Muslim Identity crisis in Bollywood!
Recent Muslim-identity-crisis films like New York, Kurbaan and My Name is Khan have a common thread running underneath the romance, suspense and terrorism. They are rooted on foreign soil. Are these filmmakers playing safe by placing their central character in foreign soil wracked by the 9/11 tragedy? Or, is it safer to get films with such sensitive subjects in the background of another country? Shoma A. Chatterji probes
The merit of shooting a Muslim-identity crisis Hindi film on foreign soil is that the major Muslim characters in the film are stripped of their clichéd screen stereotype. Among these is the mandatory beard, the checked scarf across the neck, the cap, or as New York director Kabir Khan says, “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.”
New York is a big hit both commercially and at international films festivals. Kabir, one may point out, is the product of a Hindu-Muslim marriage and is married to a Hindu, the television celebrity Minnie Mathur, who retains her faith.
Kabir Khan’s first film, Kabul Express (2006) was shot in Afghanistan. To fulfill the demands of the script, Khan picked an international cast comprising Indian actors John Abraham, and Arshad Warsi, Pakistani actor Salman Shahid, Afghan actor Hanif Hum Ghum and American actress Linda Arsenio.
Kabul Express is loosely based on Khan and his friend Rajan Kapoor’s experiences in post-Taliban Afghanistan. It tells the story of five individuals linked by hate and fear, but brought together by fate.
The paths of five people from different worlds are destined to cross in a country devastated by war.
The bottom line is, India could not have been the setting for the film. Khan had travelled extensively across Afghanistan as a documentary filmmaker and a cinematographer.
The fact remains that filmmakers from Bollywood, mainly from the younger batch, try to keep away from Indian territory while dealing with such subjects.
Rensil D’Silva’s Kurbaan (2009) is no exception. The film, set against the backdrop of global terrorism, after some sugar-syrupy romance, soon shifts base from India to the US because that is where the hero, a terrorist under his docile and sophisticated veil, is supposed to shift base to.
It also brings out another feature common to terrorist films shot abroad. It gets across the almost unquestioned acceptance these days that every Muslim is a terrorist at heart. This is brought out lucidly by Rizwan when he lands in America in My Name is Khan .
In fact, no one even listens to his complete sentence when he says, “My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist” and pounces on him by presuming precisely the opposite.
So long as the film was based in India, when Rizwan grows up under the tolerant tutelage of his wise mother, the scenario is credible and realistic.
When the adult Khan shifts to the US to join his successful younger brother, the film uses melodrama as a cleverly disguised strategy to highlight the bias against the Muslims underlining that the victimization and oppression of the protagonist is not because he is autistic but because he is Muslim.
Tanuja Chandra conceived of Hope and a Little Sugar (HAALS) in the US to explore a genre distanced from what she had done till then. The story opens in New York a few days before the 9/11 disaster.
Chandra’s film points out that love can, and does, bloom even against the backdrop of the 9/11 tragedy. HAALS gives a different dimension to expat Indians post-9/11.
The film does not touch the tragedy, nor does it try to explain the why and the wherefore. It focuses on the impact of the tragedy on an Indian NRI family who has lost a dear member. It points out important issues like a young widow’s right to live life on her own terms, that love can rise above communal schisms, that when life seems to have come to a standstill, it is best to let go.
Chandra probably picked this story up to explore her potential on foreign soil with a completely different subject.
Filmmakers from other lands are no exception. Sabiha Sumerr’s Khamosh Pani had to be a Pakistani-German-French co-production and she was based abroad when she made the film with Indian and Pakistani actors.
Opening around 1979-80 when Bhutto was hanged during Zia-Ul-Haq’s martial rule, Khamosh Paani flits back and forth between1947, when Pakistan was born, and 1980, when the film opens.
The film finishes in 2002. There is a well in Charkhi, a peaceful farming village far away from the nearest big city Rawalpindi, from where village women draw their water from. But Ayesha (Kirron Kher), a widow with a growing son, never goes to the well and has the water brought to her door by a young mother-and-daughter pair. Why? The answer to this question forms the crux of the film.
Sumerr reportedly had to also shoot clandestinely in Pakistani territory to make the locations credible.
The film effectively draws its audience into a state of suspension between question and answer, between anticipation and resolution, between alternative answers to the questions posed, between ambivalent emotions and sympathies that are aroused by a suspenseful situation.
For Khuda Ke Liye, a Pakistani film, Shoiab Mansoor took courage in his hands to explode myths about Islam, often with far-reaching consequences, by fundamentalist maulvis who preach false theories about music and art barred in Islam.
He takes a story that uses music as its language, metaphor and central character. This enriches the film’s message as well as its aesthetics. But halfway through, he sends his hero to Chicago to study music.
This conveniently shifts the location to USA.
Shoaib takes a potshot at American ignorance when Mansoor’s girlfriend asks him, “What is Pakistan, is it a city or is it a country?” “Country” says Mansoor. “Where can one see it on the globe?” she asks again. Mansoor picks a few French fries from his plate to show her.
One would like to bring back what Shahrukh Khan said about his film. “My Name Is Khan is not about a disabled man’s fight against disability. It is a disabled man’s fight against the disability that exists in the world – terrorism, hatred, fighting. I only do films with a sub-text…” But can’t this be done at home?