It is telling that in the history of Hindi films, if one casts a cursory look back, only a precious few Muslim women characters come to mind. Most memorable are tragic tawaifs from classics like Mughal-e-Azam (1960) and Pakeezah (1972), embodying the romanticised ideal of erstwhile nawabi gentility. Relegated to margins of society, their stories were about the yearning for respectability, always sought in a man’s love and the domesticity of marriage. The personal strife of the actresses added poignance, since film acting for women was similarly stigmatised as the domain of ‘loose women’. The eighties, giving us the genre-defining Umrao Jaan (1981) and more derivative fare like Tawaif (1985), ultimately signaled the courtesan’s swansong.
During the eighties, Shah Bano’s high-profile legal battle pushed debates on minority religious practices versus gender justice into public discourse. This prompted the ‘Muslim woman’ to be pulled from yesteryear nostalgia into contemporary realities in Hindi films. In Coolie (1983), the decade also saw a rare Muslim everyman hero, but the same defiant spirit did not extend to Muslim women, who remained soaked in victimhood. With Nikaah’s (1982) indictment of triple-talaq came an early signposting of Hindi cinema’s preoccupation with saving Muslim women from a variety of crises, which usually involved the regressive and violent tendencies of Muslim men.
In the 1990s, amidst a surge of communalism, Hindi films explored a criminal underworld disproportionally populated by Muslim men and where Muslim women were either absent, inconsequential, or disposable. When they did appear in focus, as in Henna (1991), Bombay (1995), Mission Kashmir (2000), cross-border tensions became a precondition for their mere presence. If Muslim, they would also usually be Pakistani, in a neat overlapping of religion with nationality, with Kashmir as a third recurring axis. Khaled Mohamed’s Mammo (1994), Fiza (2000) and Zubeidaa (2001) symbolise a pointed departure for their sensitive and considered representation of a cross-section of Muslim women, and they best encapsulate the transition from the nineties to the aughts.
By the 2000s, these representations had a global context where 9/11 was a turning point that made the ‘Muslim terrorist’ a pop-cultural mainstay. Muslim men became public enemies, embodying evils of Islamic fundamentalism, both real and perceived. These overwhelmingly negative depictions remain potent in Western, especially British and American, entertainment to this day. Here, Muslim women appear as either ruthless co-conspirators or hapless brutalised victims of Muslim men (Homeland, Bodyguard and Jack Ryan). They are only noble when aiding the white American heroes, but in either case, they perish as collateral damage. Anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod has highlighted Western media’s concern with ‘saving’ Muslim women as a self-serving white-saviour complex which sidesteps the American state’s implication in enabling oppressive regimes.
Post-9/11 Islamophobia only compounded existing communal fault-lines and the saviour-complex displayed its own strain in Hindi films. At the dawn of the millennium, Muslim women in films like Refugee (2000) and Gadar (2001) were less fully-realised characters than heavy-handed allegories about the trauma and futility of war. Gadar depicted a Pakistani Muslim woman being saved by a valiant Sikh man in the context of post-Partition communal riots. The film was awash with stereotypes, but whereas Sikh bravery was positively reinforced, the narrative of Muslims as betrayers and riot-instigators was set in stone, to be repeated in recent films like Kalank (2019).
The 2000s also popularised the visually spectacular historical epics in Hindi cinema, and these have been another natural habitat for Muslims. Jodhaa Akbar (2008) viewed its eponymous Muslim emperor with a soft heroic lens, giving a muted dignity to his relationship with the Hindu queen. Taking the mantle of ostentatious period dramas forward in the 2010s, two Sanjay Leela Bhansali films offer a case-study in the cultural and sexual politics of interreligious romance. In Padmaavat (2018), a Muslim emperor is a sexually deviant beast whose attraction to a beautiful Hindu queen is simply repulsive. However, in Bajirao Mastani (2015), as a Hindu king is enraptured by a Muslim warrior-princess, the ultimate forbidden fruit, the film works hard to elevate adultery to timeless ‘true love’. This difference between love and lust is even stated in a dramatic declaration: ‘Bajirao ne Mastani se mohabbat ki hai, aiyashi nahi’. Even in more temperate tales of interreligious love like Veer Zaara (2004), the villainous obstacles are the Pakistani girl’s orthodox Muslim family. In other words, the imagination of interreligious romance in Hindi film has fixated on Hindu-Muslim couplings, revealing thinly-veiled anxieties about both religion and gender.
In the last decade, 3 Idiots (2009) and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) marked perceptible shifts by having Muslim men inhabit slice-of-life stories where their religion is incidental but not minimised. For Muslim women, such parallels are harder to find. They have tended to be benign creatures, exceedingly vulnerable and often exoticised. In Saawariya (2007), she exists in literal shadows, barely speaks, and is tethered to her grandmother with a hairpin. In the wholesome family dramas, they are older women in literal service of Hindu protagonists as caretakers and matrons, like Rifat Bi in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1999) and Daijaan in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001). In Bajrangi Bhaijan (2015), she is a Pakistani child, made even more helpless by her hearing impairment. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016) held promise for depicting two wealthy and self-possessed Muslim women as leading characters, but the film’s subversive potential cannot be overstated. In Karan Johar’s cinema, only class manifests itself and all other identities are ornamental. When the film became embroiled in a political controversy, it was re-edited and the female protagonist’s hometown changed from Karachi to Lucknow. This retrospective correction begs the question, why couldn’t she be Indian Muslim in the first place? Why have Hindi filmmakers found it difficult to envisage the occasional Muslim woman they write as both Muslim and Indian?
In the last two decades, reconciling those identities has, for both Muslim men and women, involved increasingly higher stakes, where they are required to constantly prove their loyalty, patriotism, and ‘not-terrorist’-ness. My Name Is Khan (2010) epitomised this problematic post-9/11 expectation placed on Muslim men and more recently, films like Raazi (2018) have recruited Muslim women as spies to similar effect, albeit displaying more nuance on themes of nationalism. Given Hindi cinema’s checkered history of Muslim representation, it is no wonder that Gully Boy (2019) came as a relief and struck a chord. In Safeena’s ordinariness young Muslim women found validation of their multiple identities and their desire to be authentically represented as people with temperaments, dreams, agency and ambitions, which has been lacking in Hindi films. In his book The Ugliness of the Indian Male, Mukul Kesavan observes that Muslim women have suffered the ‘double handicap of gender and community’ in Hindi cinema. This could well be referring to the lived experiences of numerous Muslim women in India, but Hindi films have largely chosen to be patronising and alienating in their depictions.
We have witnessed Muslim women across strata making their voices heard, asserting their presence in public, and defining their own political identity as equal Indian citizens in the last few months. Off-screen, they have taken charge of their stories, proving that they never needed to be spoken for or rescued, but for a meaningful reflection of this reality in cinema, Muslim women will have to write their own stories on-screen too.
Amaal Akhtar is a PhD research scholar in History at JNU, where she also completed her MPhil. She is also a former higher-academic editor at Orient BlackSwan Pvt. Ltd.
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