Screening religion

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Hindi cinema has often trifled with, and sometimes plunged headlong into religious conundrums. But it has managed to tread a reasonably stable path through this quagmire of India’s religious identities, says Shoma A. Chatterji.

Tinsel town of Bollywood is characterised by one USP – no one turns a hair here when a Muslim film star marries a Hindu girl or vice versa. Much to the disappointment of avid readers of yellow film glossies, most of these marriages are for keeps. But when this extends to the portrayal of communal harmony or disharmony on celluloid, the buck seems to stop at clichéd stereotypes. The most predominant cliché comes across in patterns of speech and accent – the Sikh belts out Hindi dialogue in a strong Punjabi accent, peppering it with papajis and kudis.

The Parsi lady’s lines designedly smack of a Gujarati-ised Hindi. The Christian spices his speech with lots of “God” and “Jesus” and “man.” The Muslim speaks normal Hindi-film Hindi depending on what character he is portraying. If he is a Kabuliwalla, his Hindi is strongly Pathani, lines delivered in a loud baritone. But if he is a mafia don, his Hindi is as Mumbaiya as that of his Hindu henchmen.

The depiction is the message
Motives for including a Sikh taxi driver or dhabawalla, or the friendly Muslim neighbour, or the rough-talking but tender-hearted Christian nurse or nanny, are purely commercial – the mass audience out there is a virtual melting pot. They are shelling out gate money. So why not give them a taste of themselves on screen? This is sometimes used as a tax-exemption gimmick. Incredible but true, that often members of all minority communities are given small cameo roles in a mainstream film with an eye on the National Award for the “best film” in this particular category. This brings us to a question raised by a cinema researcher from the Jadavpur University for his research paper, “Are minorities intentionally projected as villains and anti-socials in Hindi cinema?” he asks. The topic was provoked by a random sample survey conducted by Afzal Jamal among post-graduate students in Kolkata recently. The majority came out with “yes” for an answer. And here was a topical subject for research with Hindi mainstream cinema as the base.

To a certain degree, one tends to agree that minorities are projected as villains. But one does not agree that this is intentionally done. Hindus are also portrayed as anti-socials and villains. Take a look at Satya, Company and Ghulam. In Sangharsh, the villain played by Ashutosh Rana is a Hindu fundamentalist-turned maniac. If you go back to the seventies, Amitabh Bachchan was a Hindu in Deewar, but his friend, philosopher and guide who gave him that brass medallion for good luck was a Muslim. In Sholay, both positive and negative characters were Hindu. But the priest of the dargah, portrayed by A.K. Hangal and his son, played by Sachin were Muslim, and both these characters were positive characters without a trace of villainy in them. In the film Josh, the entire caste of the film is presented as Goan Catholic because the place setting of the film is Goa. But the director has played a politically correct card by making the villain played by Sharad Kapoor, a Hindu and the hero, Shahrukh Khan, a Goan Catholic.

In real life, the underworld, the mafia population and terrorists mostly belong to a particular minority. Chhota Shakeel, Abu Salem, Dawood and his gangsters and henchmen give away their communal identity through their names. Interestingly, they never bother to change these to more acceptable and ‘safer’ Hindu names. Arun Gawli is a Hindu, but by and large, notorious leaders are from this community. If you read newspaper reports on gang wars, terrorist activities, smuggling of drugs and arms, extortion, abduction and kidnapping, trafficking of girls and women across the borders, a large section belongs to a minority community in real life. This has its own reasons: (a) Poverty juxtaposed against the temptation of making big money fast, (b) Suppression and oppression of its women, and (c) Lack of education and unemployment. They accuse the administration of majority bias in employment infrastructures other than the reserved quota. Any quota, they claim, ignores them completely. If one probes a bit deeper into the ramifications of this allegation, one will discover that they are not really far from the truth.

Minorities are presented more as stereotypes than as anti-socials. More often, they are reduced to cartoons and caricatures of their real life counterparts, and this representation is more dangerous and harmful for all concerned than presenting them as villains. The Anglo-Indian woman for instance, is always a typist/secretary of loose morals, or she may be a cabaret dancer, or the gangster’s moll.

Certain clichéd stereotypes define the Indian Christian character in mainstream cinema. Mainstream cinema has successfully reduced the Christian minority in India to a convenient monolith – a homogenous entity that does away with their ethnic divisions into Indian Christians, Roman Catholic, East Indian, Anglo-Indian, Syrian Christians and so on. Umberto Eco calls these clichés ‘explicit codes’ – characters depicted in terms of certain outward features. In films featuring one or more important Christian characters, one will find these common elements – the mandatory church, the altar, the priest, the Holy Cross, Christmas or Easter festivals. The characters are projected as caricatures and paper cutouts of real people from the real world.

But how does one begin to ‘promote’ communal harmony through a Hindi film distanced from any kind of political or commercial axe-grinding? A filmmaker cannot afford to place posters within his film with sentences like “Hindu Muslim Bhai Bhai,” can he? Nor can he raise slogans through characters in his films. Many films have used these crude methods, and have failed to carry the message across. Subtlety and understatement is the name of the game. Or, at times, an imaginatively conceived storyline that effectively raises – and sometimes answers – questions of communal identity and harmony, offers a better example.

Using religion subtly
Mahesh Bhatt’s Tamanna and Zakhm are two examples of films that explore the communal identity question and the schism between two communities, without being abrasive or articulate about them. The story of Tamanna is about a female child discarded by her affluent Hindu father to be brought up by a Muslim eunuch. She is brought up as a Muslim but later, when her mother arrives to take her home, she chooses to stay back with her adoptive parent. This subtly put across a message of communal harmony reportedly inspired by a real-life case. Zakhm explores the dilemma of a son born out of an illegitimate liaison between his Muslim mother and his Hindu father. The mother dies during the communal riots in Mumbai and how her last rites should be performed in a riot stricken city where the two communities are out to kill each other, forms the locus of the story. Both films are openly commercial, filled with music and melodrama. But the message of humanity that comes across is telling.

Mani Ratnam’s Bombay is an excellent example of how a Hindu-Muslim marriage based on love cannot only end happily, but can also unite two families. It also points out that when a riot takes place, it does not discriminate between and among its victims on the basis of their religious faith. Shyam Benegal’s Mammo offers a wonderful representation of a middle-class Muslim family where Mammo does not restrict her social work to people belonging to her community alone. She helps the maid who is battered by her alcoholic husband without thinking whether the maid is Hindu or Muslim. Sardari Begum does not quite offer any message of a union between Hindus and Muslims, but does carry one hint where a Hindu, the owner of the recording company proposes marriage to Sardari who refuses – not because he is a Hindu – but because he is not prepared to accept her daughter as part of his matrimonial baggage. On the other hand, her husband is fleshed out as a conman and a cheat who strips her of her own money and wealth.

Zubeida is a moving, humanistic and sympathetic account of a Muslim girl victimised by Muslim men – her father, her husband and her father-in-law, while her second husband, the Rajput prince, does offer her love and a home, though his priorities still lie with his senior queen, a Hindu. Gadar: Ek Prem Katha is another example of a Muslim-Sikh marriage that ends happily. But the love theme is overshadowed and rendered almost invisible by graphic scenes of violence that spoils the main message of love. The Muslim girl turns into a pawn in the chess-game of the ego-fight between her Sikh husband and Muslim father.

The best 2001 lesson in communal and caste harmony in Hindi mainstream cinema can be found in Aamir Khan’s Lagaan. It is not really based on religion or caste questions. It is based rather, on feelings of nationalistic fervour expressed through the apparently simple device of a cricket match played 100 years ago in a remote village somewhere in India. But under this surface spirit of entertainment, Aamir Khan and his director Ashutosh Gowarikar have very cleverly woven in layers of caste and communal harmony, thus underlining the message of solidarity against colonial imperialism imposed by local British officers on a poor peasant community already reeling under the pressures of a chronic drought situation. Lagaan has a Muslim (portrayed by Zutshi who is a Punjabi Hindu), while Bhuvan, a Hindu character, is performed by Aamir Khan, who is Muslim in real life. The Sikh enters some time later in the film to give representation to the Sikh community. There is also the untouchable whose physical handicap is turned into an asset for the match. Once he is accepted as a bowler in the team, this acceptance extends to the high-caste members of the team, and his ‘untouchability’ disappears without anyone being conscious of it. The priest’s assistant is a deaf-mute young man. The black villainy of the white British officers is cleverly undercut by the kindness and generosity of Elizabeth who teaches them the rudiments of the game risking her relationship with her brother. The messages are so subtle that you almost do not notice them. There is no underlining, no melodrama, no speeches on Hindu-Muslim unity or even any visible anti-British stance. Perhaps, these are precisely the reasons why Lagaan is an institution in itself, a film that will survive many of its peers, predecessors and successors in Hindi mainstream cinema for many years to come.


Shoma A. Chatterji

Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author. She has authored 17 published titles and won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema, twice. She won the UNFPA-Laadli Media Award, 2010 for ‘commitment to addressing and analysing gender issues’ among many awards..

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