The Muslim As The ‘Other’
By Gagandeep Ghuman
21 February, 2006
Neither do they go to office, nor do they fall in love. They never smile and their career graph never follows the usual arc of human endeavor. If Bollywood is to believed, the Indian Muslim is almost-always a gun totting, bearded guy with blood shot eyes bursting at the seams with irrational anger. With a senseless itch to murder and desperate plans to destroy, his hatred for India is matched only by his unflinching commitment to Jehad. Bollywood might be coming good at technology and crossing over to the world but the Muslim it creates on screen is closed in a dangerous time-warp from which he exits only to wreck havoc at an innocent , civilized world. Sensitivity, perception and cinematic subtlety; when Bollywood re-presents Muslim characters, all this and much more flies out of the window. In come quick-and–dirty stereotypes and reckless clichés. Worn out but agile enough to bring us around to their twisted logic. And when projected on a 70-mm screen with Dolby effects, they can seep into our spell-bound minds with easy comfort. Clichés can dictate terms to us, and worse, drive men to damaging conclusion.
Traditionally, Bollywood portrayed Muslims as Rahim Chahcas or indolent nawabs chewing betel nuts and splurging their money and time on Lucknavi mujras. Other muslim characters, if any, broke into a quawwali at the slightest provocation. Old Muslim women were ammi jans and the young , nautch girls , played to the hilt by Meena kumari and later by Rekha in Umrao Jaan. Despite these simplifications, a strong Muslim ethic impressed on the Indian screen. Mere Huzoor, Nikah, Pakeezah, Mughal-eAzam , just to name a few, were all mainstreams Muslim socials which brought to bear on their setting, locale and milieu a distinct Muslim presence . The Muslim political film also carved a niche for itself. Elan and Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, both critiqued the aimlessness of the lower middle class youth and their shoulder-shrugging approach to the grim poverty they refuse to acknowledge. MS Satyu’s Garam Hawa leaves scorch marks on the soul as it captures the human tragedy of a Muslim couple caught in the mindless vortex of communal violence of partition.
Gradually, however, the Muslim character was pushed to the margin , claiming his fifteen minutes of fame as the Hero’s side kick or his avuncular guide, but rarely as a communalized villain that he would become in the 90’s. Interestingly, from being a smuggler to an over-the-hill ruthless megalomaniac, the villan in Indian cinema is largely a character shorn of a fixed identity. They exists for the sake of evil, or better yet, as an anti-thetical other to the good, benign protagonist.
Roja was the climactic film which redefined the contours of Bollywoood evil, making it more real, pointed and that much more dangerous. Drumming up hyper-nationalist rhetoric, the film plays hard on the ideological conflict between the nationalist victim and the jehadi terrorist. Amidst the hubbub of its high-pitched patriotism, however, the voice of the ordinary Kashmiri is ominously absent (or perhaps silenced). The alienation of the ordinary Kashmiri from the national mainstream, the simmering discontentment with successive governments and, most importantly, why the young pick up guns instead of a career; Roja asks no questions, offers no choices. What it did, however, was to open the floodgates for a number of slash-and-burn movies that target Pakistan and the Indian Muslim (not explicitly stated but implicitly implied) without making any attempt to delve into the several complex processes that breed or sustains terrorism. Sarfarosh, Maa Tujhe Salam, Pukar, and Gadar effectively did the ideological work of re-affirming the nation while demonizing the Muslim ‘other’ with relentless ferocity. Gadar was a commercial slam-dunk and its hero, Sunny Deol (credit where credit’s due), with his iconic, chest-thumping brand of patriotism left little to imagination. Sarfarosh went a step further and in a chillingly sinister move casts the Ghazal singer from Pakistan as the undercover terrorist. In a lemming-like rush to get the cash registers ringing (why, after all, change a winning formula), these movies create imaginary enemies, instilling fear into the gullible audience minds. A whole arsenal of unexamined prepositions is bruited about without any self-consciousness or skepticism. Islam means Jihad, Muslim means terrorist; film after film hammers it down heavily till it seems the only truth possible. The possibility of any sympathetic understanding is simply ruled out by the point-of-view convention. The spectator is unwittingly made subliminal conquistadores who share the overheated perspective of the filmmaker.
To say that cinema in India is mere escapist entertainment would be a poor understatement. To say that it is passion bordering on hysteria would not be absurd hyperbole. In a country like India any attempt at crazed cine-patriotism can be not merely debilitating but also insulting to a rich tradition of heterodoxy and secularism that informs our culture. The only way out it seems is a Brechtian detachment in watching movies, an inner filter that removes all prejudice.