On that clear day in September 2001, one event changed the way the world—and not just mainstream Indian cinema—looked at Muslims. I mention 9/11 because it’s an important frame of reference that changed the way we perceive terrorism. This October, when my film New York opened at the Cairo International Film Festival, I was very curious to know why my film was selected as the opening one. I got my answer during an interaction between the press and the audience. The film’s backdrop—illegal detentions in post- 9/11 America—had struck a chord in the entire Middle East. In India, John Abraham’s character, Samir Sheikh, who is believed to be a terrorist, can still be seen as part of a fictional story but in the Middle East, this issue has affected thousands of families in real life.The most interesting aspect of the interaction was the way the audience approved our depiction of Muslim characters, which was unlike films that continue to show Muslims with clichéd visual Islamic referencing. In them, the Muslim character always has a beard, is dressed in a Pathan suit, eats meat at every meal, mentions Allah in every second sentence and is shown offering namaaz, in every second scene.In Hindi cinema, films that deal with issues revolving around Muslim characters, especially extremist Muslims, always resort to these clichés—like showing people who speak chaste Urdu with a deadpan expression. I was very clear that I did not want any of these clichés in New York and wanted to show Samir as a regular-looking guy who does not wear his religion on his sleeve. This meant going completely against the usual visual portrayals of the Muslim identity that have been depicted in mainstream Hindi films in the past 50-60 years.
Post-Partition, in the Fifties and the Sixties we saw a lot of films that portrayed Muslim characters as emperors, nawabs, aristocrats and feudal lords. With chaste Urdu dialogues, poetry being spouted and soulful songs, these films attempted to show the rich culture of the Indian Muslims. Mainstream movies like Mughal-e-Azam, Mere Mehboob, Chaudhvin ka Chaand—all went on to do very well at the box office and demonstrated that despite the wounds of the Partition, the movie-going audiences accepted Muslims as an integral part of India.
From the Sixties to the Seventies, we also saw the benign, benevolent and all-giving Muslim character in the form of a “Khan chacha” or some such endearing name. He was always the true friend of the hero or the hero’s family and would be ready to give up his life in order to protect his Hindu friends. In a country that had been ravaged by communal violence following Partition and whose social fabric had been strained, this benevolent Muslim character was probably the need of the hour. The film-makers of those days probably saw themselves as part of the nation building process with a social responsibility and did their bit to promote harmony between the communities.
But in that era, unless the film was what was known as a “Muslim social,” the main protagonist of the film was never a Muslim. These benevolent Muslim characters became much smaller in their positioning within the film and could claim very little screen time. Some classic examples of the benevolent Muslim characters are Rahim Chacha in Sholay, Sher Khan in Zanjeer , and even the fatalistic Zohra Bai in Muqaddar Ka Sikandar.
But in the Seventies, we saw a distinct change in the characterisation of Muslims in Bollywood films. The characters were still very cultured and aristocratic but were shown in pursuit of pleasures. The laid-back and apathetic nawabs chewing paan and throwing their money in kothas began to characterise Bollywood Muslims.
Pakeezah and Umrao Jaan are two such examples.
Amongst the “Muslim socials” of the Seventies, I would like to mention Nikaah —a melodrama which was a bit dangerous as it spread a negative message: that Muslim men can divorce their helpless wives by pronouncing the word “talaq” three times. This distorted notion exists even today and I think this film was responsible for spreading it.
The other problem with this genre was the creation of caricatures— men in sherwanis and churidaars, women in lehengas. The characters are also shown doing adaab in slow motion and suitably bent at the right angle, chewing paan all day long and spouting sher-o-shayari at the drop of a hat. And how can we forget the qawwali. No film with Muslim characters was complete without the qawwali. It became a symbol of Muslim culture. Though much has changed now, still some of these stereotypes keep making their way back into our mainstream films.
In the Eighties and Nineties, we saw the emergence of the Muslim character as a smuggler or an underworld don. Tezaab’s Lotiya Pathan comes to mind instantly. Mani Ratnam presented the Muslim terrorist in Roja after which there was a spate of movies depicting the Muslim in his “aatankwaadi” stereotype. But I remember Roja for entirely different reasons. I remember it because Mani Ratnam humanises his anti-hero—especially in the Tamil version— and gives him a point of view.
A decade later, global terror has become a defining symbol of the 21st century. Almost every film now that deals with contemporary global realities touches upon the subject of terror. And these films have reinforced the stereotype of a terrorist. Even in my mind, as a documentary film-maker, I had a pre-conceived notion about these terrorists as I went about shooting my film. But then one incident changed the way I looked at things.
I visited a remote prison deep inside the Panjshir valley in a place called Doab. As I entered the heavily guarded compound of the prison, before me stood soldiers of the Taliban and Al Qaeda who had been captured by the Northern Alliance Mujahideen. The prisoners were from Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Myanmar and even China. They all fitted the perfect stereotype of a dreaded terrorist—tall, well-built, with flowing beards, big turbans and a penetrating look. Doab was a day’s drive from Kabul and since there was no other place to stay, I had to sleep in the prison with over 50 foreign mercenaries. Since I spoke Urdu, I was able to communicate most with the Pakistani prisoners who also cooked korma for dinner and shared it with me.
The next day, as I was crossing the river to return to Kabul, one of these prisoners, a veteran of many terrorist operations, 42-year- old Salahuddin Khaled from the Baluchistan province of Pakistan, came running to me and requested to make a call from my satellite phone. Uncertain of the consequences of conceding such a favour, I was reluctant to oblige. But seeing the desperation on his face, I relented and gave him the phone. Khaled called his family in Pakistan and began crying the moment his young daughter spoke to him. I realised that this was the first time in five years that he had called home. Until now, his family thought he was dead. After a brief conversation, an emotionally overcome Khaled handed over the phone back to me, thanked me and walked away.
In the course of a two-minute phone call, I saw a stereotypical dreaded terrorist of one of the most oppressive regimes of the world crumble into a sobbing father. Suddenly, the stereotype broke and somewhere in that moment lay the seed of the idea of Kabul Express.
Four years later, I was back in Afghanistan to shoot the film in which I attempted to show a human face of a terrorist and break the stereotype of an extremist as depicted in film after film. I have never understood why most films have always tried to depict terrorists as ‘cold- blooded perfect killing machines’ with no human emotions because what this does is create an image that the terrorist wants us to live with. A terrorist would not want us to see him as a confused and brainwashed individual who is carrying out a cowardly act of attacking unarmed civilians.
But it wasn’t until 2007, that I saw what I think is a dramatic shift in the portrayal of Muslims in mainstream Hindi cinema. Kabir Khan (I am still waiting for the royalty for the use of my name! ) of Chak De! India did not wear his religion on his sleeve. Despite carrying the burden of the Muslim identity and therefore having to prove his patriotism to the country, the way the character was depicted was fresh and without baggage. This was a marked departure in the portrayal of a modern Indian Muslim. Except for one scene where he utters a prayer the night before the match, we never see Kabir Khan doing things that a Muslim character is expected to do in Hindi films. And after a long while one saw a big budget Hindi film which had a Muslim character as the hero.
It has often been said that making a Muslim actor portray a Muslim character is a safer option because it makes the film look balanced. Though this has worked well at the box office, if you consider Chak De! India and Fanaa, both of which had Muslim actors playing Muslim characters. I disagree with this theory. If this was the case, then New York would not have done the business that it did with John Abraham playing Samir Sheikh. I think the audience does not look at the actors as people belonging to one religion or the other. If that was the case, then in a country that has seen so much communal upheaval in the last two decades, we would not have had three Khans ruling the industry for the last 20 years. This is an important point as it shows the maturity of the audience. I think when it comes to prejudices, Bollywood manages to conquer them all.
Though now many films like Chak De! India, Fanaa, New York, Kurbaan and My Name is Khan have Muslims as their central characters; for me, Hindi mainstream films will come of age when we have a central character who is a Muslim but his religious identity has nothing to do with the plot of the film. If in the entire film, there is absolutely no reference to his Muslim identity, except perhaps his name.
In all the above mentioned films, the central characters are Muslims because the plot demands them to be Muslim. Why can’t we have a Wake up Sid or Dostana or Munnabhai or Love Aaj Kal which have nothing to do with religious identity but still have a central character as a Muslim? After all, Amitabh Bachchan did it in the 1983 film, Coolie. There were no agendas in that film. It was a super hit.
Originally published at: Indian Express