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The world of stock characterisation

Indian cinema is often accused of stereotyping Muslim characters. But then, remember, stereotyping is not confined to just one community
Last Updated : 03 June 2023, 09:22 IST

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Manmohan Krishna in the song ‘Tu Hindu banega na Musalman banega’ from ‘Dhool Ka Phool’.
Manmohan Krishna in the song ‘Tu Hindu banega na Musalman banega’ from ‘Dhool Ka Phool’.
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Hrithik Roshan as emperor Akbar in ‘Jodhaa Akbar’.
Hrithik Roshan as emperor Akbar in ‘Jodhaa Akbar’.

The success of the Kannada film ‘Daredevil Musthafa’ (directed by Shashank Soghal) with its portrayal of a lone Muslim student in a college dominated by Hindus leads us once again to discuss the stereotyping of the Muslim in popular cinema. Such representation of Muslims is rarer in Kannada cinema than, for instance, Bollywood since the Hindu-Muslim conflict is more pan-Indian than restricted to the Kannada space – though Coorg and Dakshina Kannada districts are now becoming hotbeds of such conflict. In any case, until recently – when cinema from Dakshina Kannada gained popularity – Kannada popular cinema was largely of former Princely Mysore. One recollects ‘Sarvamangala’ (1968) and ‘Naagarahaavu’ (1972) among the Kannada films with stock Muslim characters, but examples from Bollywood are many more.

Before examining the representation of Muslims specifically, we should first acknowledge that stereotyping is not only of religious minorities but also of other people, who are similarly typified. To consider only caste, Dalit characters are always represented as victims of social oppression (‘Sairat’, 2016) although they have been judges, bureaucrats, political leaders and even presidents. This is in contrast to Hollywood where African-Americans are police chiefs, military generals, gangsters and judges in its films, perhaps more so than in reality. The difference in the two approaches is arguably on account of the two cinemas being constituted according to different principles due to the ways in which the two societies have developed.

America valourises individual effort which means that African-Americans being powerful in films reinforces the belief that individuals can make themselves whatever they wish to be. Indian popular cinema is, contrarily, deterministic in its outlook and people are seen as placed in given situations. This usually furthers a socio-political discourse appropriate to the times since the times determine how a category will be regarded socially and politically.

Looking at the representation of Muslims, among the earliest are those of Mughal rulers in the 1940s – ‘Humayun’ (1945) and ‘Shahjehan’ (1946) – which assert that the Muslim rulers were committed to Hindustan; coming to the help of Hindu kings is therefore a key duty. In Humayun, Babur announces that he has come to India not as a plunderer but to stay on. Humayun is also shown as defeated by Sher Shah to his magnanimous efforts at rescuing a Rajput Princess, who is his ‘adopted sister’. Hindu-Muslim conflict had to be battled at the time because of imminent Partition and these films do their bit to affirm unity.

Regardless of the ‘syncretism’ attributed to Hindi cinema, Hindi cinema tends to be Hindu in its attitudes. The Muslim, even when noble, is an outsider and often an arbiter, as in ‘Dhool Ka Phool’ (1959), where the illegitimate child of the heroine is raised by a good Muslim – when abandoned in a forest. The Muslim is a stereotype but regardless of his/her appearance, religious faith is rarely a factor in the representation. Then there is also the genre of the Muslim social – exemplified by ‘Mere Mehboob’ (1963) and ‘Pakeezah’ (1972) – in which the Hindu can be the outsider. It is also not faith but the social customs associated with the religion that are emphasised. ‘Mere Mehboob’ is constructed around the notion of people falling in love without having seen the other’s face until they are actually married. Faith is not important to Hinduism as much as social station and hierarchical difference is hence key in ‘Pakeezah’.

India has had periods when religious difference was less important than social conflict on account of class as under Mrs Gandhi and immediately after as in ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’ (1977) and ‘Muqaddar Ka Sikandar’ (1978). In ‘Bobby’ (1973), it is economic disparity rather than religious difference (Christianity) that is problematised. In these periods, the Muslim, while being stereotyped, takes his/her place easily among Hindus though romantic attachments appropriate to their religion are found. The first decade in the new millennium was when religious difference matters least because of economic advancement gaining ground as a motif and ‘3 Idiots’ (2009) is an illustration - one of the three is Muslim without the difference being emphasized.

With the rise of Hindutva since 2014, the representation of the Muslim ruler (‘Padmaavat’, 2018) has been in contrast to what it was even a decade earlier (‘Jodha Akbar’, 2008) and it is almost imperative to present him in bad light. There is no official compulsion but cinema goes along with the dominant discourse in the public space. The stereotyping of Muslims can get even bizarre as in ‘The Kashmir Files’ (2022) in which they – even children – are shown as treacherous and “anti-national”. This film is actually harmful politically to Indian interests since it shows all Kashmiri Muslims as pro-Pakistan – and implies that the majority in the Kashmir valley are for Pakistan. The irony is that the film has received support in BJP circles when India’s official position is that Kashmiris (of whatever religion) are for India.

To conclude, the stereotyping of Muslims in Indian films is not specific to that community since even people of Hindu castes – from Brahmin (GV Iyer in ‘Bedara Kannappa’, 1954) to Dalit – have been similarly treated. But there is a gradual change in the tone of the portrayals which makes positive stereotyping welcome since it is less socially contentious.

M K Raghavendra is a well-known film critic.

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Published 03 June 2023, 09:03 IST

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