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Bollywood's secular image

In the past, Hindu films projected a world without communal or casteist tensions. But the recent spate of Muslim-bashing films leads V. GANGADHAR to wonder what happened to...

"Tu Hindu banega na Mussalman banega, insaan ke aulad tu insaan banega" (You shall be neither a Hindu child nor a Muslim child but will be a human being).

THUS sang actor Manmohan Krishna after rescuing an abandoned child in B.R. Chopra's 1960s film "Dhool ka Phool". The audience cheered, the film was a hit. In several Hindi films of that era, a Muslim hero Yusuf Khan (Dilip Kumar) sang bhakti songs in temples. The songs were composed by lyricists Shakeel Badayuni or Sahir Ludhianvi, set to music by Naushad Ali and sung by Mohamad Rafi.

Other films portrayed Sardarjis as golden-hearted taxi drivers, ready to help any one. Christian characters were also a friendly lot. Remember Lalita Pawar as the strict but all-heart matron in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's "Anand" a role she played to perfection in dozens of films, as did others like Nazir Hussain as the friendly parish priest.

The Hindi film industry appeared keen to project the image of a world without caste or communal divisions. It gladly accepted Muslims as producers, directors, stars, music directors, lyricists, storywriters and playback singers. They worked in peace and harmony with the Hindus who had been affected by the ravages of Partition. "I was a refugee from Pakistan," recalled actor Sunil Dutt. "But even then, when the wounds were fresh, there were hardly any ill feelings between the two communities. And we tried to make films that would bridge the gulf between the two communities."

Films in those days clearly reflected sentiments stressing the Hindu-Muslim bhai-bhai spirit. The war films of that era like Chetan Anand's "Haqueeqat" showed Hindu and Muslims soldiers fighting the common enemy, the Chinese and sharing the common grief. Villains in Hindi films were not identified with Muslims. They bore exotic names like "Tiger", "Scorpion" or more recently "Mogambo", though some of the sidekicks and the molls had Christian names like Tony, Michael or Monica.

The Christians had some reasons to complain. The short-skirted bar girls, with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of whisky in the other were always Rosie, Mary or Julie.

So Bollywood had the Amars, the Akbars and the Antonys, each swearing undying affection, loyalty to their yaars. Producer-directors like Manmohan Desai exploited the secular theme to the hilt with Amitabh Bachchan praying in the masjid in "Coolie" or singing "My name is Antony Gonsalves" in "Amar Akbar Anthony". The Muslim friends accepted prasad from the Hindu hero's mother and allowed their "sisters" to tie rakhis on their wrists.

But, such secularism had certain limitations. Amar could fall in love with a Rekha, Anthony with a Nancy and Akbar could romance a Mumtaz. But a Hindu hero could not fall in love with a Muslim girl or vice versa. Bollywood directors and producers did not see this as hypocrisy. "Our films had to reflect common life," producer-directors Nasir Hussain and Manmohan Desai said often. "Mixed marriages are not common in society and we cannot show them on the screen." Secularism on the screen had to stop with friendship, though new wave films occasionally dealt with the issue of inter-caste-and-communal marriages. "The issue sometimes can become sensitive," said one producer. "Perhaps, after some more years, we can do such films." So while Bollywood practised a kind of limited secularism in the past, the current trend is to indulge in crude, needless Muslim baiting. Starting with the highly successful "Gadar", this has continued with films like "Hero", "Qayamat" and "Jaal". Three films starred Sunny Deol and did good business in North India. The dialogues were quite offensive. The purpose of such films, ostensibly, was to attack Pakistan, but the focus was clearly on Indian Muslims. It reflects the current political thinking in the region when Pakistan has been identified as our enemy and held responsible for communal violence in Kashmir and other parts of India.

Producer Harry Baweja denied that his film "Qayamat" was anti-Muslim and pointed out that a patriotic police officer in the film Akram (Suneil Shetty) died fighting Muslim terrorists. Storywriter Shaktiman ("Hero", "Gadar") explained it was his duty to bridge the gulf between India and Pakistan. But none of them would explain why Hindu hymns, like "Om Jai Jagdish...", were played whenever Sunny Deol encountered Muslim terrorists.

"Qayamat" made a good beginning at the box office but collections dropped by the end of the first week. The anti-Muslim dialogue did please frontbenchers in some centres and was cheered. "Jaal" flopped, so did the expensive "Hero". Perhaps, this trend had something to do with the current political thinking and the aggressive Hindutva sentiments propagated by groups like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. The media covers, round the clock, the ranting of men like VHP chief Praveen Togadia and no news is complete without references to Ayodhya.

According to producer-director Mahesh Bhatt, films reflect current trends and Muslim baiting is a part of it. This is only a passing trend, and did not reflect the general thinking in the industry.

But Bollywood is now divided politically. In the past, stars were apolitical or supported the Congress. Today, the BJP boasts of stars like Vinod Khanna, Shatrugan Sinha, Hema Malini and Manoj Kumar in its fold. A comic touch was added when Juhi Chawla chose to campaign for Narendra Modi in the last Gujarat assembly elections on the grounds that, having married a Gujarati industrialist, she was "Gujarat ni bahu" (daughter-in-law of Gujarat).

We also cannot ignore the Bal Thackeray factor. Even while professing secularism, leading stars including Amitabh Bachchan are in awe of the Sena Chief. Thackeray has close links with the film industry. None of the stars came out in support of actors Dilip Kumar, Shabana Azmi or A.K. Hangal when they were harassed by the Sena mob for their alleged pro-Pakistani and pro-Muslim attitude. Marxist Hangal, in his 80s, incurred the wrath of the Sena chief for attending the Pakistani Independence Day celebrations when, in fact, he had gone to the High Commission for some official work. Dilip Kumar did not heed the Sena demand to return an award given to him by the Pakistan government while Shabana, time and again, has shown her indifference to the Sena tantrums. Bollywood's reluctance to come out in support of its members was clearly not in keeping with its secular image. Perhaps, the Censor Board, rather than being obsessed with issues of sex and violence, should also pay some attention to the communal poison projected by some of the recent films.

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