Will Bollywood ever get to portray Muslim characters realistically in its films?
He used to be omnipresent in the psyche of Bollywood and made his presence felt in every other Hindi film. The benign Muslim with a beard and a prayer cap, ever ready to extend a helping hand to the protagonist in distress. He dispensed charity, advice and wisdom about the almighty with the same serene look on his face. He turned all the more important if the film had a Muslim as the villain. That blasphemy had to be balanced out with this symbol of purity and virtue.
Remember the all-time favourite Sholay and how the grandfather, played by a wizened A.K. Hangal, recalled that it was time for his namaaz immediately after the discovery of the brutal murder of his grandson. He is the best prototype of this symbolic representation given to India's largest minority in films. That is unless the movie belonged to that quaint farcical genre called the “Muslim Social”. The men in these films paraded in ornamental sherwanis, the women in colourful ghararas and spouted romantic sher and shairi at the drop of a hat. We don't know when and where this caricature disappeared from our national pastime.
Only to be replaced by another kind of unrealistic depiction. The latest avatar of the reigning superstar in My name is Khanis an example of this non-change. Rizwan Khan suffers from Asperger's syndrome that in lesser mortals would translate into a challenge that is defined by low social skills and a deep aversion to loud noises, certain colours and lack of structure. In Karan Johar's latest popcorn venture parading as serious cinema, the character played by Shah Rukh Khan, miraculously translates these disadvantages into a kind of relentless nobility. He spells out to everyone he meets in the American streets “My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist.” Only the President of the world's “greatest” democracy gets the better of him. On meeting Khan, he declares immediately “Your name is Khan and you are not a terrorist,” before Khan can do the honours.
Maybe Johar was exorcising his guilt while making the film. After all, in Kurbaan, the last venture he produced under his banner, all the “Khans” turned out to be terrorists, including the mother who until then had escaped critical scrutiny by Bollywood directors. In the holy cows propagated by Indian cinema, “Maa” has always come first, unless she turned out to be sauteli. And here was this matriarch played by Kiran Kher transformed into a ruthless suicide bomber with a filmy pathan accent. Johar and his debut director got inspired by a Hollywood flop, Arlington Road and vested their version with religious bias. The result was a deeply flawed film that broke every norm of political correctness.
The female protagonist is a Hindu professor teaching in a university in New York who gets tricked into marrying a Muslim terrorist. He, along with his family, puts her under house arrest the moment she chances on his nefarious plans, leading to the most disturbing denouement seen in a Hindi film in recent times. He is shot dead by the authorities and his wife's grief-stricken face teases the audience in a close up. She is mourning a man who has deceived her at every turn, threatened to kill her father and reacted humanly only when he finds out she is carrying “his” baby. The prevailing thread in the film is the righteous Hindu wife and her evil in-laws. The family has turned out that way because some of its members have either been tortured or killed by the white American regime.
A few months before Kurbaan released, there had been another Hindi film, New York, that trod on a similarly problematic premise. But at least in that one, the mantle of the virtuous was also worn by the Muslim friend like in the films of yore. Mercifully, the tokenism was very much in place to balance the new disturbing trend.
The subliminal message in all these films is that terrorism results out of a sense of personal vengeance. The Islamic terrorist has been ravaged by the hegemony of the US and wants to get even by killing innocents. None of these films try to reflect on the phenomenon of terrorism intelligently. What did Iraq and Afghanistan have to do with the siege of Bombay last year? But it is tricky for a Bollywood film to go there. Our desi mainstream directors are likely to balk at the idea of terrorism being spawned by truths closer at home like the Babri Masjid demolition or the Gujarat riots.
It is only by design and not accident that a New York or a Kurbaan unfolds in the American context. The two feuding parties, the white American population as well as the Islamic terrorists, can be perceived as adversaries by the Indian audience. So the makers get to be like the clever monkey who decided to settle the feud between the two cats and gobbled the cake himself.
In a free country like ours, a filmmaker has every right to make the film of his choice. But if he decides to work an unacceptable sub-text into the narrative, he needs to be taken to task by critics and audience alike. These films have used fundamentalism and terrorism like many Indian directors in the past have used the act of rape. To titillate the audience rather than showing it as the repugnant act it is. Even the nobility of Rizwan Khan as a counter point seems to emerge from his special needs rather than this religion. To make him into an Islamic representative is like saying Forrest Gump symbolises the all-American male.
The silver lining to all this is that our audience has turned more intelligent. They rejected Kurbaan outright, ignoring the gushing front page reviews carried by some of the leading publications. And it is abundantly clear no one apart from the Shiv Sena is taking My name is Khan seriously, despite the current critical hosannas pouring on it.
It is high time our film makers realised the only way to go is to make the Muslim characters in a film as human as the rest of them. The caricature has outlived its purpose.