The second of this three-part series on the vanishing treasures of Hindu-Muslim syncretism in Hindi cinema explores the characterization of Muslims in Hindi cinema, particularly focusing on their evolution through the decades and what that indicates about our times, then and now.
From magnanimous friends and fearless patriots in the 1950s and 1960s to menacing gangsters and coldblooded terrorists in the 1990s and 2000s, the Muslim in Bollywood has changed a great deal over the decades.
A brief examination of the many forgotten and unforgotten Muslim characters that peopled films over six decades reveals how inextricably reel and real life are intertwined.
The overwhelming majority of post-Independence films did not have Muslim protagonists. Movies of a specific genre known as the “Muslim Social” typically had all Muslim characters including the hero and heroine. The focus here is on regular films and how Muslims were depicted in these.
1950s, 60s & 70s
Most films of the 1950s were an engaging mix of romance and realism.
Newly independent India was envisioned as secular and values of religious tolerance and pluralism were considered intrinsic to the Nehruvian idea of India. Films of the era captured this secular zeitgeist by portraying Muslims as loyal friends and companions, even saviours who shook the conscience of erring protagonists. Garam Coat (1955) shows a portly Pathan, Sher Khan (Jayant) cheering up the beleaguered hero Girdhari (Balraj Sahni) and saving his life by thwarting his suicide attempt in the end. Likewise in Pyaasa (1957), Abdul Sattar (Johnny Walker), who earns a living giving head massages, is the only friend of struggling poet Vijay (Guru Dutt) in the world. Bringing comic relief to an otherwise sombre drama, Sattar even helps Vijay escape from mental asylum. In the Dostoevskian Phir Subah Hogi (1958), Rehman (Rehman) acts as the penniless Ram’s (Raj Kapoor) pillar of support and refuses to abandon him even when Ram bitterly quarrels with him.
One of the most remarkable Muslim characters in Hindi cinema is seen in Dhool ka Phool (1959).
In it, the avuncular Abdul Rasheed (Manmohan Krishna) raises an illegitimate child undeterred by taunts and near-social boycott. His nobility stands in stark contrast to the disingenuousness of the protagonists.
Watch: Iconic scene from Dhool ka Phool (1959)
The 1960s did not see a radical departure from this pattern. In Dharmputra (1961), Ashok Kumar plays the benevolent aristocrat Nawab Badruddin who is forced to hand over his grandson, born out of wedlock to daughter Husn Bano (Mala Sinha), to a young Hindu doctor whose father had been Badruddin’s best friend. A fierce patriot, he is shown killed by the British while attempting to hoist the Indian flag. In Arzoo (1965), it is the comical but kindly Kashmiri houseboat man Mamdooh (Mehmood) who inadvertently unites the lovers in the end.
Watch: Iconic scene from Dharmputra (1961)
The 1970s perpetuated the virtuous Muslim character, albeit infused with a few flaws and frailties.
One such character was the red-haired Pathan Sher Khan (Pran) in the cult classic Zanjeer (1973). A criminal running gambling dens, Sher Khan turns over a new leaf after befriending Inspector Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan) and helps him avenge his parents’ murder. In the iconic Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), Rishi Kapoor plays one of the lead characters, namely a cheerful Muslim qawwal (singer) named Akbar. Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978) had important female Muslim characters like Fatima (Nirupa Roy) who brings up the orphaned Sikander (Amitabh Bachchan) and Zohra Begum (Rekha), the courtesan with a heart of gold.
1980s & 1990s
The 1980s witnessed a slight shift in the portrayal of Muslims. Though many films continued to show them as loyal friends and confidants, their depiction as working-class people – oppressed and marginalized – increased. By the late 1970s, nearly all affluent Muslims had left for Pakistan, and this portrayal may be regarded as a mirror to the community’s condition in reality. The 1980s also marked the beginning of Muslim crime-themed films inspired, in no small measure, by the rise of underworld gangsters Haji Mastan, Dawood Ibrahim and others.
The idea spawned dozens of movies containing the leitmotif of the ruthless Muslim don, gang lord, or petty criminal and continued well into the 2000s.
An exceptional movie of all time is Coolie (1983), which featured a working-class Muslim as the protagonist, despite not being an art-house film or “Muslim Social”. Amitabh Bachchan put in a power-packed performance as the swashbuckling coolie Iqbal, who fights, romances, and prays with equal ardour. Coolie abounds in Sufi imagery and symbols such as miracles worked by prayers to the “Lord of Medina”, a badge embossed with the sacred digits 786, and a God-fearing hawk named Allah Rakha. In the satirical drama, Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho! (1984), the poor but good-hearted Kareem (Naresh Suri) is the only person to support the elderly Mohan Joshi (Bhisham Sahni) and his wife who decide to take legal action against their avaricious landlord Kundan Kapadia (Amjad Khan).
It was Tezaab (1988) that effectively inaugurated the character of the dreaded Muslim gangster with Lotiya Pathan (Kiran Kumar).
Watch: Famous shot involving Amitabh Bachchan from Coolie (1983)
The early 1990s saw India mired in multiple communal crises, including the Ram Temple Movement and exodus of Pandits from the Kashmir Valley followed by outbreak of insurgency. Further polarization came in the wake of violent communal riots shortly after the demolition of the Babri Masjid.
The villainization of the Muslim had begun, and cinema couldn’t help but replicate the bitter reality.
Watch: Scene from Henna (1991)
The 90s began with a remarkable movie called Henna (1991), about a Pakistani girl Henna (Zeba Bakhtiyar) and her unrequited love for the Indian Chander (Rishi Kapoor). Caught in the exchange of fire between India and Pakistan, the eponymous heroine is killed, prompting Chander to ponder the futility of war and violence.
The Muslim Kashmiri terrorist, complete with a Kalashnikov and pheran, made his first appearance in a Tamil film dubbed in Hindi named Roja (1993).
Hindi cinema in the 90s also began dabbling in Hindu-Muslim love stories although, in line with Hindu patriarchy, the hero was always Hindu – reinforcing the idea of the majority conquering the minority. Examples include Bombay (1995) – another Tamil film dubbed in Hindi – and Dahek (1999). Interestingly, Shaila Banu (Manisha Koirala) of Bombay continues practicing her own religion even after marrying a Hindu man. Sarfarosh (1999) gave Pakistan-sponsored terrorism a face for the first time in a Hindi movie through Gulfam (Naseeruddin Shah). The film also pioneered the dichotomy of the good Muslim, bad Muslim with ghazal singer Gulfam – the undercover Pakistani intelligence agent – and patriotic Inspector Salim (Mukesh Rishi) who poignantly bemoans his allegiances being suspect on account of his religion.
Even B-grade Hindi cinema cashed in on the idea of Muslim goons and gangsters in the 90s. Heroes were often seen single-handedly tackling gaggles of sword-brandishing goons, conspicuous by their Keffiyeh shoulder wraps and skull caps.
9/11 changed the world, including India, in irreversible ways. Muslims begun to be perceived either as terrifying rifle-toting terrorists, closet jihadis plotting to kill all kafirs, or piteously innocent victims in the popular imagination. That India itself suffered numerous terror attacks all through the decade added fuel to the fire.
In between the Parliament attack in 2001 and Mumbai terror attacks in 2008, there were at least half a dozen bombings – in Delhi, Mumbai, Jaipur, Varanasi, and Ahmedabad – attributed to Jihadists. As the gaze of the majority hardened, so did the gaze of cinema.
Fiza (2000) shows a sister Fiza’s (Karisma Kapoor) search for her brother Amaan (Hrithik Roshan) who becomes a terrorist shortly after the 1993 Bombay riots. The Kashmiri terrorist re-emerged in Mission Kashmir (2000), which presents a trichotomy of Muslims – the patriotic Kashmiri policeman Inayat Khan (Sanjay Dutt), the misguided fundamentalist Altaaf Khan (Hrithik Roshan), and the brutal terrorist Hilal Kohistani (Jackie Shroff). The 1950s loyal Muslim friend trope reappeared in Hey Ram (2000), with Shah Rukh Khan playing Amjad Ali Khan – a man whose commitment to Hindu-Muslim brotherhood is markedly at odds with the anti-Muslim, anti-Gandhi radicalism of Ram (Kamal Haasan).
Watch: Scene from Hey Ram (2000) involving Shah Rukh Khan and Kamal Hassan
Iqbal (2005) took a refreshing look at Muslims, with its impoverished protagonist Iqbal (Shreyas Talpade), a deaf-mute boy who aspires to be a cricketer with the help of his drunken coach Mohit (Naseeruddin Shah). Another stupendous film of this decade was Chak De! India (2007), starring Shah Rukh Khan as Kabir Khan, an ex-caption of India’s hockey team, who is suspected of deliberately losing a match to Pakistan, ostensibly because he’s Muslim. The shared agony and efforts of a coach – fighting religious prejudice – and his team of women players – fighting to overcome gender stereotypes – made for a scintillating watch. At least three big-budget terror-centric films, namely Fanaa (2006), New York (2009), and Kurbaan (2009) can be regarded as trademark products of their time, reflecting – as they did – popular prejudices and anxieties. All three featured slick and good-looking Muslim men who charmed their way into the hearts and lives of the unwitting women.
But while Fanaa brought the focus back to the Kashmiri insurgent, New York and Kurbaan offered a glimpse of the fallout of Islamophobia in the U.S. after 9/11 and the counter-reactions of humiliation and rage among young Muslim men.
My Name is Khan (2010), the story of a man named Rizwan (Shah Rukh Khan) with Asperger’s syndrome, also exploited the victim-of-American-Islamophobia trope to the hilt.
The Last Decade in a Nutshell
The last decade, particularly the last five years have seen the rise of hypernationalism along with that of the Hindu right.
If period dramas, that pit evil Muslims against good Hindus such as Padmaavat (2018), Panipat (2019), Kesari (2019) and Tanhaji (2020), lent xenophobia the gilded touch of history, a contemporary film like Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019) gave it fresh urgency.
Even an otherwise fine film like Raazi (2018) sent out a muddled message, baring the savagery of nations at war on the one hand, and extolling nationalism in the end credits on the other. But the decade also saw noteworthy films with nuanced characterizations including Shahid (2013), Haider (2014), Raees (2017), Gali Guleiyan (2017), Jolly LLB 2 (2017), Mulk (2018), and Gully Boy (2019).
Watch: Shahid Kapoor‘s famous monologue from Haider
Propaganda or Truth?
The cinematic trend of reimagining history that feeds the majoritarian narrative looks set to continue with Chhatrapati Shivaji (in Marathi), and a biopic on Prithviraj Chauhan in the pipeline. There is nothing extraordinary in films capturing and capitalizing on popular sentiments, given that that film-making is primarily a business and movies that are likely to sell are the movies that are likely to find producers. All the same, they can also choose to be the nation’s conscience and draw attention to the iniquities unfolding amidst us. Films like Kissa Kursi Ka (1977) and Aandhi (1975) are shining examples of films that intrepidly took on the government (then the Congress party) at the zenith of its power.
The 1950s films, helped by the prevailing Nehruvian secularism, also stepped forward to heal the wounds of Partition and communal riots India was still smarting from.
One can only hope that films won’t become mere tools of propaganda; that they will do their bit and speak the truth.