Missing Muslim Socials!
Here are some other archetypal Muslims we have had the pleasure of watching in the genres known as “Muslim Socials”:
The beauty of actresses such as Madhubala, Waheeda Rehman and Sadhana is legendary. So shrouding them in a veil makes little sense. But the veil serves a useful purpose: it leads to cases of mistaken identity when two friends fell in love with the same woman (Chaudhvin ka chand, 1961) or where the beloved’s identity has to be discovered by the hero (Mere Mehboob, 1963). However, it is only the hero who cannot see behind the veil. The audience enjoy time in the zenana where elaborately dressed beauties languish, speaking flowery Urdu, singing and dreaming of romance.
The Tawaif and Nawabs
The dominant image of the Muslim woman in Hindi cinema is the tawaif (dancing girl, courtesan). This is not as unfortunate as it sounds as she represents the lost elite culture of the north Indian cities, in particular that of Lucknow. Dressed modestly but in sumptuous costumes and jewellery, she sings and dances for her clients’ entertainment but remains ‘pure’ and desirous of love and marriage. The two most important tawaif films are Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah (1971) and Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan (1981), starring Meena Kumari (Mahjabeen Bano) and Rekha, respectively. Rekha plays a tawaif again in Muqaddar ka Sikandar (1978), where her performance, swinging her hips and rolling on the floor in her pink and silver dress to the famous song ‘Salaam-e ishq’, is matched by Amitabh Bachchan’s as he looks totally bored with the spectacle and finally takes to the dance floor himself. Courtesans as sisters to the hero (Mere Mehboob), or mothers of the heroine (Mehboob ki Mehndi. 1971) are more of a problem as, however sorrowful the circumstances, no respectable family will marry into such a benighted household.
A respectable Mujra, the courtesans’ elaborate song and dance session, must be graced by a Nawab, who provides us with much scope to explore Indian Muslim culture. He could be an artistic character unsuited to the modern world such as in Satyajit Ray’s Chessplayers (1977), but he could also be a decadent drunk, who divorces his wife by saying ‘talaq talaq talaq’ during an argument (Nikaah, 1982), or a melancholic but refined gentleman, as in Mere huzoor (1968). However badly he might treat his wife and family, he never forgets his manners, is always impeccably dressed in a sherwani, speaks with flowery Urdu and demonstrates proper adab (etiquette).
The Mughal Emperor is a stock in trade of the historical film. The favorite is Akbar (1542-1605), who represents composite culture or secularism in the Indian sense, and has equal regard for all religions. In one of the greatest Indian films, Mughal-e Azam (1960), his religious tolerance extends to celebrating the festival of Janmashtami, the Birth of Krishna, with his Hindu wife. Jodhaa-Akbar (2008) presents an earlier stage of this Muslim-Hindu romance, with Akbar as a muscular hero, a fighter and a tamer of elephants as well as a lover, a Sufi, a seeker of truth and promoter of religious tolerance. Again, he does not prevent Jodhaa from following her own culture – perhaps because he has seen her skills with a sword - even allowing her to worship Krishna in the palace and to cook him a vegetarian meal. The big song number in the film is, somewhat unusually, about tax cuts. Akbar lifts the jizya, the tax levied on non-Muslims by Muslim rulers, resulting in his subjects bursting into song and dance (‘Marhaba’) at his generosity in what seems to be the first version of the Republic Day Parade.
Although the lead character is usually Hindu, he is usually furnished with a Muslim friend who is willing to die rather than let his dost (friend) down. The loyal Pathan was seen earlier in versions of Tagore’s story, Kabuliwala, and then as the loyal friend of Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan) in Zanjeer (1973), who sings, ‘Yaari hai imaan mera’ (friendship is my faith); while Shahrukh Khan takes on this role in Hey! Ram (2000). The late AK Hangal, who played the blind Imam in mega-hit Sholay (1975), gave the loyal Muslims the name of his character in the film, Rahim Chacha. Unfortunately, the Chacha, or Uncle, can only prove his love by dying for the sake of the hero, his Hindu friend.
Poets and singers
Hindi film lyrics have close links to Urdu poetry and the films celebrate relentlessly the ghazal and the qawwali. Muslims are taken to be extremely fond of poetry, and as sensitive poets and singers, incorporate songs into the film in a relaxed and appropriate manner. The hero is a poet in Mere Mehboob, and a qawwal in Barsaat Ki Raat (1960), where he performs alongside female qawwals in perhaps the most famous qawwali of the Indian cinema, ‘Na to caravan’. In Amar, Akbar, Antony (1977), the Muslim brother is a qawwal, named after a great Urdu poet, Akbar Allahabadi. Akbar’s qawwali, ‘Parda hai parda’, is about getting his beloved, sitting in the front row with her father, to remove her veil, even though he knows she does not wear a veil in the hospital where she works as a doctor. In Sufi-themed movies, where the lead character is not a Muslim, such as Dil Se (1998) and Rockstar (2012) the film score still draws on these traditions. So the lyrics of Dil Se’s ‘Chaiya chaiya’ are adapted from Bulleh Shah, a sixteenth-century Punjabi Sufi, and Rockstar has a qawwali praising Nizamuddin of Delhi.
Rarely do Hindi films show a modern, secular Muslim. But there are exceptions: the comedian Mehmood’s slapstick Hyderabadi Muslim in Gumnaam (1965); Ali in Dhoom (2004), Farhan Qureshi in 3 idiots (2009); Aslam Khan in Rang De Basanti (2006) and Iqbal in the film of the same name (2005). Shahrukh Khan’s performances as a Muslim have created new roles: in Chak De! India (2007), he redeems himself as a hockey coach after being accused of deliberately losing a hockey match against Pakistan; in My name is Khan (2010), he marries a Hindu (inter-communal marriages in films are usually Hindu man and Muslim woman), and when her son is killed in an Islamophobic attack, sets off to tell the President of the United States that, “My name is Khan and I’m not a terrorist”.
Unfortunately for the 'Muslim Socials' genre, after 9/11 which made Muslims 'terror suspects' in the eyes of the Western world, USA especially, not many such movies are being made by Bollywood any more.As a movie buff, of Bollywood films specially, I'm indeed missing Muslim socials.