Bollywood’s monster: The Muslim socials
Irrespective of good or bad, we deserve the lives we live and similarly, we deserve our films too. Our times inspire our cinema and it is meant to depict the joys or trouble we endure. However, such is the power of the flickering image that for decades now, some things have become much more than imaginary. Bollywood is guilty of many myths. In its world, where a darkened room and three hours is all it takes to make the impossible come true, many myths have become half-truths. Many of them, like bulletproof vests being magical force-fields that can repel just about anything, are ridiculous but some are dangerous enough and have altered the way we look at things.
Considering the wholesome entertainment aspect of Hindi films, the lines dividing genres often blur but some escape this demarcation. If there were ever one genre that never lost its identity over the decades, it would have to be the ‘Muslim social.’ Bollywood’s Muslim socials started with Mehboob’s Najma (1943), a film that unknowingly ended up causing more harm than help to the very genre that it would create. The film laid great stress on the aspect of development, modern thought and education amongst the Muslim community but its celebration of Muslim etiquette and culture is what ended up filtering through. Close on Najma’s heels many films like Barsaat Ki Raat (1960), Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960), Mere Mehboob (1963) and Bahu Begum (1967) enjoyed great success. There was always an element of a hidden social message in these films, but the greater the success this genre enjoyed, the further it went from the truth. The imagery would be filled with brilliant palaces; birds fluttering around the fountains in opulent gardens; the air would be filled with ittar and there would be poetry flowing from every possible outlet; the men would be only be seen in sherwanis enjoying only a sher more than a paan; the women would adorn burqas or costumes heavier than gold and there was nothing to be unhappy about. The films went on celebrate the whole nawabi culture along with the ghazals, qawwalis and sher-o-shayari to such an extent that it seemed the world depicted by these films wasn’t real.
Additionally, what worked against the Muslim socials and forced these films to exist in a parallel universe were the nuances. Regardless of the era these films depicted, everyone only said ‘Subhan Allah’ or ‘Masha’Allah’ and added a ‘Miyan’ to every sentence. If the 1950s and 1960s saw the genre showcase only the elite or upper class Muslim families, the 1970s paved the path for the so called ‘New-age Muslim socials’ with films like Dastak (1970) and Garam Hawa (1973). After reaching it’s zenith in Kamaal Amrohi’s Pakeezah (1972), the genre now moved out of the havelis and into the real world where Muslims were more than just well-dressed people who spoke beautifully. Dastak showed Hamid and Salma, a young couple, coming to terms with the daily trauma of knocks on their door that sought the previous occupant – a famous mujrewali and Garam Hawa explored the dilemma of the Mirza divided between continuing to stay back or moving to Pakistan post the partition. Films like Bazaar (1982), about the plight of young Muslim girls sold off by hard-pressed parents and Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989), about the aimlessness of lower-class urban Muslim youth would continue to carry on the genre but harm done by an entire generation of films before them couldn’t be undone. The nuances of yore had now transformed into stereotypes. B.R. Chopra’s Nikah (1982), replete with the lilting songs and charming moments, might have momentarily revived the genre but it gave a notion that most Muslim men just looked forward to saying Talak, Talak, Talak and carrying on with life.
Many a times perceptions are a result of convenience and the two together are extremely essential to fuel artistic liberty. A momentary relief from the trials of life is reason enough for an artist to destroy myths or create new ones. Javed Akhtar once famously noted that ‘the idea of Jehangir falling in love with her (Anarkali) and creating a rift between father and son is a story that was created by an Urdu playwright called Imtiaz Ali Taj.’ The writer creation isn’t a myth as big as the one that became a greater truth. Akbar couldn’t converse in Persian, which was the lingua franca during his time, but there is no way that a film like Mughal-e-Azam (1960) would have Akbar speak unlike the emperor he was. More importantly Urdu wasn’t developed at that time and Akbar having grown up in Northern India could very well be conversing in Haryanvi or Bhojpuri but to see Prithviraj Kapoor with that dialect would be unimaginable. If the world of Bollywood were to be believed, unless a Muslim speaks like a shayar there is no reason to make him a Muslim (Arbaaz Khan in Shootout at Lokhandwala); every South Indian must eat messily with their hands and for authenticity they must include curd in every thing (Shahrukh Khan in Ra.One), every Sardar must be over-the-top (Sunny Deol in half a dozen films), every Pathan must say ‘wallah‘ the moment they open their mouth, every Parsi must be dim enough for the entire three minutes of their screen time. Here, at least Bollywood is able to maintain consistency.
Born a cinephile and a close observer of society, the author is an award-winning documentary filmmaker/writer. He is a regular contributor to leading Indian publications and is currently working on his first book. Find out more about him here and follow him @gchintamani
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