Top Ten Muslim Characters in Bollywood by Rachel Dwyer
Muslims have long played a major role in the Indian film industry. The industry has given us many Muslim iconic figures such as actor Dilip Kumar (Yusuf Khan, seen as the actor’s actor in Hindi cinema), actresses Madhubala (Mumtaz Jehan Dehalvi, for many the greatest beauty to grace Bollywood screens) and Waheeda Rahman (often in roles that cast her as a life and love tormented female before she was cast as that most quintessential of all Bollywood characters: the even more long suffering Ma). There have been great directors such as Mahboob and Kamal Amrohi. Since the 19990s, its biggest male stars are the three Khans: Shahrukh Khan, Salman Khan and Aamir Khan, who no longer change their names to sound ‘modern’. Yet, Muslim characters in Bollywood, as it is known since the 1990s, are doomed to minor roles fated simply to represent their community and conform to a series of well-established stereotypes. Hindi films usually have lead actors and actresses who are north Indian upper-caste Hindus, who can be seen as ‘normal Indians’, while characters from other regions or religions are usually typecast, not infrequently in negative roles.
Muslim characters may appear in any genre of Hindi films. But they can be found more specifically in a group of sub-genres called ‘Islamicate’ - that is films which deal with the cultural, rather than religious, life of India’s Muslims. These sub-genres include: the Arabian Nights fantasy, which became less popular after independence but still exists as a B-movie genre; the devotional film, often centred on Garib Nawaz of Ajmer (the twelfth century Sufi Saint Moinuddin Hasan Chishti), replete with miracles and popular religious practices which also fall into the B-movie type; the historical films which are concerned with India’s Muslim past, in particular the Mughal period; the films about the culture of the courtesan (tawaif), which are relatively few but include some of the most loved films in Hindi film history; and the ‘Muslim social’, the name by which all these genres were formerly known but which is now restricted to films set in the contemporary world of India’s Muslims. A new genre has also emerged post 9/11 in which Muslims behave just as badly as an Islamophobic worldview suggests they do. These genres usually feature particular forms of music, notably the qawwali and the ghazal; styles of dress associated with India’s Muslims; make generous use of poetic Urdu and create a world of excessive formality.
Here are top ten archetypal Muslims you will have the pleasure of watching in Bollywood movies.
1. Veiled beauties
The beauty of actresses such as Madhubala, Waheeda Rehman and Sadhana is legendary. So shrouding them in a veil makes little sense. But the veil serves a useful purpose: it leads to cases of mistaken identity when two friends fell in love with the same woman (Chaudhvin ka chand, 1961) or where the beloved’s identity has to be discovered by the hero (Mere Mehboob, 1963). However, it is only the hero who cannot see behind the veil. The audience enjoy time in the zenana where elaborately dressed beauties languish, speaking flowery Urdu, singing and dreaming of romance.
2. The tawaif and Nawabs
The dominant image of the Muslim woman in Hindi cinema is the tawaif (dancing girl, courtesan). This is not as unfortunate as it sounds as she represents the lost elite culture of the north Indian cities, in particular that of Lucknow. Dressed modestly but in sumptuous costumes and jewellery, she sings and dances for her clients’ entertainment but remains ‘pure’ and desirous of love and marriage. The two most important tawaif films are Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah (1971) and Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan (1981), starring Meena Kumari (Mahjabeen Bano) and Rekha, respectively. Rekha plays a tawaif again in Muqaddar ka Sikandar (1978), where her performance, swinging her hips and rolling on the floor in her pink and silver dress to the famous song ‘Salaam-e ishq’, is matched by Amitabh Bachchan’s as he looks totally bored with the spectacle and finally takes to the dance floor himself. Courtesans as sisters to the hero (Mere Mehboob), or mothers of the heroine (Mehboob ki Mehndi. 1971) are more of a problem as, however sorrowful the circumstances, no respectable family will marry into such a benighted household.
A respectable Mujra, the courtesans’ elaborate song and dance session, must be graced by a Nawab, who provides us with much scope to explore Indian Muslim culture. He could be an artistic character unsuited to the modern world such as in Satyajit Ray’s Chessplayers (1977), but he could also be a decadent drunk, who divorces his wife by saying ‘talaq talaq talaq’ during an argument (Nikaah, 1982), or a melancholic but refined gentleman, as in Mere huzoor (1968). However badly he might treat his wife and family, he never forgets his manners, is always impeccably dressed in a sherwani, speaks with flowery Urdu and demonstrates proper adab (etiquette).
The Mughal Emperor is a stock in trade of the historical film. The favourite is Akbar (1542-1605), who represents composite culture or secularism in the Indian sense, and has equal regard for all religion. In one of the greatest Indian films, Mughal-e Azam (1960), his religious tolerance extends to celebrating the festival of Janmashtami, the Birth of Krishna, with his Hindu wife. Jodhaa-Akbar (2008) presents an earlier stage of this Muslim-Hindu romance, with Akbar as a muscular hero, a fighter and a tamer of elephants as well as a lover, a Sufi, a seeker of truth and promoter of religious tolerance. Again, he does not prevent Jodhaa from following her own culture – perhaps because he has seen her skills with a sword - even allowing her to worship Krishna in the palace and to cook him a vegetarian meal. The big song number in the film is, somewhat unusually, about tax cuts. Akbar lifts the jizya, the tax levied on non-Muslims by Muslim rulers, resulting in his subjects bursting into song and dance (‘Marhaba’) at his generosity in what seems to be the first version of the Republic Day Parade.
4. Loyal Sidekick
Although the lead character is usually Hindu, he is usually furnished with a Muslim friend who is willing to die rather than let his dost (friend) down. The loyal Pathan was seen earlier in versions of Tagore’s story, Kabuliwala, and then as the loyal friend of Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan) in Zanjeer (1973), who sings, ‘Yaari hai imaan mera’ (friendship is my faith); while Shahrukh Khan takes on this role in Hey! Ram (2000). The late AK Hangal, who played the blind Imam in mega-hit Sholay (1975), gave the loyal Muslims the name of his character in the film, Rahim Chacha. Unfortunately, the Chacha, or Uncle, can only prove his love by dying for the sake of the hero, his Hindu friend.
5. Poets and singers
Hindi film lyrics have close links to Urdu poetry and the films celebrate relentlessly the ghazal and the qawwali. Muslims are taken to be extremely fond of poetry, and as sensitive poets and singers, incorporate songs into the film in a relaxed and appropriate manner. The hero is a poet in Mere Mehboob, and a qawwal in Barsaat ki raat (1960), where he performs alongside female qawwals in perhaps the most famous qawwali of the Indian cinema, ‘Na to caravan’. In Amar, Akbar, Antony (1977), the Muslim brother is a qawwal, named after a great Urdu poet, Akbar Allahabadi. Akbar’s qawwali, ‘Parda hai parda’, is about getting his beloved, sitting in the front row with her father, to remove her veil, even though he knows she does not wear a veil in the hospital where she works as a doctor. In Sufi-themed movies, where the lead character is not a Muslim, such as Dil se (1998) and Rockstar (2012) the film score still draws on these traditions. So the lyrics of Dil se’s ‘Chaiya chaiya’ are adapted from Bulleh Shah, a sixteenth-century Punjabi Sufi, and Rockstar has a qawwali praising Nizamuddin of Delhi.
6. The Intolerant Muslim
The Hindu male is a secular figure, respectful to other religious traditions, especially Muslims. The Muslim male, on the other hand, is the opposite: anything but tolerant. In Bombay (1995), when the Muslim heroine declares her wish to marry a Hindu, her father draws a knife on him, though after marriage, her husband allows her to continue her religious practices. In Gadar ek prem katha (2001), a Sikh husband rescues a Muslim woman in the Partition riots and allows her to continue her religious practice after their marriage. When she visits her family in Pakistan, they kidnap her but he follows her over the border, and shows his secularism by acceding to all her family’s demands until he is told to curse India. That proves a demand too far and results in his single-handedly bashing the entire Pakistani armed forces to show that he may be tolerant but definitely not weak.
7. The Gangster
Bollywood thrives on gangster films. But it is fascinated most by Haji Mastaan, who rose to dominance in the 1970s, and his protégé, Dawood Ibrahim, now thought to run the mafia from Karachi. The quasi-biopic, Once upon a Time in Mumbai (2010), featured their story until the rise of Dawood, and a sequel is expected. The popular actor Rishi Kapoor played his first deleterious role as Rauf Lala, a butcher and a pimp, a very negative representation of a Muslim, in Agneepath (2012). The audiences adored the loverboy’s new incarnation, largely because he redeemed himself by singing a qawwali.
8. The Pakistani
The Pakistani, by definition, is the enemy. In Sarfarosh (1999), a Pakistani spy enters India as a ghazal singer, albeit one who bites ears off baby goats, giving a sinister turn to the poetic tradition. Pakistani women have more positive images than the men, at least in films where they fall in love with Indian men. When Indian Airforce officer, Veer, is imprisoned for years in Pakistan at the hands of the evil husband of his beloved Zaara Haayat Khan, in Veer Zaara (2004), the women in her family and her lawyer, Saamiya Siddiqui, reunite the couple, showing love has no boundaries. In Ek tha Tiger, 2012’s big hit, Tiger (Salman Khan) a RAW (Indian intelligence) Agent falls in love with his Pakistani counterpart, Zoya, whose undercover work includes putting on a musical in Dublin before they meet again in Istanbul at a United Nations gathering where the orchestra plays Elgar’s ‘Pomp and circumstance’ (‘Land of hope and glory’). No, I didn’t get the reference either!
9. The Terrorist
The idea of terrorism within India is often raised in the context of Kashmir in such films as Mission Kashmir (1998) and Fiza (2000), where Muslims are depicted as terrorists. Earlier films showed Kashmir mostly populated by Hindus (Kashmir ki kali, 1964; Jab jab phool khile, 1965). Two big budget films, New York (2009) and Kurbaan (2009), argue that American Islamophobia creates terrorists. In the latter, a Hindu academic marries a Muslim without listening to her father’s warnings, which are shown to be well-founded: in New York City, he locks her up in what seems to be an Afghan horror film about abused and murdered women, before he blows up the Subway.
10. Modern Muslims
Rarely do Hindi films show a modern, secular Muslim. But there are exceptions: the comedian Mehmood’s slapstick Hyderabadi Muslim in Gumnaam (1965); Ali in Dhoom (2004), Farhan Qureshi in 3 idiots (2009); Aslam Khan in Rang de basanti (2006) and Iqbal in the film of the same name (2005). Shahrukh Khan’s performances as a Muslim have created new roles: in Chak de! India (2007), he redeems himself as a hockey coach after being accused of deliberately losing a hockey match against Pakistan; in My name is Khan (2010), he marries a Hindu (inter-communal marriages in films are usually Hindu man and Muslim woman), and when her son is killed in an Islamophobic attack, sets off to tell the President of the United States that, ‘My name is Khan and I’m not a terrorist’.
Lastly, Indian cinema’s understanding of enlightened, tolerant Islam is best seen in Coolie (1983). The coolie of the title is Iqbal, played by Amitabh Bachchan, his girlfriend is a Christian and his best friend is a Hindu. His other ally is an Allah-fearing hawk, Allah Rakha who wears a necklace saying ‘Allah’, which glints to advise Iqbal to go on the Hajj. He also helps Iqbal fight his enemies. The film includes miracles such as the survival of Iqbal after a shootout on Hajji Ali’s shrine when, covered in the chador (covering) of the saint, he recites the kalma (declaration of faith) and writes 786 (the numeric equivalent of God’s name) in his blood as he faints. Prayers at mosques, temples and churches accompany his operation and recovery. People lose and regain their memories after being hit on the head by framed verses of the Quran and prayers to the ‘Lord of Medina’ bring lightning strikes to save Iqbal’s mother. During the making of the film, Amitabh almost died and it is seen as proof of the miracles shown on screen that he survived.
Rachel Dwyer is Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at SOAS, University of London