Bollywood and the business of secularism

Despite its Amar Akbar Anthony halo, the film industry’s secular credentials appear shaped more by commerce than ideology

April 15, 2017 08:30 pm | Updated December 05, 2021 09:01 am IST

Muslims are either very bad or very good, either terrorists and dons or impossibly good patriots. Still from Amar Akbar Anthony

Muslims are either very bad or very good, either terrorists and dons or impossibly good patriots. Still from Amar Akbar Anthony

A good line works on two levels, sometimes more. The makers of Raees use this line several times in the film: “ Ammi jaan kehti thi kii koi kaam chhota nahin hota, aur dhande se bada koi dharam nahin hota (My mother used to say no work is too small to do, and no religion is bigger than business.).” Shah Rukh Khan’s warm whisky voice says this over the opening visuals of freight vessels at sea in the trailer. The first meaning holds direct reference to the plot of course: Raees Alam, a young don-on-the-make, gets into a spectacular fight in a meat market over setting up a mutton stall and comes up against the big man in the Mumbai underworld. Big don tells Raees that dons don’t sell goat meat. Raees quotes his mother’s words.

At another level, the line might be an admonition to the ruling nationalist party. Don’t sell religion, give us the promise of development; give us the best possible conditions for business. Later in the film, when Raees murders the big Bombay don for engineering bomb blasts in a communally-charged atmosphere, he inverts the original line. “ Main dharam ka dhanda nahin karta. (I don’t trade in religion.)”

There is a third possible interpretation: could this be Bollywood confessing that its fabled secularism is more about sensible business than an ideological commitment? This reading resonates, particularly in the light of the depressing developments around the films Padmavati and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil . After Padmavati director Sanjay Leela Bhansali was attacked on the film’s sets by an outfit called Rajput Karni Sena this February, his team quickly signed an undertaking that read in part: “…this is to specifically clarify that there is no romantic dream sequence or any objectionable romantic scene between Rani Padmavati and Alauddin Khilji.”

The statement makes no mention of how this might affect the director’s vision. The message is direct: We have invested money here, we don’t want it to come to nothing. Nasty as the attack was, it is hard not to see this as a capitulation. Dhande se bada koi dharam nahin hota .

Bollywood has long carried a secular halo, aided by Amar, Akbar, Anthony , the terrific success of Muslim actors, the industry’s general religious diversity, and the presence of Sufi and myriad influences in its music. Is this enough to call it secular? Or is this secularism just a sensible sales pitch? In a multi-ethnic box office like India, you want to sell as many tickets as you can, you want to make overtures of inclusion.

After Raees , there was Jolly LLB 2 , which placed the Muslim question at the centre of the narrative. Sayani Gupta’s Heena is, in fact, the film’s conscience, and her ghost cracks open protagonist Jolly Mishra’s hard-boiled conscience as well. Then there was Rangoon , in many ways the opposite of Raees : Shahid Kapur’s Nawab Malik did not wear kohl or pathani suits like Raees Alam, but he is indisputably the heart of the film. Now, Naam Shabana and Begum Jaan have hit the screens, and later this year, there is Haseena , the story of Mumbai don Dawood Ibrahim’s sister. And, of course, Padmavati with Khilji. By Bollywood standards, this is an unusually large batch of big-ticket films with Muslim protagonists. (Can you think of the last time there were this many non-Hindu heroes?


Secularism, in the context of the Indian state, has a distinct connotation: it stands for religious plurality. (Therefore, we have an official Haj subsidy and state funding for the Kumbh melas, among several other religious subsidies.) When we look at Bollywood through this lens of plurality, things don’t look good. It breaks my heart a bit to say this because I love Bollywood. Sometimes, I feel I was brought up by the T.V. set in the drawing room. And in many ways, Bollywood is a wider window to life than my posh Calcutta school, where we were valued per capita of elite privilege—what your parents did, how many colonial clubs you were members of, how talented you were at piano or some Brahminical or high Western culture form. Compared to this, Bollywood felt truly inclusive. But then, Bollywood was also the reason I wondered why the four Muslim girls we had in school weren’t scooping up the earth in salaam or becoming my best friend after half a minute’s conversation. That’s what Muslim (or Sikh) friends in Bollywood are like—loyal, unquestioning and always available.

Once we look past the family friends and the qawwalis and the warm glow of Amar Akbar Anthony , and look closer at how Muslims (and minorities) are characterised, it’s mostly stereotypes. Muslims are either bad (meaning criminal), or very good, either terrorists and dons or impossibly good patriots. Raees , Rangoon and Naam Shabana play into this typology. It’s only Jolly that gives us a Muslim who dreams of love and marriage, who enjoys sex, who fights for justice and gives up in despair. Christians are drunks and promiscuous. Sikhs protagonists didn’t exist till about 10 years ago. A statistical study of Hindi films found 82% of films released in 2013 and 88% released in 2014 featuring Hindu heroes. If we look at whose stories get told and how, we distinctly see a cinema that is Hindu by habit, secular by assertion and bania by instinct.

I’ll unpack this, part by part.

Hindu by habit

First things first. The three Khans (there’s also Saif in the A-list): Aamir, Salman and Shah Rukh are indeed the biggest stars, yet their filmography is almost entirely made up of Hindu heroes. In an essay, Mukul Kesavan identified them as representing the “Hindu everyman”. Salman Khan’s most enduring screen name is Prem, and Shah Rukh is identified with Rahul. Aamir has played a variety of characters in his career yet rarely a Muslim. I can recall only Deepa Mehta’s Earth , and Fanaa , where he played a terrorist.

Then there’s the issue of screen names. For several years leading up to Partition and after, Bollywod’s Muslim stars took on Hindu names. The most famous of these are Dilip Kumar (Yusuf Khan), Madhubala (Mumtaz Jaan Dehlavi) and Meena Kumari (Mahjabeen Bano).

Others include Nimmi (Nawab Bano), Ajit (Hamid Ali Khan) and Jagdeep (Syed Ishtiaq Ahmed Jaffrey). Waheeda Rehman was asked to adopt a different name, but refused. At some point, the practice stopped. Amjad Khan used his real name, while his father had changed his to Jayant. Can you think of any Hindu star who had to take on a “catchy” Muslim or Christian name?

Then, there are the screen rituals of Bollywood—the weddings and the funerals. The Hindu shaadi looms so large that we now have two sub-genres of song sequences—the wedding song and the sangeet song.

There is the entire iconography of the mandap , sindoor , maang , saat phere . True, we’ve have seen some nikaahs, in Ishqiya and Zubeidaa , for instance, but how many? The defining image of death on the Hindi film screen is the chitaah (funeral pyre). How many Christian or Muslim burials can you remember?

I use the term ‘habit’ deliberately here. Habit is routine, it makes for reflexes. It may not be reflective of intentionally ‘Hindu’ choices; nevertheless habit does shape decision-making.

Secular by assertion

The Hindi film industry’s secular cred owes chiefly to the outsize influence of Amar Akbar Anthony . In this delicious, madcap film, the Muslim Akbar and the Christian Anthony are far more tasty characters than the straitlaced Amar. In the book Amar Akbar Anthony: Bollywood, Brotherhood and the Nation , the academics Elison, Novetzke and Rotman note that the original family to which the three brothers belong is Hindu. The symbolism is obvious—the family is the nation, hence India is Hindu.

They also note how Akbar and Anthony’s identities are detailed with qawwalis and Easter-egg scenarios but Amar, the Hindu, needs no such texture. None of this takes away from the film’s secularism but reading the fine print brings to light interesting assumptions.

But it’s hard to see Bollywood cinema as a whole as secular when it has such a serious stereotyping problem. The Muslim protagonist is most often one of a stock set of figures, of which the terrorist/ don would be the most prominent today: Saif Ali Khan in Kurbaan , John Abraham in New York , Aamir Khan in Fanaa , Hrithik Roshan in Fida and Mission Kashmir , Ajay Devgn and Emraan Hashmi in Once Upon a Time in Mumbai , SRK in Raees . (Film scholar Rachel Dwyer has drawn up an excellent typology of Muslim tropes.)

Christians are invariably non-virginal girls (the eponymous Julie and Bobby , Rosie in Guide , Deepika Padukone’s Veronica in Cocktail ), drunks ( Julie , Bobby , Amar Akbar Anthony , David ) and smoky, smooth villains (Robert, Peter, and the varied bosses of ’70s films). The Parsis are confirmed eccentrics and speakers of absurdly-accented Hindi.

In the past decade, there have been several films where the Muslim is constructed as the impossibly good hero and patriot. Shahid Kapur in Rangoon , Saif Ali Khan in Phantom , Shah Rukh Khan in Chak De! India and My Name is Khan , Shreyas Talpade in Iqbal, and now Taapsee Pannu in Naam Shabana— She is a good daughter. She’s one among only four people recruited for a super-elite security agency. She’s so good she is plucked out of basic training to take down a criminal who has escaped the world’s top agencies for 10 years.

It feels almost like an atonement for the terrorist/ don trope. It sends out an unfortunate message, however, that the Muslim’s citizenship—in cinema, and by implication, in society—is conditional on excellence.

Take My Name is Khan : Shah Rukh Khan has Asperger’s Syndrome, he is a genius, a devoted partner and father, works tirelessly to save lives when Hurricane Katrina hits, he doesn’t give up until he meets the American president. Does all this ring true? Can a person be so perfect? Isn’t it tiresome?

Think also of Shahid Kapur’s Nawab Malik in Rangoon : fiercely patriotic, unblinking before death, respectful and true to his lover, a man of revolution and dreams and love and loyalty. What gives? This is not a man of flesh and blood. This is a bore.

It is arguably as much a problematic stereotype when we construct Muslims (or any minority identity) as impossibly flawless patriots as when we frame them in the terrorist/ criminal trope. Isn’t it, after all, the most basic of human rights to be forgiven for our faults? To be taken and loved as we are.

Only a handful of Muslim characters are like this: In 3 Idiots , Madhavan plays Farhan, an aspiring photographer afraid to stand up to his father. There’s the lonely, closeted Prof. Siras in Aligarh . I particularly enjoyed Aishwarya Rai’s Saba in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil , a less-than-successful poet who is not embarrassed about enjoying sex.

I loved Pooja Bhatt in Zakhm , the loving single mother who hides her Muslim identity till she is dying. Karisma Kapoor made a memorable Fiza , the girl who didn’t hesitate to throw a glass of water at a sleazy interviewer. There are a few more. The point is, they are the exceptions.

You could make the argument that it is the message in many Bollywood films that urges secularism. This is precisely my question: How long can you insist on secularism when your own representations fail the test of plurality?

Bania by instinct

I began the essay wondering if Raees acknowledges the truth that Bollywood’s secularism is really more about sensible dhanda or business rather than an ideological commitment. The term the film uses for businessman is ‘bania’. In the caste system, baniya is the generic descriptor for trading communities. In everyday usage, ‘bania’ has come to imply a mix of enterprising and hard-headed.


This let’s-get-things-done bania ethic has many merits. Take Raees , for example: for a film that pointedly attacks the politicisation of religion, it ran without hiccups in these overheated political times. The film takes a lovely, flamboyant pride in meat-eating—you see pieces of meat sizzling on a tawa, you see SRK digging in with his hands, and there’s an unforgettable fight sequence with a hunk of flesh in a meat market.

But when business is your main priority, it makes you nervous about owning your choices. When journalist Rana Ayyub noted that Shah Rukh had essayed Muslim characters in three consecutive releases ( Ae Dil Hai Mushkil , Dear Zindagi , Raees ) and praised him for not underplaying his religious identity, the star gave an uncharacteristically irritable response. “With due respect to my professionalism as an actor, I did not even know what my name was in… Ae Dil Hai Mushkil .” How depressing that a man who makes a film as political as Raees feels the need to distance himself from a compliment on his “Muslim” choices.

Even more depressing was Padmavati , whose makers signed away their right to imagine a “romantic dream sequence” between the Rajput queen and the Muslim invader. Read that again. They signed away their right to imagine.

Some months ago, director Karan Johar signed away the right to choose his artistes: he promised on video that he would not work with Pakistani talent. And when you sign away the right to imagine, the right to choose your own cast, what remains?

Consider, on the other hand, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ , which imagines Jesus Christ as mortal with mortal frailties. The film has a contentious dream sequence that (fleetingly) shows Christ having sex with Mary Magdalene. Christian groups across the U.S. marched in protest before the film’s release. At least one national cinema chain and some local chains decided not to screen the film. In response, Universal Pictures placed an ad in major American papers that stated in part: “…the witness of history teaches the importance of standing up for freedom of conscience, even when the view being expressed may be unpopular.”

The film clearly lost some screens and revenues. But even money-minded Hollywood holds some values dearer than money.

The writer is an award-winning journalist based in Calcutta and writes on arts, politics and public health

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