Vishwaroop kickstarts like a comic book. The ditsy slapstick routine in the midst of gory villainy in NY tells you: don’t take this seriously. But only for a brief while. As the scene shifts to bleak Afghan landscapes and Al Qaeda training grounds, the stereotype “Islamic terrorist” embedded in our collective consciousness post-9/11 gets reinforced onscreen—the brutality, orthodoxy, obduracy, it’s all there. It’s a cruel world where “zubaan koi bhi ho, boli jehadi hi honi chahiye”. Severed limbs, lifeless bodies, spurting blood—you wonder why you are seeing these killing fields images all over again, in yet another film. Meanwhile, our hero Taufik finds Buddha-like enlightenment. He is the one good Muslim taking on the many rogues from his community to save New York from the “dirty bomb” even as the rather daft FBI agents ask him, “Jeez man, who are you?” He is the one good Muslim who “redeems” the many who have gone astray.
Cut to Hansal Mehta’s Shahid. Based on the life of activist-lawyer Shahid Azmi, who was allegedly killed for defending Mumbai bombing accused Fahim Ansari, this too begins with protracted sequences of Shahid in jehadi camps. But unlike Vishwaroop, it settles down to focus on the dilemmas of a lower middle-class Muslim family. No demonising, exoticising or romanticising. “My attempt was to humanise,” says Mehta. After a few devastating episodes—riots, jehadi camps, jail—Shahid prefers the path of the law, fighting for the accused in court, to going on Taufik-like revenge mode. The gentle Shahid stands on the fringes, and Vishwaroopshows how the heavy-handed, sweeping Muslim stereotypes dominate our mainstream cinema.
Now one way to rationalise this is by brushing the criticism aside. After all, this is the way we tell our stories. So for every cliched Muslim, we also have flat Christians—Sandras from Bandra, the good Catholic priest. What’s more, it’s endemic to popular cinema the world over. “Ethnic groups, communities get exaggerated everywhere,” says Rachel Dwyer, professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at SOAs, University of London. Witness the unidimensional Chinese or Hispanic in Hollywood. But our filmic Muslim stereotype hasn’t stayed static. You had the historicals and Muslim socials of the ’50s and the ’60s—the refined nawabs, eloquent shayars, elegant tawaifs of Mere Mehboob, Chaudhavin Ka Chaand, Mehboob ki Mehndi, Pakeezah.
Then there was the small, significant role. Pran’s loyal Pathan in Zanjeer, A.K. Hangal’s good-hearted Rahim Chacha in Sholay, Mazhar Khan’s trusted informer in Shaan. A token gesture, an ethnic flavour, an integrative desire. The last was significant in Amar Akbar Anthony, says Ravikant, associate fellow, CSDS. “Saibaba became the secular, neutral space where they came together.” Even into the mid-’80s, the integration motif was being underlined in Coolie, where Amitabh Bachchan wears a Billa No. 786.
It was the gradual movement from the Haji Mastan phase (symbolically, gangsterism with the honour code intact) to the Dawood Ibrahim phenomenon, its brash mafiahood bleeding into modern jehadism—with the rest of Indian politics blanked out—that proved decisive. Bollywood got a succession of new Muslim villains: Lotia Pathan in Tezaab, Majid Khan in Angaar, the new-age, cold-as-steel drug-dealing Rashid in Sarkar, the hyper-inflated Rauf Lala in Agneepath. “These cliches have reflected changing mindset and perceptions,” says Hansal.
Of late, the Muslim stories have come uniformly laced with violence. The shadowy terror of Pankaj Kapur in Roja was the first foray into Kashmir. With the Kargil war, “Pakistan became an absent presence,” says Ravikant. In fact, by Gadar, quite the present presence.
Post-9/11, it’s been all about global Islamist terror. “The word terrorist has been misused and become exclusively attached to Muslims,” says Shohini Ghosh, of Jamia Millia Islamia. Interestingly, there are hardly any narratives of “Hindu terror”, but for perhaps a Govind Nihalani’sDrohkaal. “Good Muslims proving their loyalty has been a running theme in our cinema. It’s now reached a critical point,” says Ravikant. An offshoot of this: films like Chak De India and My Name Is Khan, secular, modern Muslims again having to prove their allegiance to country. It’s the “terror narratives that don’t understand terrorism” that Shohini finds “complicated”. “No one denies the rise in Islamist terror, but our films look at it from the standpoint of the terror attack, not what went into its making,” she says.
Old films too have explored interesting layers within the cliches. Dhool Ka Phool had a Muslim bringing up an ‘illegitimate’ Hindu child (it had the classic song, “Tu Hindu banega na Musalman banega, insaan ki aulaad hai, insaan banega”.) In Dharmputra, the theme was reversed with a Hindu family bringing up a Muslim child. Author-filmmaker Nasreen Munni Kabir says story-telling works best when Muslim identity is not an issue. “When it becomes the issue, the stereotype gets more acute,” she says. So Nagesh Kukunoor’s Iqbal works because the young hero just happened to be a Muslim who wanted to be a cricketer. “I liked how the intelligence officer in Kahaani was a Muslim,” she says. For Rachel Dwyer, Zindagi Milegi Na Dobara was interesting in the way Farhan Akhtar’s character wore his Muslim identity lightly. Parallel cinema offers many examples—Garam Hawa, Naseem, Saleem Langde Pe Mat Ro, Black Friday or even the recent Gangs of Wasseypur. However, the most interesting of these has been a forgotten but landmark V. Shantaram film, Padosi. The 1941 film about Hindu-Muslim neighbours who squabble but eventually come together pre-empted the Partition and feels relevant even today. But for now, there doesn’t seem to be any let up in the terrorism sagas.