The clutch of Khans that makes up the A-list of Hindi film heroes is sometimes cited as proof that Muslims flourish in mainstream cinema today, but Mumbai’s film industry has always been home to Muslim talent: actors, directors, scriptwriters, dialogue writers, lyricists, you name it. And the Muslim “contribution” to Hindi cinema isn’t limited to its personnel; the very nature of Hindi cinema, its metaphors, its rhetoric have been constituted by cultural forms associated with Muslims.
The Hindi film is actually the Urdu film. Do a census of Hindi film titles from Mughal-e-Azam to Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and you’ll find that the vast majority of them draw on the Persian lexicon that distinguishes Urdu from its Sanskritized cousin, Hindi. The lyrics and dialogue of “Hindi” movies are even more dependent on Urdu’s Persianate idiom. This is partly because that idiom is better equipped to supply sonorous words for inflated emotions than Hindi is. It’s possible to render the keywords of Hindi film dialogue such as dil, khoon aur kismat as hriday, rakt evam bhagya, but this is unlikely to happen. The courtroom scene, a hardy staple of the traditional Hindi film, is unimaginable in Hindi; how would the lawyer summon the eyewitness, the chashmadeed gawah, and how would the judge deliver himself of that noble exoneration, ba-izzat bari?
A romanticized ideal of nawabi Avadh, seen as a symbol of both cultivation and decline, provided Hindi cinema with many of its metaphors and stock characters. Thus, the debauched rentier in Sahib, Biwi aur Ghulam or Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar might figure in stories located in Bengal, but the archetype of aristocratic decadence on which he is based is derived from the nawabi ayyashi made famous by the Islamicate elite of Avadh.
Similarly, the vamp in Hindi films has bloodlines that reach in two different directions: She’s both the Hollywood moll and the courtesan-tawaif of north India’s Muslim court culture. Even the vamp’s dance routines are a cross between the cabaret and the mujra. In short, the Hindi film industry wasn’t just rich with Muslim talent, it was deeply coloured by what (for want of a better term) we shall call a Muslim culture.
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This relationship between Islamicate culture (if Islamicate is understood to refer to the cultural practices associated with Muslims, as opposed to ideas derived from Islam) and Hindi cinema has changed over the last 30-odd years. Paradoxically, at the moment when the Khans dominate the Hindi film industry, the Hindi film has begun to draw less frequently upon the Islamicate resources that used to be its stock in trade.
This change in Hindi cinema was prefigured by changes in the real world. It became impossible to sustain aristocratic Muslim archetypes in a country where the Muslims you were likely to meet were increasingly plebeian. The Islamicate types borrowed from a medieval and early modern past—court culture, cultivation, Muslims as the bearers of aristocratic tradition—no longer fit the sociology of the present.
The Justice Rajinder Sachar Committee report, tabled in Parliament in 2006, demonstrated that the Muslim community was, by many crucial measures, more backward than Dalits. But this only formally confirmed the intuition that Indian film-makers already had about the Muslim community.
In the early 1980s, Manmohan Desai would say in interviews that one of the reasons he made the sort of films he did, with Amitabh Bachchan playing the angry young man and with a sympathetic Muslim character somewhere in the cast, was because a significant part of his “repeat audience”, the people who made the film a hit by seeing it over and over again, were young, unemployed Muslim men.
Not only do Muslim characters in Hindi films increasingly represent Muslims as poor, they also represent this Muslim underclass as part of a criminal milieu. In Vishal Bharadwaj’s Maqbool, the Macbeth story is set in Mumbai’s Muslim gangland. Pankaj Kapoor and Irrfan Khan play the don and his consigliere and with Tabu as Lady Macbeth, they bring to life a specifically Muslim underworld. Irrfan Khan makes this wicked lumpen Muslim real.
A year later, in 2004, Irrfan Khan reprised his role as Muslim ganglord when he played Yusuf Pathan in Aan: Men At Work. M.J. Akbar, author and journalist, once observed half-jokingly that Haji Mastan, the smuggler, was an icon for Indian Muslims because he represented an alternative form of social mobility. He showed that there was a path out of poverty, even if it was a left-handed one. In a confrontation with Akshay Kumar (who plays the honest policeman) in Aan, Irrfan Khan makes this wicked prole Muslim real.
In contemporary Hindi cinema, a Muslim character can’t be a middle-class Everyman. After the resurgence of majoritarian politics at the turn of the century and the “war on terror” post-9/11, Muslim characters in Hindi films have come to occupy a charged space: They’re either victims or perpetrators (I can think of one film with a Muslim protagonist who is neither victim nor perpetrator: Iqbal, a film about a cricket-mad boy). So Aamir Khan in Fanaa is a terrorist while Shah Rukh Khan in Chak De! is a Muslim victim, a sportsman with a career ruined by the unfounded suspicion that he had thrown a hockey match against Pakistan.
In Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle follows this trend by turning the central character into a Muslim, Jamal Malik. In the book the protagonist is a boy of uncertain religious provenance: Ram Mohammad Thomas. Boyle uses both parts of the contemporary Muslim stereotype: In Slumdog, Muslims are victims and perpetrators. The character of Dev Patel is a victim while Javed, the Muslim gang lord who employs his criminal brother, Salim, is a perpetrator.
It is a fine Indian irony that at the very moment that Hindi cinema has begun to squeeze Muslim characters into these confining pigeonholes, the Muslim men who define stardom in our cinema, Aamir, Shah Rukh, Salman, Saif and Farhan, play with increasing flair and success the Hindu Everyman, variously called Vicky, Raj, Ajay, Vijay and Karan.
Mukul Kesavan teaches social history at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, and is the author, most recently, of The Ugliness of the Indian Male and Other Propositions.
Write to Mukul at firstname.lastname@example.org