Cinema And Secularism
By Mahesh Bhatt
13 March, 2005
is memory. We are nothing but the sum total of our past. We
are never free of the past. Karl Marx was a Christ returning to a
modern world. In other words, he was the resurrection of basically the
same religious spirit and ideology, although under a different garb,
a different language. It could not have been otherwise. For not only
Marx but all thinkers cannot help but build their philosophy upon their
past. To put it differently, as a very famous French thinker, Jacques
Derrida would say, to be means to inherit.
All questions about
being or what one is to be or not to be are questions of inheritance.
We are inheritors, like it or not. If you read The Road Ahead by Bill
Gates, you will see it is more history than prophecy. That is why imagined
futures are always more about where we have been than where we are going.
In the year 1951,
two years after I was born and much, much before you all were even thought
of, Jawaharlal Nehru compelled Purshottam Das Tandon to tender his resignation
and took over as president of the Congress. Purshottam Das Tandon had
secular factions of the Congress the year before, to become its president
in 1950. In the newly "partitioned" India, Purshottam was
a symbol of the communalist and revivalist outlook. Shattered by the
irreversible loss of Gandhiji, who had been killed by the bullet of
a Hindu fanatic fundamentalist, Nehru had sworn to go for the jugular
of the fundamentalists.
At a public meeting
in Delhi on Gandhi Jayanti Day in 1951, Nehru proclaimed his secular
credo. He said, "If any person raises his hand to strike down another
on the ground of religion, I shall fight him till the last breath of
my life both as the head of the government and outside." This statement
sums up everything that needed to be said about the spirit India and
future Indians must have towards secularism. And this spirit was ignited
in 1951, by Nehru, the most extraordinary jewel that India ever possessed.
Hindi cinema fashioned its products on this passionately articulated
creed of Nehru. A glowing example of this is Dilip Kumar. He is an excellent
symbol of secular India. The recent revival of Mughal-e-Azam and its
global success proves that the pendulum of public taste has once again
swung towards films that celebrate the pluralism and the secular creed
of free India and has moved away from movies like Gadar, which in a
very subtle manner demonise the Muslims, and not just Pakistan.
The new colour version
of Mughal-e-Azam was happily lapped up by children of the current generation.
My daughter and my young son were both mesmerised by what our ancestors
had achieved in those days, both in spirit and also on the screen. My
heart just swells with pride when I watch Mughal-e-Azam. It reminds
me of what Bollywood once was. Do you know that this magnum opus was
made by an almost all-Muslim crew? It was produced and directed by K.
Asif, and it had Madhubala and Dilip Kumar in the main lead. And above
all it had Naushad, the music director whos soul resonated with
Hindu bhajans. How can India and Indians ever forget Mohe panghat
pe Nandlal chhed gayo re, a song from Mughal-e-Azam in which the
birth of Krishna is being celebrated in the court of Emperor Akbar and
in which Madhubala, an actress who is Muslim by birth, dances like Meera?
The phenomenal success
of Mughal-e-Azam today has also demonstrated that despite all the efforts
of the previous regime to strangulate the secular voice of India, Indias
secular spirit is very much alive and kicking. Because if this was not
so, Mughal-e-Azam wouldnt have been a box office hit.
Recently I was told
by the ministry of Information and Broadcasting that Mughal-e-Azam was
also screened in the Srinagar Valley, where Hindi movies have not been
playing for years. The major bulk of the audience consisted of young
people of your age. Now, ever since trouble began in Kashmir, the young
people of that region have been violently opposing anything "Indian",
even Hindi movies. The cinema hall where the film was now being shown
was earlier forced to close shop because no one came to the hall to
watch Hindi films. But Mughal-e-Azam had shocked everybody. Not only
was it running to packed houses, but all those young people who came
to watch the film clapped and applauded all through it. This is the
Bollywood that I was born in. This was the Bollywood whose films every
Indian right from Kashmir to Kanyakumari watched and loved.
I remember my father,
a filmmaker who made more than 100 films. Many of these films were based
on The Arabian Nights fantasies. Now my Dad was a Brahmin but despite
that, surprisingly, he knew more about Islam and the Islamic culture.
My mother was a Shia Muslim. I remember after finishing her namaaz she
would tell us, my brother, my sister and me, tales from Hindu mythology.
These stories still resonate in my heart. One of these stories was effectively
put to use by me in my film Raaz. The climax of Raaz was sourced from
a tale my mother told me about Savitri and her fight with the Lord of
death, Yama, to bring her husband back to life from the jaws of death.
The Bollywood that
I grew up on had jewels like Sahir saab (Ludhianvi). Sahir saab is the
greatest lyricist Bollywood has ever known. He is a Muslim who decided
to stay in a secular India after Partition. The most enduring bhajan
of all times, Allah tero naam, Ishwar tero naam was written
by this extraordinary poet. Even a great filmmaker like Guru Dutt worked
with people like Kaifi Azmi and Abrar Alvi. Chaudvin Ka Chand, produced
by him and directed by M. Sadiq, is the best film made against the backdrop
of Lucknow and the Muslim tehzeeb (culture). Most Hindu filmmakers of
those times made these films dealing with the Muslim culture without
any self-consciousness. They made these films because that culture was
a part of them. The filmmakers of those days had the best of both cultures
in them no wonder that age is called the golden age of Hindi
I remember the last
scene of Ganga Jamuna in which Dilip Kumar dies saying "He Ram".
Most people who saw the film then felt that the reverence with which
this Muslim actor had uttered He Ram reminded them of Gandhis
last moments. Cinema goers imagined this was how the Mahatma must have
died. However, Ganga Jamuna faced severe problems when it was seen by
members of the censor board. Some board members who had communal leanings
wanted to delete this very scene saying that they could not have a Muslim
saying "He Ram". In spite of being secular to the core, Dilip
saab faced many problems from both within the community and outside
it. He was the prime target of all those people who had designs to revive
the religion of the majority and destroy the pluralism of India. But
Dilip saab did not bow down to these forces. He stuck to his guns and
remained a symbol of secularism for all of us.
Recently I ran into
Subhash Ghai and our conversation, after having spoken about the current
state of Bollywood and what we should to do to stay afloat, slowly turned
to the topic of Dilip Kumar and the need to immortalise him and put
him on film because the man should be given his rightful due in history.
He has been a reluctant icon because of which a lot of bogus icons have
been enshrined on the altar. Dilip saab is a symbol of secularism; all
his life he in fact echoed what Nehru spoke of. It was very moving to
see a man like Subhash Ghai, otherwise known only for masala films,
dedicate himself to make a documentary that would outlive this legend.
I had begun my career as an assistant director with the great filmmaker,
Mr. Raj Khosla, with a film called Do Raaste, a box office hit. The
film contained a sympathetic portrayal of a Pathan played by Jayant.
Now, this was a
device commonly used in most Hindi films. Most of these roles were ineffective
since they were insensitively projected on the screen. But some producer-directors
who came from the North and who had lived with the Muslims there and
enjoyed their hospitality and warmth portrayed these Muslim characters
on film brilliantly. Do Raaste became a very big hit because of this
noble Muslim character. A great scholar of Indian music said to me recently,
"You know, the difference between Indian music and Indian film
is that Indian filmmakers did not portray secularism and pluralism as
brilliantly as the music directors and the lyric writers did."
Indian filmmaker was very simplistic, he did it as the politician does
Hindu-Muslim bhai-bhai, using the hugging each other, making
tremendous sacrifices for each other formula. But it was in fact
the music directors and the lyric writers in whose hearts were crucibles
from where the pluralism that we keep talking about poured in and they
made those wonderful tunes and songs. Ultimately music seeks to evoke
some emotion in you. The ghazals and the tradition of thumris, and khayaals,
the complete mixture of tehzeebs is what India is all about and that
was what they portrayed through our music. I remember when I was growing
up, my father made a film called Mr. X with a rock and roll number called
Lal lal gaal a number that was a huge hit. This shows
how much the Christian influences contributed to the success of our
Hindi films in those days. Helen, a Christian by birth, was the heartthrob
of the nation. She cast her spell on the people of India for almost
I began my career
in the year 1973 but came into the limelight with films like Arth, Saaransh,
Naam and Janam. Most of these films were sourced from ones own
life. They were autobiographical. But it took a tragedy like the demolition
of the Babri Masjid and the subsequent bloodshed of innocent Muslims
on the streets of Mumbai to hurl me into my hidden past and make my
last directorial film, Zakhm.
I came from the
home of a Hindu Brahmin father and a Muslim mother and had the good
fortune of being educated by Christian missionaries. It is because of
them that I can stand here before you and speak in the language that
I speak. The demolition of the Babri Masjid made me realise the naked
truth that what is personal is political. When Mumbai burnt, I recalled
that I too was subjected to a lot of humiliation by those very forces
that were now unleashing their wrath against the minorities. When I
was a child my paternal grandmother, who was a Hindu fundamentalist,
had spared no opportunity to brutalise my mother and me simply because
my mother was a Muslim. After having found dizzying success and after
making senseless and meaningless movies, the time had now come to make
the defining film of my career.
I am glad that before
I hung up my gloves as a director (I continue to produce films and write
them), I dared to revisit the wounds of my childhood. I told a tale
that moved out into the larger domain, the public domain the
post-Babri Masjid demolition period and the subsequent bloodshed. This
was Zakhm. I dared to make this film with my own funds, without State
help, in a very repressive atmosphere. This was in 1998. My daughter
Pooja produced Zakhm at a time when it was considered suicidal to make
films that dared to incur the wrath of the Hindu fundamentalists in
There is a particular
scene in Zakhm where the character played by Ajay Devgan slaps his brother
who, unaware of his mothers religion, her faith, is about to go
and kill a Muslim boy who had burnt his mother alive. Ajay Devgan strikes
him and says, "Yeh tere baap ka mulk hai kya?" (Is this your
fathers land?) And says, "Kisko nikalega? Inko nikalega,
kyon? Kyon ke ye Musalman hai?" The manner in which he strikes
him reminded me of Nehrus statement of 1951 when he said, I will
fight till my last breath against all those forces who will raise their
hands against anybody in the name of religion It was then that
I discovered that through the virtual world, through movies, the same
spirit of Nehru was somewhere expressing itself. Thats what I
meant to be is to inherit. I had inherited the sanity of the
founding fathers and it was being expressed unapologetically there on
the screen. In fact, recently they showed a short documentary, a half-hour
programme on me on the BBC where they had, without my telling them,
shown this particular portion of the film where one brother strikes
the other and says he will fight till his last breath to see that India
celebrates its pluralism. So things had come full circle. This apathetic
man, this little boy, who was born in a home like this, who had moved
far away from it and had gone into making escapist films, the man who
had forgotten Mughal-e-Azam, but was traumatised when Bombay bled, finally
made the only defining film of his career. Zakhm had bought me a lot
of dignity. It washed me clean, it purged me of the aftertaste of having
made some senseless films. If Zakhm is still a part of public discourse
today, that is because it carries in its core the sanity that Gandhiji
and our founding fathers spoke about, fought for and died for.
According to me,
the first rotten phase that Bollywood saw was when, under the name of
demonising Pakistan, a lot of movies actually took perverse delight
in mocking and ridiculing the Muslim community. It was a phase after
which the public, having made one odd film into a big hit, themselves
boycotted such films. And it is unlikely now that any such films will
be made since they do not run at the box office anymore.
That remains the
saddest, most shameful chapter in the history of Bollywood, which had
otherwise been very secular and had always celebrated pluralism. This
only means that just as Nehrus creed was reflected in the movies
for 40-50 years, it was Nehrus ideology that sparkled in our movies.
Because, being what they are, leaders inspire filmmakers to echo what
they feel. When the right wing Hindu fundamentalists came to power,
they could only pass on their perversion to filmmakers, encouraging
them to make movies of a new kind of genre, movies that made some sort
of noise temporarily, but a noise that the people of India rejected.
This was the sanity of this nation. This was secular India.
As we have stepped
into the 21st century and we have now thankfully de-linked ourselves
from that painful phase, we must be very cautious that the same forces
that destabilised India in 1992 and once again in Gujarat in the year
2002 are very much alive, active and dying to get back and reassert
themselves. They were there in 1951 when Nehru had to fight them; within
the Congress Nehru had to fight his own people to assert secularism.
The secularists of the nation must lock horns very aggressively with
so-called communalists. I dont believe in the passive stance that
people take. I have always maintained that society is not devastated
by the misdeeds of the bad man but by the silence of the so-called good
people. It is when you and me are silent that we devastate society.
You are on the threshold
of a great career. Youre going to go there, into the trenches
of life. During a conversation with N. Ram, the editor-in-chief of The
Hindu a while ago, he said that the danger of the times is that we in
institutions give our people a lot of skills and those skills certainly
help one to make it in life. But what you need is an educated mind.
A mind which has a broader view, which understands that whatever we
do or whatever we see, will have far-reaching consequences. What you
need is integrity and commitment; you need commitment to those very
sane values that have seen us through. Values that are not negotiable,
irrespective of the troubles we go through. You cannot negotiate the
core value of Indias commitment to the secular creed. How can
you do so? It would be akin to suicide. Take me for instance; when I
look within myself, half of me is a Hindu, the other half a Muslim.
Which part of me can I break away from without killing or destroying
You are about to
begin a new journey as the filmmakers and journalists of tomorrow. So
it is important to remember what is being articulated here. Maybe the
subject is so huge that itll take us lifetimes to discuss it.
But essentially what I hope to do is ring an alarm bell. Just as I woke
up after the carnage in Mumbai, after 1993, and discovered that I must
dedicate myself and support platforms and movements like these. Otherwise
I am in danger of destroying all that India stood for. The fight that
Nehru waged has to be continued by me in the virtual world and through
platforms like this. And you, as filmmakers, journalists, need to continue
this too. For, if India moves away from a secular creed it will disintegrate
into chaos and destroy everything that it has with such difficulty built.
Let anybody rule
us, but they cannot divide this country under the name of religion.
And this is what we must pledge to work for. As filmmakers, as writers,
as simple people who make a day-to-day living, this is one pledge that
we must make. And on behalf of Bollywood, I have said that Bollywood
has made a significant contribution, but as for its aberrations, forgive
them my Lord for they know not what they do. There was a dark phase
where they became ignorant, when the bosses asked them to bend and my
brothers began to crawl. So forgive them, there were a few who made
mistakes like this, but I thank god that a new dawn is here and I thank
god that with you people going out into the field you will never ever
let that happen again. Amen.
(Mahesh Bhatt is
a well known film producer and writer, and former director of several