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We Need to Talk: How Hindi cinema has held a mirror to ourselves

Do films echo reality? Or do they influence the reality? And can a film like Mulk get viewers to change their thinking?

Written by Seema Chishti |
Updated: August 19, 2018 10:59:58 am
Mulk, Islamophobia, Mulk Rishi Kapoor, Rishi Kapoor Mulk tells an extraordinary tale of a Muslim family living since 1927 in Badar Manzil in Varanasi.

Gandhi is dead. So, we have to fix this ourselves, neither he nor anyone else is going to come to heal our ties. We need to have this conversation and have it now,” says writer and director Anubhav Sinha, reflecting on how he happened to write the film Mulk.

If ever there was a credit roll for headline writers, Mulk has it. It starts by acknowledging headlines: the idea germinated from news reports telling us all that we needed to know about the fraying of our social fabric.

The film tells an extraordinary tale of a Muslim family living since 1927 in Badar Manzil in Varanasi. Shahid, the nephew of Ali Mohammed, the patriarch played by Rishi Kapoor, is a radicalised youth, arrested after a blast in the city. As a result, the entire family is suspect, and sought to be tarnished as co-conspirators in the court.

The criticism of the film — a little “over the top”, a little “simplistic” — is perhaps its biggest strength. The prejudice is stated upfront. A proud man, Ali Mohammed, an advocate in Varanasi, struggles to explain his love for the country. He recalls how his newly-wed wife had questioned his love for her. “Lekin yeh kaise saabit kiya jaayega ki main usse pyaar karta hun? Pyaar kaise saabit kiya jata hai… pyaar kar ke hi na. Kaise saabit karun ki mujhe apne mulk se pyar hai? (How was I to prove to her that I loved her? Love can only be shown by loving. How do I prove that I love my country?)”

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“We all just need to talk and have a conversation to get over the tension. Why cannot that be done?” asks Sinha, who uses the courtroom scenes to substitute the dialogue that has gone missing in this rancour-filled time.

Anusha Khan, “a child of the 1970s”, is a media consultant in Mumbai. Born of a Muslim father and a Hindu mother, she often flits between the doorway that stands between both those identities. She loved Mulk for showing the essence of prejudice today. “Unlike Tamas (1988) or Garm Hava (1973), which dealt with their time, this was a story of 2018,” she says.

She remembers how her brother (now film director, Kabir Khan) and she were often asked by teachers in the school they attended in Delhi “to come up to the school assembly and speak on Eid”. Their mother had to come to school and plead with their teachers to allow them to speak on Diwali and Holi, because that is what the children wanted. “The teachers finally relented,” says Khan, laughing. She grew up to marry a writer, Vijay Acharya. Their two children bear the name, Khan-Acharya.

Garm Hava, Garm Hava film, Garam Hava urdu film A scene from Garm Hava.

Stage and cinema actor Zeeshan Ayub, who grew up in Okhla, Delhi, says Mulk spoke to him because it underlines the prejudice in both the worlds. He recalls how even within Okhla, among the largest Muslim ghettos in Asia, awareness about the community’s own biases are non-existent and stereotypes are reinforced with vigour.

Ayub is married to a Hindu and is a product of a Hindu-Muslim marriage. He speaks of the unseemly interest taken by his “community” in whether his wife reads the namaz and why the Ganpati puja takes place at his home. Mulk, he says, works, “as it even-handedly calls a spade a spade and handles the small-mindedness of elements in the Muslim community as much as it dives into the dark side of Hindu prejudice that abounds today.” But he says, “a film like this which brings to the screen the truth of what all viewers instantly recognise is called ‘bold’. This itself conveys how far we have slipped.”

Hindi cinema has explored the dark and seamy turmoil of communal prejudice and bigotry through exceptional films like Garm Hava, and the tele-series Tamas. If Garm Hava showed the immediate agony of families hit by the Partition, it ended on a hopeful note, with the lead protagonist calling off his plans to leave India, as he finds common cause with marchers protesting and demanding an end to unemployment and discrimination. It offers him another identity which allows him to find meaning and purpose in his homeland, India.

Tamas, shown on Doordarshan to much critical acclaim, was darker, its cinematography underlining the hate that shrouded lives in Punjab during Partition. Govind Nihalani, who directed Tamas, believes the contemporary time poses a different challenge. “Media has now moved well beyond entertainment or information. It wants to manipulate and control minds, make people take decisions they don’t know they are taking under its influence. It is the age of perpetual doubt. So, filmmaking in these times is a bid to capture the minds of the viewer. It is a work in progress. I am glad more and more debates are taking place which will eventually generate more ideas,” he says.

There has, of course, been an engagement with religious identity in Hindi cinema. Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (1995) was among the earliest of the non-arthouse films to tackle the question of riots after the Babri Masjid demolition. But its release was marred by talk of the then Shiv Sena head, Bal Thackeray, having had to “approve” the film before its release.

Films like Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989) and Naseem (1995) were filmmaker Saeed Mirza’s way of making sense of the changing atmosphere in the late-1980s and 1990s. Says Mirza, “Salim… was the precursor of Naseem, it deals with the ghettoisation and lumpenisation of Muslims”.

Tamas, Om Puri, Tamas Om Puri, Deepa Sahi Om Puri and Deepa Sahi in Tamas.

He describes Naseem as the “epitaph of Constitutionalism in India.” “Effectively, it marked the death of poetry for me and the beginning of the atmosphere of hate. Naseem ends with everything really being on the shoulders of the young girl. I, too, did not make films after that.”

Over the years, film industry veterans will tell you how Muslim or Christian characters have been placed strategically in films, almost as a way of satisfying the market. There was “Rosy, the secretary” and “Habib chacha, the good Muslim, who Sinha points out, had to “die for the hero”. They were stock characters who the script did not allow to be real people.

Films like Tezaab (1988), though, marked a distinct departure from the genteel Muslim character. A Lotiya Pathan-like character imagined the “Muslim” as a distinctly marginal, if not completely criminal character. That took a sinister turn post 9/11, where a connection between Islam and terrorism was established without any questioning.

Films like Fanaa (2006) and Kurbaan (2009) centred on the idea of the young, smart Muslim man, who was a terrorist in disguise. Aamir Khan in Fanaa and Saif Ali Khan in Kurbaan did not hesitate to play the “bad Muslim”. Bollywood continued to be enthralled by the Khans, who still rule the roost.

Shah Rukh Khan played Kabir Khan, the wronged “Muslim” hockey coach in Chak De! India (2007). Salman Khan’s Ek Tha Tiger (2012), Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015) and Tiger Zinda Hai (2017) attempted to tackle prejudice through a complete embrace of the idiom of commercial cinema. Veer-Zaara (2004) dealt with issues of prejudice, by sidestepping the question of Indian Muslims — and making it about India and Pakistan.

Shama Zaidi, who along with Kaifi Azmi wrote Garm Hava (which was based on an unpublished short story by Ismat Chughtai), says “Garm Hava dealt with only what happened to a Muslim family. I don’t know why there have been no other big films on that theme. What worries me more is that there are no other big films on the freedom movement. Maybe the Hindu-Muslim identity issue has not and should not be the most important one. I have this problem with the Hindi belt. Unlike the rest of India, no meaningful social reform took place here. So Hindi films were also caught mostly in the launda-laundi trap.”

Do films echo reality? Or do they influence the reality? And can a film like Mulk get viewers to change their thinking?

The answers are not unambiguous. Lyricist Javed Akhtar spoke last month in Mumbai of the relationship between creative work and society. “They are two mirrors facing each other and reflect so many images. It is a matter of debate which mirror reflects what. But society, no doubt, bears a greater responsibility, of being the larger mirror,” he said.

Manisha Koirala, Manisha Koirala Bombay, Arvind Swami, Arvind Swami Bombay Arvind Swami and Manisha Koirala in Bombay.

Mirza states it more plainly. “We are living through exceptionally hate-filled times. A slew of ultra-nationalistic films seem to want to fan mistrust and violence. In that atmosphere, if films can take this question head-on and start a conversation, these attempts must be welcomed,” he says.

Zaidi strikes a note of caution: We must not boil everything down to a battle between the Hindu-Muslim identity, even if we wish to fight hate. “It is important to keep the focus on real issues. Large parts of north India have not moved from a feudal, caste-based economy to an industrial one. When issues of unemployment and economic failings cannot be addressed, then the Hindu-Muslim or Dalit issue is stoked and anger is directed against the oppressed.”

But as the debate swings between patriotism and “hatriotism”, films like Mulk and the spy thriller Raazi (2018, about an Indian spy in Pakistan who is a Muslim) can often strike the right chord — by welcoming the joust, and by offering a loud and spirited riposte, with the firepower to be heard over the noise.

Like communities, even towns have identities. Why is Mulk set in Varanasi and not Aligarh? Sinha grew up in Varanasi, and studied mechanical engineering at Aligarh Muslim University, which gave him first-hand experience of being in the minority. Sinha replies, “Because they are actually the same. Varanasi is as much Muslim as Aligarh is Hindu. These are unfortunate labels. Hence, I decided to centre it around a Muslim family in Varanasi.”

It is, perhaps, not the job of films to find answers to social problems or eradicate deep-rooted prejudices. But if they can help by showing a mirror to us, or even frame the right questions, it’s a job well done.

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