The rise and fall of the Muslim social drama
Shah Rukh Khan’s ‘Raees’ harks back to an earlier era in Hindi films, but the once-distinct genre is a shade of its former self
First Published: Sat, Feb 04 2017.
In his latest film, director Rahul Dholakia’s populist gangster drama Raees, lead actor Shah Rukh Khan is ruthlessly lacerating his back at a Muharram gathering when he first appears on screen. The first teaser ends with the line “baniye ka dimag aur miyanbhai ki daring”. Khan’s kohl-rimmed eyes, his unabashedly green costumes and the gentle adab his character dons, make the religious and social milieu of this film pretty obvious.
While the filmmaker and actor may have actually set out to make a crime drama rather than a narrative consciously centered around a Muslim character, there is definitely no getting away from the strong Muslim ethos of the film.
It’s a far cry from the conservative, poetic and chaste romance that film critic Anupama Chopra called the hallmark of the Muslim social dramas of the 1950s and ’60s. But there is no denying that the once-distinct genre has greatly faded. So much so that the attitude of Raees stands out today.
Rise and fall
Beginning with Sohrab Modi’s Pukar (1939) based on Mughal emperor Jahangir, the Muslim social drama genre reached its peak with Mehboob Khan’s Najma (1943). It thrived on the inspired work of Muslim producers, directors, screenwriters, composers, lyricists and actors, including K.A. Abbas, Kamal Amrohi, Abrar Alvi, Khayyam, Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Shakeel Badayuni, Mohammed Rafi, Talat Mahmood and Shamshad Begum.
“The 1960s and ’70s were the decades when the popularity of the Muslim social opened a window to a world both exotic and familiar at the same time,” says Shubhra Gupta, a film critic with The Indian Express. “Pre-Independence, Urdu was a language that was in common parlance, but in the years that followed, that ‘nazaakat’ (delicacy) of the Urdu language became restricted to the movies. So I think it (the genre) was partly nostalgia, partly a way of holding on to some of our history.”
Ironically, the same visual template that made the Muslim social incredibly stunning and appealing as a film genre may have caused its downfall.
For one thing, many later filmmakers did not really embrace the culture, and only used the theme, as Gupta added, to show people that there can be some kind of intermingling between Hindus and Muslims in this really safe space that was the movies.
Thus, gorgeous romances (Chaudhvin Ka Chand, Mere Mehboob), musicals (Mehboob Ki Mehndi, Laila Majnu) and hard-hitting offbeat cinema (Bazaar, Nikaah) evolved over time into kitschy, stereotypical representations (Bewaffa Se Waffa, Sanam Bewafa).
“Conventional wisdom was that Deedar-E-Yaar (1982, starring Jeetendra and Rishi Kapoor) was such a resounding flop that it completely sunk the boat and no more Muslim dramas were made after that, in that kind of specific culture that they were trying to show,” says Chopra.
Frailties and trappings
At the same time, the fixed visual template and heightened mood of these films exposed the trappings of the genre.
“Because of their music and production design, the Muslim social would always be limited to a certain time warp. As more time passed after the 1960s and ’70s and cinema and society changed, you would have to hark back to an era for the Muslim social,” says writer and film critic Gautam Chintamani. The Muslim social had turned into a period film.
For instance, when one watches a film like B.R. Chopra’s 1982 film Nikaah (which he originally wanted to call Talaq Talaq Talaq in the quest to make a modern statement on the laws of divorce), a certain old-fashioned vibe comes through despite the modern setting.
It’s the reason why any Muslim social, be it the 1943 Najma or the 1990 Pati Patni Aur Tawaif, seems inextricably rooted in the same milieu. Such an unsullied, old-world romance would seem even more of a misfit today to a generation that, as Chopra says, is all about “sexting and Tinder”.
Then there is the wane of Urdu, always better suited to writing and delivering great lines than Hindi.
“Muslim socials are not being made today because there aren’t many people who would understand that language. The language that we have gotten used to is a strange mix of Hindi, Urdu and a whole lot of others put together,” says director Rahul Rawail, whose father, H.S. Rawail, helmed iconic Muslim socials such as Mere Mehboob (1963), Mehboob Ki Mehndi (1971) and Laila Majnu (1979).
There are few people, Rawail adds, who know about that culture or can come up with a story that uniquely belongs to that cultural background. This perhaps has to do with the complexities of both the Hindi film industry and the Muslim social fabric within a broader national discourse.
“When I made Shahid (2012), and we were trying to sell it to some distributors, one of the suggestions that came up was that I should change the name of the film. Having a Muslim name will put the audience off is what I was told,” recalls filmmaker Hansal Mehta. “You’re trying to create more progressive characters but you don’t want to take on the Muslim law board or the Ulema. These are fears and I was asked these questions during Shahid, which was a Muslim social in an updated form. Even now when I pitch a story with principal characters being Muslim, there is resistance from studios. It is not allowing us to tell new stories.”
Not surprisingly though, the poster for Mehta’s upcoming film, Omerta, shows a young Muslim man praying.
The broader Bollywood discourse
Perhaps the discomfort with such explicitly religious characterization may have to do with the evolving entertainment landscape.
In the 1990s, films like Sooraj Barjatya’s Hum Aapke Hain Koun (1994) and Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) and the televised versions of the Ramayana and Mahabharata strengthened the concepts of the extended Hindu family and nation. What followed through movies like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) and Dil Chahta Hai (2001) were urban narratives and a dramatic change in characterization.
Among many other things, that might explain why the three biggest male stars of the country—Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and Aamir Khan—have hardly played Muslim characters, despite being Muslims themselves.
It has to do with the lack of choice and Bollywood’s current market constraints of perpetuating a Hindu (and, increasingly, Punjabi)-centric universe where making any other religious or ethnic statement that would put too much focus on the same.
“I think we’ve shied away from showing characters that are obviously religious as time has passed,” says Apurva Asrani, who edited Shahid.
“They are urban and don’t wear their religion on their sleeve anymore. He could be Hindu, Muslim or Christian—his name just happens to be Khan. Back in the day when Amitabh Bachchan played a Muslim character in Coolie (1983), he did the namaz, went to the mosque and wore the number of the Prophet on his arm. You don’t see that anymore.”
That could stem from Bollywood’s tendency to appeal to the lowest common denominator. The only stories that come up when one thinks of a Muslim social today are those of deprivation, poverty or injustice. Or stories recycling the same stereotype and narrative of 1970s and ’80s Bombay where every Muslim is a gangster (as is Shah Rukh Khan’s character in Raees).
In her book 50 Films That Changed Bollywood (1995-2015), Gupta dedicates a chapter to the “othering” of the Muslim character in mainstream Hindi cinema that resulted because the world depicted in the socials was waning.
“The whole point is it mustn’t offend anyone. We should neither alienate anyone nor make it look like we’re trying to talk about one particular section only,” Asrani says. “We make our stories generic and play up base emotions. We don’t do it as in-your-face, but even now it has to be a story of everybody, so we’ll always have one Muslim character, the odd Bengali neighbour or the Parsi carom player. We like to please everyone.”
But like the apprehension Mehta senses in the industry, some others emphasize that the alienation could have deeper implications and be a reflection of the way we are constructing our societies and identities in the first place.
The idea that it may actually be difficult today to make a film that’s not majoritarian or doesn’t pander to the whole majoritarian view of being and thinking—politically, socially and culturally—is very real.
“It’s not a directive that has been written down but now, especially in the last couple of years, it is clear that this is the India we want,” Gupta says. “We do not want the other to be part of major narratives at all. It’s not just about Muslims. Where do you see the Christians or any other religion or gender? Where do you see the Dalits in mainstream cinema? It’s like the majoritarian view has imposed itself on creative expressions across the board, whether it’s literature or cinema, or theatre. If a creative person wants to go off the beaten track, it is completely at their own risk.”
Indeed, cinematic and societal changes have been so impactful over the years that an authentic contemporary Muslim social seems like a challenge today. Which is why, despite its unabashedly Muslim ethos, Raees hardly rings the same bell as some films it visually resembles. Like Chopra said, “I think it’s a crime drama, I would never watch Raees and think back to Mere Mehboob.”
In other words, Raees is a Muslim social with the Muslim but without any of the social.