Ira Bhaskar and Richard Allen's new book seeks to explore the Muslim ethos of the Hindi film industry.

The media is agog with promos of Shah Rukh Khan's “My Name is Khan”, an unusual Hindi film selling itself with the name of the Muslim protagonist. Though an increasingly rare instance now, Shah Rukh's film is merely walking down the lane populated by countless Muslim historicals, social dramas and the like. Remember the likes of “Ghalib”, “Shah Jahan”, “Raziya Sultan”, etc?

That's fine. But when was the last time you saw an out and out Muslim social or a historical drama? Yes, we had Ashutosh Gowariker's “Jodhaa-Akbar” recently — significantly the film that related the love story of the greatest Moghul ruler had his name following that of the princess — and the low-profile “Tehzeeb”, “Fiza” and “Anwar” a little before that. By the way, Shah Rukh's name Kabir was almost incidental to “Chak de India”.

Quietly, almost imperceptibly, our film industry with the changing global political climate has virtually bid adieu to the Muslim social/historical. It was not so even a couple of decades ago when ace director Manmohan Desai who was majorly responsible for crafting Amitabh Bachchan's angry young man persona said, “If Muslims do not like a film, it flops”. Not to mention the withholding of major releases in the month of Ramzan when the faithful stay away from theatres. Politically expedient cinema seems to rule the roost.

Not just Muslim subjects or films based in a normal every day Muslim family, have died a silent death, Muslim ethos seems to have vanished too. The ideals of tehzeeb, cultured interaction, free flowing poetry, rulers with a sense of justice, have all declined.

A far cry from the days when a run of the mill film called “Villain” could have the evil guy quote Ghalib even as he captured the heroine using disguise! “Badal kar faqiron ka hum bhes Ghalib Tamashai-i-abl-i-karam dekhte hain,” he said and the masses applauded.

All the more reason to take some time out for Ira Bhaskar and Richard Allen's labour of love called “Islamicate Cultures of Bombay Cinema”, a 340-odd page saga that seems destined to live longer than the subject in these turbulent times. Though Ira and her co-author's work opens only a window to the Muslim culture, what it reveals is vital, what it conceals is suggestive.

Universal ethos

Probably taking inspiration from the words of Rumi who once said, “The house of love has doors and roofs made of music, melody and poetry”, Ira focuses on the Muslim ethos of the industry, on films that talked of sense of justice of the Moghul rulers and a culture that resonated with Urdu poetry borrowing liberally from Perso-Arabic sources.

Beginning with the silent era films most of which talked of the sense of equal partnership of Moghul rulers with their non-Muslim subjects, and on to films like “Pukar” and “Mughal-e-Azam”, Ira makes a neat delineation of Muslim historicals, classic socials, courtesan films and new wave Muslim socials.

Of course, there is no room for the likes of “Aamir” or “Chak De India”. In these films, the subject was Muslim but the ethos more universal, the unique cultural elegance, the throb of passion, the graces and courtesies all absent. “We stopped at the year 2000. ‘Aamir' and all came later,” clarifies Ira.

The book that was released some time back, emanated from a film festival in Abu Dhabi. Ira had helped curate a festival of films titled ‘Muslim Cultures of Bombay Cinema' that took place under the auspices of the New York University Institute in Abu Dhabi. Says Ira, “The work on this book started about five years ago. A lot of work was done during my dissertation, then Prof Allen asked me to collaborate for the film festival. We decided to do the book instead of just a catalogue as very little material was available for students.”

Says Ira, who is an associate professor of cinema studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, “The book explores the Islamicate cultures that richly inform Bombay cinema. These cultures are imagined forms of the past, and therefore a contested site of histories and identities. Yet they also form a culturally potent and aesthetically fertile reservoir of images and idioms through which Muslim communities are represented and represent themselves.”

Sense of justice

She talks in great detail about the Muslim rulers' sense of justice. “Our films have projected the Moghul rulers as apostles of justice for two ideological reasons. During the anti-colonial ruler, they were the symbols of power and repositories of justice. Then during Nehruvian era after Independence, films showed them as symbols of tolerance. Films fulfilled two different ideological functions in two different times.”

And how does she see “Jodhaa-Akbar”? “The film is so named because of gender reasons. Also, an attempt is made to give importance of Jodha. Ashutosh could do it because there is no historical evidence about her. He could invest the character on his own.”

Fine. But even Ira's book talks of Muslim stereotypes, at least with respect to classic socials dealing with nautch girls and nawabs. “Nawabs populated an imaginary world and people argue that not all nawabs were like that. But certain stereotypes are necessary to show a certain slab of our society. And nawabi culture was certainly aristocratic, steeped in Persian and chaste Urdu.”

However, the book that talks of contribution of many non-Muslims in the making of Muslim classics — likes of Sohrab Modi, Guru Dutt, Shyam Benegal — ignores many important films like “Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam” and also films that had a prominent Muslim character without falling into the classification of a Muslim social? Films like “Amar Akbar Anthony”, “Gadar” and later “Bus Itna Sa Khwab Hai?

“We did not touch those films because they were not Muslim socials. Maybe they will be the subject of my next book.” If the next book comes with as fresh an approach and a blend of scholarly wisdom and aesthete's eye, it will be worth waiting for.

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