On 27 November 2008, a film crew began work on location in Philadelphia, US, trying to replicate a terrorist attack. Most members of the crew, including the film’s director Rensil D’Silva, were from Mumbai.
Before he arrived on location, he had spent hours in front of CNN watching the Taj hotel under siege—and the surreal paralysis of his city that followed.
For him, as perhaps for most members of the crew, recreating a terrorist attack that day, in front of high definition cameras, was a disturbing, even eerie, task. Qurbaan (a working title), produced by Karan Johar (Dharma Productions), was suddenly akin to what was unfolding in Mumbai.
New York minute: In New York John Abraham and Neil Nitin Mukesh play Muslim roles.
The film’s protagonist, played by Saif Ali Khan, an “urban, educated, liberal” Muslim, in love with a Hindu girl (played by Kareena Kapoor), was in the throes of a crisis because of a similar terrorist act. “I will never forget that shoot,” D’Silva says.
I met D’Silva more than six months after that day, at the ad agency where he works as creative director. “But now when I look back, I believe that the film, more so its main characters, are all the more relevant, and more contemporary in the post-26/11 world,” he says.
The film releases in theatres, uncannily, on 26 November. It will be the Eid weekend.
D’Silva’s hero (the screenplay is also by D’Silva), modelled on Muslim guys he interacts with in the city, can be monikered “the new Bollywood Muslim”—defined, unfortunately, more by what he is not, rather than what he is. He is not the decadent, sozzled nawab cavorting with courtesans; not “Khan chacha”, the benevolent other, wearing a Faiz topi, sneaked into the plot as a secular prop; not an underworld don or a don’s sidekick; and not a crazed, wronged jihadi.
Ironically, in an industry dominated by Muslim directors, producers, composers, lyricists, actors and junior artists, a Muslim character that doesn’t fall into any of these categories is rare. One that immediately comes to mind was created in the 1980s: Salim in Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989), directed by Saeed Mirza, which subverted stereotypes for the sake of “mean streets” realism. It portrayed the existential and social frustrations of a young man from a lower economic class in Mumbai who resorted to extortion and petty crimes to defy the society. More recently, Iqbal in Nagesh Kukunoor’s eponymous film— again, a young man on the margins of society—had nothing to do with religious identity.
But this year could be a watershed. On three occasions, Omar, Razwan or Asif straddle roles that, in Bollywood, belong exclusively to Raj, Rahul or Prem—what Mukul Kesavan, in one of his Lounge columns called the “Hindu Everyman” that our Muslim stars—Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Saif Ali Khan and Farhan Akhtar—have been playing effortlessly, and successfully. Shah Rukh Khan played a Muslim in a lead role for the first time in 2007, as Kabir Khan in Chak De! India.
Reality bites: Kabir Khan was in Afghanistan on 11 September 2001 and witnessed the US bombing of Kabul thereafter
The three big budget flms— New York, Qurbaan, and My Name is Khan (being filmed in San Francisco, US)—have urban Muslim men as pivots of the plot. They are not just victims or perpetrators, but also the romantic hero, the man who fights the odds, and the average Indian Joe in search of a life of material and emotional comfort. Their being Muslim has to do with the plot, not with the characterization—think Akbar (Rishi Kapoor) in Amar Akbar Anthony in denim, but the same guy in the narrative scheme. For the first time in the lavish cinemascope of big budget Bollywood, the liberal Muslim speaks, and propels the story.
Omar in Kabir Khan’s New York, a Yash Raj film that released on Friday, is an educated Indian from Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi, studying at a New York college. He hangs out with two buddies, Sam (John Abraham), a Muslim raised in the US, and Maya (Katrina Kaif), in SoHo and Central Park. “I was very conscious of how we perceive Muslim characters in our movies. While watching the Muslim guy, we tend to take it for granted that something will happen to him. That he will be wronged or that he will be the traitor or he will die soon.” the director says. The Muslim-ness of Omar and Sam has to do with the plot, and not characterization.
The first half of New York is set on campus—the Yash Raj kind, where friendships grow through song, dance and candyfloss banter. The second half unfolds in the backdrop of the World Trade Center attacks. Sam is detained by the FBI and Omar, outraged at the injustice, chooses a violent path.
The second half has the dark, chilling edge that was seen in Hollywood director Gavin Hood’s film about the politics and pain of post-9/11 detentions, Rendition (2007). “After 9/11, my US visa got rejected a few times because of my name. I was told my last name was “vague”. This got me thinking about my own identity as a Muslim,” says Kabir Khan. (Incidentally, when Neil Nitin Mukesh arrived in New York for the shoot, immigration authorities detained him because they could not believe an Indian could be so light-skinned.)
My Name is Khan, being directed by Karan Johar and scheduled to release on 20 February next year, is the story of Rizwan Khan, brought up by his mother in the Borivali suburb of Mumbai. He moves to the US and falls in love with Mandira, played by Kajol. He suffers from Asperger syndrome, a kind of autism that impairs his social skills. After the World Trade Center falls, the FBI mistakes his disability for “suspicious behaviour” and arrests him. In Shah Rukh Khan’s own words, “It is not about a disabled man’s fight against disability. It’s a disabled man’s fight against the disability that exists in the world—terrorism, hatred, fighting.”
It is probably not just coincidence that in all three films, the backdrop is America or New York. The 11 September 2001 attacks, themselves a tragedy of cinematic dimensions, have inspired films all over the world, and brought the issue of racial profiling into the world’s consciousness. Indian film-makers are seven years late in using that opportunity despite the fact that much of our contemporary history is doused in—and even shaped by—communal violence and discrimination.
Is it because, when set in the American context, the misrepresentation of Muslims plays out in a global, more universal context, and allows film-makers the freedom to make statements without offending local or national sentiments at home? Kabir Khan says: “I was in Afghanistan during that time and when, after 9/11, the US bombings began, I internalized some of the brutalization that was going on in the name of (the) ‘war on terror’. But it was much later, when Aditya Chopra gave me a two-line brief of a story about three youngsters in New York, that I decided to set it in post-9/11 America.” He says he wants New York to be a story about people first, rather than a 9/11 film. “The political backdrop should not intrude in the human story,” he says.
Muslim stereotypes include emperors, courtesans and jihadis
But it wasn’t D’Silva’s purpose to be neutral: “You can’t be objective or neutral with issues like racial discrimination or terrorism. A lot of white people may not like my film. They will hear the Muslim guy, who is never represented in film, speak against radical Islam.” D’Silva’s film, “a political romantic thriller”, has a scene in which Saif Ali Khan’s character has a verbal face-off with the radical Islamist.
While the American backdrop does facilitate a universality, it can also be limiting, alienating issues that are specific to the Indian context. Syed Ali Mujtaba, a Chennai-based critic and scholar of Islamic studies, says: “A film like New York will appeal much more to the NRI audience. For most Muslims living in India, the discrimination is at a more basic, survival level: in education, job opportunities.”
A recent film where the local and the universal met is the 2007 Pakistani film Khuda Kay Liye, set in post-9/11 America as well as Pakistan. Like New York, Khuda Kay Liye dealt with the illegal detention of Muslims and also portrayed the hypocrisy, prejudice and backwardness of Pakistani society. Naseeruddin Shah, who played a role, says: “I agreed to do this film because the role I was offered was that of a Muslim cleric who is against fundamentalist Islam. It made a very powerful point—that Islam is about tolerance and humanity.”
Mujtaba believes that although today’s Indian directors are more conscious of stereotypes and try to avoid them (he cites the example of the role played by Shah in last year’s A Wednesday)Bollywood has a long way to go. “Many Indian films have tackled communalism in India, but mainstream Bollywood has the power to change perceptions because of its sheer reach.”
Different stereotypes of Muslims in Hindi films have emerged with every successive era since the 1950s—on screen and behind the scenes. The most lasting and meaningful relationship between Muslims and Hindi cinema has been through lyricists and scriptwriters. In the 1950s and 1960s, young Muslim poets and writers from Uttar Pradesh, such as Naushad, Sahir Ludhianvi and Majrooh Sultanpuri, brought in their experiences and songs, and gave Hindi films a sophistication and depth. But on screen, their work found expression through many Muslim stereotypes: hedonistic nawabs, alcoholic poets.
In the 1970s, in the Bachchan heyday, most films, including Muqaddar Ka Sikander and Sholay, had Muslim men who wore the sherwani, chewed paan and recited Ghalib’s poetry almost every time they appeared on screen. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Muslim don mirrored real stories of the Mumbai underworld—either as victims (the 2008 film Aamir directed by Rajkumar Gupta was a one-sided portrayal of Muslim victimhood) or as criminals, a time-tested Bollywood tool used effectively by Danny Boyle in Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Nasreen Munni Kabir, the documentary film-maker and author who has chronicled Hindi cinema, says, “I am not sure there are many Muslim characters in the movies beyond the ‘bad guys’ and ‘terrorists’ to have a real sense of whether the Muslim characters have evolved or not.”
Her scepticism is healthy. Can the three forthcoming films undo years of stereotyping? Or are they going to sweep the hard truths behind glossy sets? Kabir Khan is not sure he has broken the mould. “When are we going to have a hero named Kabir whose religion has absolutely nothing to do with why he’s in the story? I couldn’t to do away with Omar’s Muslim-ness entirely.”