The last of this three-part series on the vanishing treasures of Hindu-Muslim syncretism in Bollywood traces the rise and demise of the “Muslim Social”, a genre that is important for the space and freedom it accords to the minority community in the realm of cinema.
The Muslim Social was a sub-genre of drama in Hindi cinema that portrayed the social and cultural lives of Muslims in India. From exclusively chronicling the tragedies and triumphs of the Khawaas (elite Muslims) to depicting the anxieties and aspirations of the Awaam (common Muslims), the ‘Muslim Social’ – on close examination – can be seen as a mirror to the Indian Muslim experience since 1947.
The last of this three-part series traces the tumultuous journey of this almost lost genre through the decades, while attempting to understand the social and political factors that formed the background to its rise and demise.
Birth and Growth
Sohrab Modi’s Pukar (1939), based on the Mughal Emperor Jahangir’s legendary sense of justice, is usually regarded as inaugurating the genre. The next notable film of this type, Mehboob Khan’s Najma (1943) was a tragic romance that emphasized the importance of modern education and thought among Muslims. In many ways, Najma was a prototype of post-independence Muslim Socials which replicated many of its elements, including a restrained romance between coy lovers and exotification of the world of well-to-do aristocratic Muslims. This idealized bubble-like space filled with Lakhnavi tehzeeb (culture and etiquette of Lucknow), Urdu Shayari (poetry), sherwani-wearing men and sharara-wearing women became the defining feature of the Muslim Social in subsequent decades. Movies such as Humayun (1945), Shahjehan (1946), and Mirza Ghalib (1954) may be regarded as quintessential films of the genre.
Watch: Najma (1943)
The High Point
The Muslim Social continued to flourish in post-Independent India. Muslim film-makers, scriptwriters, music directors, and lyricists such as Mehboob Khan, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Abrar Alvi, Kamal Amrohi, K. Asif, Sahir Ludhianvi, Shakeel Badayuni, and Majrooh Sultanpuri lent visual and lyrical splendour, giving an otherworldly feel and flavour to the films. The 1960s and early 70s were the high point for the genre with a string of successes such as Barsaat ki Raat (1960), Mughal-e-Azam (1960), Chaudhvin ka Chand (1960), Mere Mehboob (1963), Bahu Begum (1967), Mere Huzoor (1968), and Mehboob ki Mehndi (1971). Almost identical in their portrayal of Nawabi characters, most of these films had a powerful social message and prominent female characters navigating the complexities of enclosed worlds, frequently facing the predicament of choosing between the ignominy of love and family honour.
Watch: Chaudhavin ka Chand (1961)
It must be noted that the 50s and 60s found a ready audience for such films because large sections of the population understood the language i.e. Urdu. Moreover, the hold of the feudal Muslim elite on North India’s collective imagination remained strong enough for films portraying their lives to be attractive. It mattered little till this point that the portrayals were somewhat far-fetched and fanciful.
The Muslim Social reached its zenith with Kamal Amrohi’s magnum opus Pakeezah (1972). An aesthetic feast with its architectural grandeur, melodious songs, gorgeous costumes, and chaste Urdu dialogues, this epic romance is rightly regarded as an epitome of the classic Muslim Social. While many movies of the genre featured the Tawaaif (courtesan) as a stock character, Pakeezah catapulted her into the centre of the narrative, as did Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan (1981) nearly a decade later.
Watch: Iconic song from Pakeezah (1972)
Blazing a Trail
The 1970s ushered in New-Age Socials with films like Dastak (1970) and Garm Hawa (1973). Written and directed by Rajinder Singh Bedi, Dastak masterfully captures the anguish of newly-weds Hamid and Salma while they contend with daily knocks on their door intended for the previous occupant of the house, a famous Mujrewali (nautch girl). The M.S. Sathyu-directed Garm Hawa takes a look at the dilemma faced by Muslims in post-Partition North India, as illustrated by Salim Mirza, an Agra-based shoe manufacturer, who is torn between moving to Pakistan and staying back in an increasingly hostile homeland. Based on a short story by Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai, Garm Hawa was a masterpiece that not only blazed a trail for its own genre but went on to be celebrated as a forerunner of avant-garde cinema in Bollywood.
Watch: Garm Hava
Muslim Socials of the 1980s began veering towards art-house cinema. Films like Sagar Sarhadi’s Bazaar (1982) and Muzaffar Ali’s Anjuman (1986) shed light on the socio-economic problems ailing the Muslim community, including the sexual exploitation of women and violation of workers’ rights. But there were exceptions in the form of Umrao Jaan and B.R. Chopra’s Nikaah (1982) which harked back to the genre as it existed in the 50s and 60s. Significantly, the early 80s also marked the beginning of the end for the Muslim Social set in traditional Nawabi culture.
Thus, the 1970s saw the Muslim Social move out of the cocoon of feudal privilege and present the bitter experiences of new India’s socially marginalized, economically underprivileged Muslim community. Nowhere is this characterization more obvious than in Manmohan Desai’s Coolie (1982), which featured a feisty porter, named Iqbal, fighting for the rights of downtrodden workers. This plummeting of the hero’s social rank – from a scion of aristocrats to son of plebian parents – signalled not just the declining status of Indian Muslims in actual life, but a shift in the way they were popularly perceived.
The Brilliance of Dusk
By the late 1980s and early 90s, the space for the Muslim Social in commercial Hindi cinema had shrunk considerably. However, the parallel cinema of this period produced several gems of the genre. Shorn of lilting qawwalis and regal sets, Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s iconic Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989) is a gritty portrayal of the life of petty criminal Salim Pasha, son of working-class parents, against the backdrop of a rapidly polarizing Bombay. Shyam Benegal’s critically acclaimed trilogy of films on Muslim women, Mammo (1994), Sardari Begum (1996) and Zubeidaa (2001) delved into diverse themes with a singular leitmotif: the plight of women doubly scorned on account of their gender and religious identity. Another cinematic treasure of this period is Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s Naseem (1995). Featuring Kaifi Azmi as the eponymous protagonist’s grandfather, Naseem poignantly foregrounded the fears and frustrations of a lower-middle-class Muslim family against communal tensions that preceded the demolition of Babri Masjid. Barring Garm Hawa and Naseem, no other film, perhaps, expressly criticized a politico-cultural landscape that perpetuated a mindset which viewed being an Indian and a Muslim as a dichotomy.
The Muslim Social practically faded into oblivion by the mid-1990s. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, Indian identity on celluloid had become conflated with Punjabi/Hindu identity. Besides, liberalization and globalization shaped an audience that was primarily interested in stories that reflected their upwardly mobile aspirations. This may partly explain the box-office success of movies about affluent characters, set in international locations such as Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995) and Dil Chahta Hai (2001). Bollywood, being a profit-driven industry, responded to the changed sensibilities and churned out films accordingly.
More importantly, the very elements that aided the success of early Socials – imagery of sprawling gardens, opulent havelis, splendid costumes, and bombastic Urdu dialogues – became the cause of their decline in later years. Times had changed and what is more, the audience who understood and appreciated these films had thinned considerably by the 90s. Consequently, later films that adopted these distinctive features appeared affected and anachronistic. No wonder that movies like Pati Patni Aur Tawaif (1990), Sanam Bewafa (1991), and Bewaffa Se Waffa (1992) are considered kitschy and denied a place alongside their exalted predecessors. Such was the decline of these cultural idiosyncrasies that Urdu Sher o Shayari became the stuff of parody scenes in movies like Daraar (1996), even if the implication may not have been pejorative.
Shyam Benegal’s Hari Bhari (2000), Zubeidaa (2001) and Khalid Mohammed’s Fiza (2000) were the last of the Muslim Socials. Interestingly, a little-known film named Kahaani Gudiya Ki (2005), shoddily made but well-meaning, raised pertinent questions with regard to women and Sharia laws.
Watch: Shyam Benegal’s Zubeidaa
Although a string of films in the 2000s, namely Fanaa (2006), New York (2009), Kurbaan (2009) and My Name is Khan (2010) featured Muslim protagonists, many critics refrain from classifying them as Muslim Socials primarily because their terror-centric plots called for the central characters to be Muslim. They also did not belong to the milieu of the Muslim Socials. According to a section of critics, these types of films belong to a new genre known as the “Muslim Political”.
Filmmakers such as Hansal Mehta, Anurag Kashyap, Rahul Dholakia, and Anubhav Sinha have, in recent years, attempted to put a contemporary spin on the Muslim Social and embrace its spirit. Films such as Shahid (2012), based on the life of slain lawyer Shahid Azmi, and Raees (2017), centred on a Muslim gangster, put forth unabashed and nuanced portrayals of the Muslim ethos. Though a film like Sultan (2016) featured Muslim protagonists, its director Ali Abbas Zafar remarked that he did not have a religious identity in mind while envisioning the characters and that they were Muslim by chance. The case may have been the same with Gali Guleiyan (2017).
Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk (2018), entrenched in North India’s Muslim milieu, was commended for its representation of Muslim characters. Though the film still had an anti-national Muslim terrorist – by now a stock character – juxtaposed with a nationalist Muslim. More recently, Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy (2019) was hailed for its portrayal of Murad Sheikh, the working-class Muslim protagonist and aspiring rap star for whom rap is a medium to express his angst and frustration against entrenched inequalities. For all its wishy-washy iconoclasm and engagement with class identity over religious identity, Gully Boy stands out as a beacon of hope in a cinemascape littered with the likes of Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019) and Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior (2020).
Watch: Azadi – Gully Boy
The Flower of Indian cinema
Although the term “Muslim Social” has been subjected to criticism for otherization of Muslims in cinema, the genre is significant because of the space and freedom it accords to the minority community in the cultural realm of cinema. This has become all the more important, given their near-political invisibility in today’s Hindutva badge-wearing India.
Watch: Making of Garam Hawa
In a less time-confined, larger sense, these films are a symbol of Hindu-Muslim syncretism in Bollywood because they are emblematic of our proudly accommodative ethos that has place for everyone. In that, not just Muslim Socials, but even Sikh, Christian, and Parsi Socials ought to be made. It’s time the flower of Indian cinema acquired more colour.