased to be a uniting factor for a nation at war with itself. Gradually peace returned and the society picked up the pieces; life moved on . It was no longer a sin to talk of the shared past; and our films once again took recourse to depicting the beautiful age when the cultured spoke Persian, the lesser privileged spoke Urdu. Some films like Anarkali, Mughal-e-Azam and later Taj Mahal depicted a romance of Muslim princes; others like Baiju Bawra carved out their own niche on special moments like three Muslims — music director Naushad, playback singer Mohammed Rafi and lyricist Shakeel Badayuni — joining hands to come up with a timeless bhajan, “Man Tarpat Hari Darshan Ko Aaj”. They all raked it rich at the box office. And gradually helped the nation rediscover itself; a society that was pluralist in ethos and spirit.

Yet it is this role of Indian cinema that has not often been subject to scrutiny or critical appreciation. Ashok Raj has sought to fill this void with a painstakingly researched book, Cinema that Heals (published by Hay House). The book fills in the blanks admirably as the author goes about segregating cinema on the basis of its tenor. There is a section on historical films where the likes of Humayun and Mughal-e-Azm find space, just as there is a separate section on films hailing harmony and tolerance as a way of life. It is in this section that the most unexpected of films make their presence felt. For instance, Ashok talks of Padosi, V. Shantaram’s classic that is often ignored under the weight of his other masterpieces like Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje, Navrang and even Do Aankhen Barah Haath. Incidentally, Shantaram is often given much credit for reviving Indian classical culture on the big screen, and very little for giving us a film like Padosi where the two protagonists are neighbours, one a calm Muslim, the other an excitable Hindu.

Padosi came at the height of our freedom movement and helped assuage many fractious elements. Much later came K.A. Abbas’s Saat Hindustani, which the common cinegoers remember only as Amitabh Bachchan’s first film. Yet it sent out a message of social harmony cutting across all divides; the seven Indians in the film include a Punjabi farmer, a Marathi folk artiste, a North Indian Brahmin, a South Indian, a Dailt and a Christian Goan nationalist. It is to Ashok’s credit that he deems it fit to include a film like Saat Hindustani or even the almost completely forgotten Shankar Husain in the book. Again, Shankar Husain is remembered for Rafi’s soothing song, “Kahin ek masoom nazuk si ladki”. The film’s credit though lay in the juxtaposition of two foster parenthoods, one Hindu, one Muslim whereby the director, Yusuf Naqvi, establishes the interchangeability of the communal identity. Shankar Husain, again Ashok reminds us, provided a rare occasion when a film depicted authentic Shia Muslim culture with charbait, a rare singing genre well removed from the ever popular qawwali.

The book, however, is not a nostalgia-driven exercise. Recent films like Rang De Basanti, Firaaq, Main Hoon Na and Anwar find space too. Laudably, the author is able to point out the nuances a lay man might have missed while watching the films, some of which were high on symbolism. However, a couple of things spoils Ashok’s clean slate. Like the place where he talks of Gadar, Anil Sharma’s box office winner, he fails to read that the film was a not-so-subtle attempt at linking Islam with Pakistan and delinking it with India. Yes, Sharma, on the surface related a love story of a Sikh who rescues a Muslim girl at the time of Partition, but the asides he took all along unmistakably spoiled the taste. In a telling scene, the heroine’s father agrees to his daughter’s marriage to the Sikh only if he pronounced the Kalima, then hails Pakistan before denouncing India. In one scene, the marriage of Pakistan with Islam was complete as was its divorce with India. More was the cause for rancour.

However, Gadar is a little blip in an otherwise meticulously researched, ably worded book. It talks of Garm Hava but also remembers the oft-forgotten gems like Garam Coat and Hum Ek Hain. As for the cinema hall that was a silent witness to Partition, well, not long ago, it screened Gadar. At this brick and mortar structure, time stands still.