Opinion | Comment

When there was space to make a little allowance for the sentiments of others

Representational image only.

Representational image only.

Just after India was partitioned in 1947, the legendary film actor-director-producer Ashok Kumar announced a new film,  Majboor, with some among cast and crew answering to the names of Nazir Ajmeri, Kamal Amrohi, Munawar Sultana, Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai and her husband Shahid Latif, and Ghulam Haider. Coming so soon after Partition, some termed the move brave, others called it foolhardy. Back then the atmosphere in India was, as All India Radio was fond of saying, “tense but under control”. Many Hindu workers of Kumar were unhappy with his decision. Dadamoni, as he was affectionately called, ignored their reservations, confident that this spree of communalism would subside. 

One night, he decided to drop Manto home after a late dinner in Bombay. As they reached a Muslim-dominated locality, Manto worried for his friend’s safety. There was a marriage procession there, and Manto’s heart skipped a beat as he prepared for the worst. The crowd recognised Kumar almost instantly, and to Manto’s surprise and relief, there were chants of “Ashok Kumar, Ashok Kumar!” The marriage party was packed with Ashok Kumar fans, and even at the height of the communal divide and widespread killing, nobody identified an artist with his religion. After the violence of 1947, hope for a shared future floated. 

Recovering from the violence 

Much like it was in Amritsar, a city which had seen a massacre in the wake of Partition. Hardly any Muslim was left in the city. What remained though was the impressive Khairuddin Masjid. The mosque was located in a Hindu-dominated lane with many Sikh families in the vicinity. As Muslims fled to Pakistan, the mosque was left without worshippers. No harm was done to the mosque, as it was considered God’s House! Its dome, pulpit, niches remained safe. For almost a decade, no namaz was offered. Then one day, a muezzin came and gave the azaan call. Unsurprisingly, nobody objected in the neighbourhood. Instead, the mosque was given a fresh coat of paint, spruced up and readied for daily prayers. 

Many in the neighbourhood had lost their near and dear ones in the Partition massacre, but even in those dire times, they understood that people of all communities had suffered. If Hindus and Sikhs had been killed in Lahore, Muslims had met the same fate in Amritsar. It was all the doing of bad times, an evil eye. And Amritsar resumed its tradition of shared living. The city embraced the super-hit Muslim socials  Chaudhvin ka Chand and  Mere Mehboob with as much love and passion as it did  Woh Kaun Thi and  Bhakti Mein Shakti.

The cinemas of Old Delhi

Hindi cinema, incidentally, played a big role in keeping people together, making space for each other’s faith even as movies brought people under the same roof. An interesting case was provided by the cinemas of Old Delhi in the 1960s and 1970s. In the famed Chandni Chowk area, there used to be  Majestic cinema right opposite the historic Gurdwara Sisganj. The cinema’s architectural design was inspired by the Mughals, and it was truly majestic. The cinema management kept in mind the sentiments of the believers at the gurdwara while choosing films to screen here. Back then, big cinemas used to have huge billboards of the movie playing at the hall. Here,  Majestic decided that there would be no cut-outs or big posters of the film’s heroines! When  Deewar ran here for 25 weeks in 1975, one could have been forgiven if one thought the film starred only Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor.

The age-old Jagat cinema near Jama Masjid operated on the same template. Back in late 1970s, a Hindi film  Man ka Aangan was supposed to be screened here. The management decided instead to shift it to Ritz cinema near the Inter-State Bus Terminus (ISBT) as both halls had a common owner. A film with provocative posters could be played near ISBT with its floating crowd but not at a cinema near a house of worship with its regular attendees. 

A similar episode, also in the 1970s, relates to Moti near Gauri Shanker Mandir in Chandni Chowk. The cinema, in pre-Independence days, was known to play Hollywood specials on Sundays. After a brief dalliance with mythological films, the cinema became a favourite of Raj Kapoor. His films would play at Regal in Connaught Place, Moti in Chandni Chowk and West End at Sadar. And Kapoor himself would attend the first day, first show. However, in the late 1970s, when  Satyam Shivam Sundaram starring Zeenat Aman in what were then considered skimpy outfits, Moti refused to show the film. 

There was space to to make a little allowance for the sentiments of others. Just as the residents of the mohalla in Amritsar did not object to the azaan, those in Delhi were perfectly comfortable with Shabad Kirtan in Sisganj, a prayer session for which women came down from South Delhi. The women would board a public transport bus, do their  Jap all the way to the gurdwara. And nobody objected. The crowd just made space for women to pray; everybody, irrespective of his or her religion, just maintained silence as the Sikh devotees sang praises of the Guru.

It was no different in South Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar where refugees from Rawalpindi, Peshawar and Lahore had settled. There were Krishna temples, a Sai temple, a Shiv Shakti temple just as there were a couple of gurdwaras. Then there was a mosque on the edge of the colony. Hindus and Sikhs walking past the mosque in the colony touched its threshold in respect, and those in cars often slowed down, bowed in obeisance and drove on. The pandit at the temple, sitting cross-legged on a small wooden stool and holding a copper pitcher in his hand, served water to passersby irrespective of religion.

Punjabi refugees, Urdu poetry

Back in Paharganj, which had experienced much bloodshed in the wake of Partition, there was Imperial cinema. It had started as a ballroom and theatre for the “Gora Sahibs”. After the first talkie  Alam Ara in 1931, it turned into a cinema, still playing more Hollywood fare than Hindi movies. It all changed with the arrival of refugees from Pakistan. Most spoke Punjabi and had been through harrowing ordeals. The cinema, instead of screening Muslim socials like  Anarkali and  Noor Jehan, decided to play Hindu mythological films. Khanna cinema in the vicinity reduced rates on mythological films to enable more people to watch them. It even made space for those with mobility issues to enter the hall.

Barely half a kilometre from the two cinemas, Delhi used to have mushairas, late night poetic soirees, where the best of Urdu poets participated. The mushairas operated on a simple principle. The chance to read the  Kalam was given first to young, under-appreciated poets before ending with the big guns. Gradually, the site of the mushairas shifted to Red Fort and Sapru House. The participants remained the same, and leading Urdu poets from India and Pakistan participated. Like with Ashok Kumar in Bombay in 1948, in the Delhi of the 1950s and 1960s nobody blamed the poets for Partition.

And it all changed

It all began to change. First came the anti-Sikh violence of 1984, then the Babri Masjid-Ramjanambhoomi campaign some years later. And suddenly, Delhi became conscious of religion all over again. Residences, offices, shops and cinemas were attacked on the basis of their ownership in 1984 in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. By 1989, with L.K. Advani’s Rath Yatra, the city was perpetually “tense” and just about “under control”. The shared public spaces had shrunk, colonies made space for “their own”, shunted out  others. What mattered was not who you were, but which house of worship you frequented. What we witnessed in 2020 in Mustafabad, Shiv Vihar and Kardampuri as part of Delhi violence was a manifestation of a city uncomfortable with its components, of people segmented along ‘we’ and ‘they’ boundaries. 

As for cinema, its capacity to unite the city people in civility has clearly receded. A city which happily lined up to receive the print of K. Asif’s  Mughal-e-Azam on an elephant back at Novelty cinema in 1960 is today bent upon erasing vestiges of Mughal rule. Remember, how Adesh Gupta, chief of Bharatiya Janata Party’s Delhi unit, sought the rechristening of villages with Muslim names, calling them Mughal? 

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Printable version | Jul 27, 2022 5:30:23 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/when-there-was-space-to-make-a-little-allowance-for-the-sentiments-of-others/article65605691.ece