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Finally, Bollywood has courage to look at Muslims as regular Indians & not terrorists

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Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk breaks Bollywood’s Sunny Deol-ised mould of the Muslim as a terrorist. It makes you feel an ordinary Muslim family’s fears, dilemmas and anger.

One out of seven Indians is a Muslim. The 2021 census will see their numbers cross 20 crore. Definitely, more than one out of seven of our best actors, music directors, lyricists, directors and technical artistes have always been Muslim. Yet, Muslims are rarely portrayed in Hindi cinema. And on the rare occasion when they do, they are either very good guys, or really bad ones. It is as if Bollywood has concluded that a “normal” Muslim, an equivalent of some Karan or Sameer or Raj or Rahul, either doesn’t exist, or isn’t box office friendly. That is why Anubhav Sinha’s latest film, Mulk, is important.

Cinema’s portrayal of Muslims can be broadly divided in three phases. From Independence until the late 1960s, it was mostly about the great romantic and powerful figures from history: Taj Mahal, Mughal-e-Azam, Razia Sultana. There was a parallel genre of the “Muslim social”, with subtle romance, shayari and sort of middling feudal splendours, from Mere Mehboob to Pakeezah. In the “angry young man” 1970s, the Muslim was the big-hearted, honourable man who usually sacrificed his life for his Hindu buddy. Remember Pran’s Sher Khan singing “Yaari hai imaan mera, yaar meri zindagi…” to humour Amitabh Bachchan in Prakash Mehra’s 1973 classic Zanjeer. Until the late 1980s, the Muslim, if featured, was almost always a good guy.

A picture of Shekhar Gupta, editor-in-chief of ThePrint

It was followed by what we may call the Sunny Deol era, when communalism became fashionable, loaded slurs macho, and the Muslim mostly a terrorist. In one of these films, Jaal —The Trap, when Deol, as the good guy, is teaching the bad guys (all Muslims) manners, chants of “Om Namah Shivay” make the background score. The bad guys’ arrival duly has Arabian background music mixed with sounds of “Allah”. Tabu plays the patriotic hero’s Muslim wife and, not surprisingly, betrays him.

The worst was Gadar — Ek Prem Katha. I saw it many years ago when then editor M.J. Akbar said in a conversation to me that it was the most communally bigoted Hindi movie ever made. And he was so right. There were many others: Roja, Mission Kashmir, Fanaa, Fiza, Kurbaan and Vishwaroopam (though the hero there is a good Muslim taking on evil Muslim terrorists).

The rise of terrorism in Kashmir, al-Qaeda and ‘Indian Mujahideen’ had created the market for Islamophobia. A 2011 study of 50 films with Muslim characters by Muhammad Ashraf Khan and Syeda Zuria Bokhari showed 65.2 per cent painted Muslims in bad colours, about 30 per cent were neutral, and only 4.4 per cent positive.

It has only recently begun to be challenged. John Abraham’s New York and Shah Rukh Khan’s My Name is Khan and the Malayalam film Anwar featured Muslim protagonists. Shah Rukh has also made a point by taking a Muslim name in a succession of movies, beginning with Chak De! India.

Also read: ‘Mulk’ is latest in Bollywood series on ‘patriotism trial’ films about Indian Muslims

Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk is remarkable in that it pictures an ordinary Muslim family, though with a half-estranged Hindu daughter-in-law (Taapsee Pannu). Its Muslims are good and patriotic as well as bad and terrorist. It even brings you the complexity of a Muslim on the good side literally playing bad cop to his community as the overzealous, trigger-happy chief of Varanasi’s anti-terror squad, played brilliantly by Rajat Kapoor, who says much with his gait, eyes, the virtuoso body language package while speaking few words. There is also a terrorist son, killed in an encounter after a bomb planted by him blew up a bus killing 16 — including, we are reminded, three Muslims.

Just about half-an-hour into the film, you might also get a mixed feeling of fear, insecurity, the many conflicting dilemmas, aspirations and frustrations assailing an Indian Muslim’s mind today. And if I were a young Muslim, like lawyer Murad Ali Mohammed’s (Rishi Kapoor) terrorist nephew Shahid (Prateik Babbar), conflicting pressures and vulnerabilities: Joblessness, propaganda that Muslims are victimised and why aren’t you fighting back. Also, love of the family, country and the faith. At halfway point, you are frozen with fear. You might even wonder, is some of this going on in the minds of one out of seven, nearly 20 crore of my countrymen? And if so, why haven’t we gone up in flames yet?

Also read: Three years ago, Masaan brilliantly captured sexuality and aspiration in small town India

It isn’t only because there are some super-patriotic Muslims like the terrorist’s family, which refuses to accept his body for burial. In fact, the film questions that very principle, of good-Muslim exceptionalism. That of course, we adore Havildar Abdul Hamid, Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and Varanasi’s own Ustad Bismillah Khan, and if only more Muslims were like them. Anubhav Sinha sticks his neck and all his vitals out to say that these are no exceptions. Most Muslims are like them. It is the terrorists who are exceptions.

In more than 20 years now, a Hindi film has inspired this column only thrice. Each time, it has been because the film spotted a trend or a change that pundits and politicians hadn’t, or delved into an area we find so uncomfortable we’d rather avoid. The first was Farhan Akhtar’s 2001 Dil Chahta Hai, as our cinema’s first unqualified, non-judgemental portrayal of wealth and a rich lifestyle. Farhan’s genius caught ‘India Shining’ at the take-off point. Remember, this was when Anil Ambani was being voted the top youth icon ahead of Sachin Tendulkar. The second, Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan, in 2015, explored the social and personal impact of the change brought about by that relentless growth. It also locked horns with caste, which we usually hide from. Like Mulk, and maybe not coincidentally, it was also set in Varanasi.

Sinha’s Mulk makes the cut because it brings to you challenges of an ordinary Muslim family in modern India that again, like caste, we’d rather hide from. How effective he’s been, is evident from the vicious trolling he has received. Why any patriotic Indian would be embarrassed of this film, beats me. You should be especially proud that India has the confidence to produce and celebrate films like Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi, portraying a Pakistani army family as good, decent people, and now Mulk. Is it because in the current, Sunny Deol-ised environment, our convenient default view of a Muslim is a traitor, unless proven otherwise? This is why you should watch this film. Warning: It will hit you in the gut and it will hurt.

In 2005, in the same Varanasi, I received a wonderful lesson from one of its most famous Muslim geniuses. I asked Ustad Bismillah Khan in my ‘Walk The Talk’ interview why he didn’t go to Pakistan in 1947 when Jinnah had personally asked him. “Kaise jaate hum? Wahan hamaara Banaras hai kya?” he asked. And then went on to say how he cannot play his favourite Raag Bhairavi without Lord Shiva’s blessings and because he isn’t allowed inside the temple, he walks behind it and touches from the outside the wall against which the deity rests.

Play those clips of our first Independence Day in Parliament. The man playing the shehnai in celebration is Bismillah Khan, who just refused to go to Pakistan. Then, as we enter the week of our 72nd Independence Day, watch Mulk for a similar wake-up call. Watch Rishi Kapoor as Murad Ali Mohammed tell the court: If you can’t tell the difference between my beard and Osama bin Laden’s, it’s your problem. You can’t take away my right to have one and fulfil my religious duty (sunnat).

Also read: If Priyanka has to say sorry for showing Hindu terrorism, so should Sunny Deol to Muslims

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  1. As a regular reader of your Column, may I correct that you also discussed Madras Cafe, the movie in depth. So that makes it 4, not 3.

    Insightful article as always

  2. I find this article kind of contradicting itself in a few places. Following are a some:
    1) If there are so many (more than 1 in 7, according to the author) muslims in the film industry, why is there just a complaint that muslim stories are not being told? Muslim artists can make films based on these stories. Hansal Mehta made Shahid, which is fantastic, by the way, and not mentioned here. Hence, I think it doesn’t matter how many people from the religion work in the industry. Making films is a business. These stories will be told if the producers think it is profitable. By the way, not many Christain or Sikh stories are told in hindi films either.
    2) I do not think it is fair to blame Sunny Deol or to credit ShahRukh Khan for the roles they do in films. I would rather blame or credit the writers/producers/directors for films they make. Heroes are actors for hire, I don’t think they play a huge role in story decisions.
    3) Author does not mention good characters (who are incidentally muslim by faith) from Amir Khan movies e.g. Salim in Sarfarosh, Ismail in Lagaan, Farhan in 3 idiots etc. I think these characters and many more are ignored mainly because they are normal people like you and I and are not heroes or villains per se.

  3. Sunny Deol’s movies were never anti Muslim. You cant think of making Border by going soft on Pakistan & I dont remember a single dialouge in that movie against Muslim. Same was with Gaddar, it was anti Pakistan as many Hollywood movies are anti Russia or anti German that doesnt mean it was against Muslim. If it was not saying anything against Muslim of India than how can it be highly communalism. Why the Muslims of India should have any problem if the movies are made against Pakistan. Ofcourse Mulk is a good movie so you should praise it but why going so cheap on others work. By putting Sunny Deol’s name in the heading you proved that according to you how big the star he is, that you want to sale your article on his name.

  4. You want politically correct movies
    What about the comments that say ‘Movies are art’ ‘they should have freedom of expression’
    Oh Right!! These comments only come out when A historical Hindu figure has been criticised
    But you want Politically correct movies only when they suit your moods

  5. This is really neatly written post .. I am fan of Shekar Gupta’s writing and argument … How he so well put thought and Vega ideas on the page and makes it readable …

    Very good article sir … I enjoyed it even thought I have not seen the movie ….

  6. Over 100 crore Indians (majority being Hindus) have been categorised as criminals capable of committing atrocities and will be subject to a different criminal law. Mr Gupta do you accept such categorisation? The rights that were promised by the founding fathers have been extinguished under threat and fear of vicious caste extremists.

  7. It is really amazing to read your comments about Gadar. No where in the entire film the indians or muslims have been criticized. It was only ideology of pakistan and mein Pakistanis that was highlighted in film. Our enlightened class is used to find fault on any count that is even in historical perspective , remotely critical of conduct of muslims. Creation of pakistan is the most illustrative example of muslim tolerance towards non muslims.

  8. Indian Muslims staying back in India after Partition is not a badge of honour or their patriotism. When a minority within Muslims were running riots and conducting the Direct Action Days to hunt down Hindus, where were these Patriots? When the shoe is now on the other leg, they are just hiding behind the pardha of secularism & the brain dead Left-Libs.

    • As the minority within Muslims were running riots so were the minority within Hindus. So cut the crap out. Now this is gone further by the bhakts trying to suppress the voice of liberal Hindus writers/journalists. Also if you are talking about the riots of 70s or 80s please do understand that we are in 21st century and the world is becoming closer day by day. In the world of nuclear we need to live peacefully and change our mindset and become tolerable. Be it Hindu, Sikh, Muslims or Christian , Jain, Buddhist or Jews towards world citizens.

  9. A bold article that underscores a pertinent point that really needs to be made today. We are a secular country and must work toward keeping, not the spirit or secularism, but its functionality alive, for us to be inclusive, prosper and to move forward.

  10. Islam forbids idol worship. However, if Ustad Bismillah Khan wished to pay obeisance to Lord Shiva, the doors of the temple should have been open for him. As our hearts should be for the 170 million Muslims who have chosen to be Indians.

    • Correction: They were Indians who opted / chose to be Muslims! Idol worship was banned because people started creating Gods out of normal people and fighting over whose God is the real one. Of late in our information age society also we are creating Gods out of conmen – Ram Rahims and the numerous Babas! It was to unite illiterate people under a single formless divine force that idols were banned!

  11. The Muslims revel in victimhood alongwith their liberal allies. There is never any realization or introspection about the bigotry of their faith, the violence by their lot. Hindus have been the biggest victims of Islam in this country and no amount of crappy films can change that truth. Hindus are no longer gullible. We shall snatch away our rights if we are not given them. A Hindu majority country like ours will always have Hindu culture. If Muslims cant accept that, they are welcome to leave and go to their pure lands that they fought for and founded after committing genocide on Hindus

    • Have you ever checked the facts how many of jobs been taken by Muslims? Most of them are so illiterate, I’ll equipped that they are not even eligible. There going to other lands is not going to help matters but an emplyment oriented growth which is really all inclusive along with good education for all

    • Who are Hindus? Do they have any single identity? There was, there is no Hindu! There are Bengalis, Madrasi, Manipuri, Maharashtrian, Punjabi, Dogra, Avadhi, UPwale and so on and there are Shiv Bhakts, Ram Bhakts, Shani Bhakts and Ram-jane-which-bhakt but no Hindu! So when you say WE just look around and see who all are with you! The Hindus are the collective that occupy the blessed land beyond the Indus as see from the North! They were cultured civilised contented happy people who believed in high ideals and values! These values and finesse remained in them irrespective of their religious denomination! Because culture is a function of ethnicity whereas religion is merely an applique! Today the need is to identify ourselves as an politico-ethinic conglomeration in order to overcome the communal divide!

  12. Mr Shekhar Gupta I place you amongst the most remarkable writers of the country! How can you put your heart so artistically in words, amazes me! So well brought out. It is icons like you who can keep the spirit of India alive through your subtly aggressive style of perception strengthening. There are many more of your domain like my good friend Capt Raghuraman doing their little bit so there is a need to synergise for impact. Trust me, till the sincere don’t sacrifice their comfort zones and get into the field it will be the goons who’ll rule the countryside! Frankly, today what bothers the thinking Indian is not poverty, governance, crime, development etc as much as the survival of the idea of India!
    You must do it Sir. Foot soldiers will join you galore!
    Very nicely written piece! Thanks for kick starting my day in such a great way! Jai Hind!

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