Depicting interfaith relationships and romances in Hindi films of yester years

Since religion is so central in the lives of all Indians—the country was partitioned on its basis- how did Hindi films of yester years...

Since religion is so central in the lives of all Indians—the country was partitioned on its basis- how did Hindi films of yester years broadly deal with interfaith relationships; romances in particular?  Many films made a deliberate effort to promote Hindu–Muslim amity in the post-independence era and some film songs are reflective of that sentiment. One is ‘Tu na Hindu banega, na Musalman banega. Insaan ki aulad hai insane banega’, from the 1959 film Dhool ka Phool. Another is the faster and trendier number, ‘Pyar baant te chalo . . . Na Hindu, Na Musalma, hain sab bhai bhai . . . Pyar baant te chalo, Pyar baant te chalo’ from the 1965 film Hum sab ustad hain. Some songs even suggested that the ability to rise above religious divides was the quality of simple yet uneducated rural folk, for instance, ‘Ram se bhi pyar, Rahim se bhi pyar, mein hoon ganwar, mujhe sab se hai pyar’ from the 1970 film Ganwar.

Invariably, the films of the 1960’s and 70’s portrayed a majoritarian view, which, come to think of it, is actually perfectly understandable. Being commercial ventures films were required to be seen by mass audiences in large cinema halls in those days and they had to appeal to the majority, even though this could be taken to ridiculous levels sometimes. As a film scholar observed, ‘a whole host of films picturised [Kashmir] as a location for romance, conveniently populated by Hindus’.

Mostly, the storyline of films was such that a Muslim character was not shown in a lead role. It was different if it was a Muslim social, in which case the panorama would shift entirely to the realm of large houses in Lucknow, owned by nawabs and talukdars, the world of kothas and mujras displayed in very artificial and unrealistic ambiances. Think no further than Pakeezah.

In films such as Mehboob ke Mehndi, a so called ‘Muslim social’, everyone is dressed in traditional Muslim attires—sherwanis and ghararas, highlighting the Islamicate, discussed in the book Islamicate Cultures of Bombay Cinema by Ira Bhaskar and Richard Allen (Tulika Book, New Delhi, 2009). The protagonists speak decorated Urdu and display stylized mannerisms, offering salaams on every possible occasion, which seem artificial and fake. Ditto in the Ashok Kumar, Jitendra, Mala Sinha starrer Arzoo. One is sure to discover in such films a lady with the name ‘Salma’; an elderly lady being referred to as ammi jan (mother); a khala jan (aunty), apa jan (sister) or a character called Bhai jan (brother) who dons a sherwani and Aligarh-cut pajamas and bends every now and then offering salaams.

And yet, the tone and tenor of the dialogues and the songs of many Bollywood films, even those bereft of Muslim characters, was largely ‘Hindustani’, with Urdu often being used alongside the social etiquettes of North Indian Sharif culture, common to the landed gentry, both Hindus and Muslims, in the erstwhile United Provinces.

For instance, in Yash Chopra’s Waqt, which does not have the routine Muslim character, the type of language which the characters are shown to be speaking, their mannerisms, social etiquettes, etc. are all those of Urdu speaking elite. This suggests that films which had dialogues and songs in Hindustani, rather than pure Hindi or highly Persianized Urdu, seemed to go well with the masses.  By and large most of the Indian film-going public, comprising of all religions, it seems was comfortable with Hindustani and a pluralistic, composite culture.

One wonders why all through the 60’s & 70’s Muslims in most films were stereotyped and not depicted as normal, ordinary middle class folk. An argument has been made that among the Indian Muslims there has always been a miniscule middle class, with the landed gentry (the upper class) living in lavish kothis on one hand and on the other those belonging to the lower classes (so called pasmandah Muslims) comprising the bulk of the population. Among the very few films featuring the common, rural Muslims is the Amitabh Bachchan and Nutan starrer Saudagar, set in rural Bengal.  While this trend is visible in films from earlier eras, is it or has it changed? In a relatively recent film, the Amir Khan starrer 3 Idiots, we see a Muslim character, Farhan Qureishi, shown as a regular guy, like everyone else in his college. He joins his pals in booze sessions, has normal middle class aspirations like wanting to become a wildlife photographer, and is very much a part of the story (in fact, he is the narrator)— having brought a plane to a halt by faking a heart attack and being involved in a plan to abduct a girl from her marriage pandal. Interestingly, the character of Farhan Qureishi was never actually there in the the novel ‘Five Point Someone’ by Chetan Bhagat, on which the film is based.  It was probably created later so as to give the film a wider appeal or maybe also to conform to a well settled format.

By and large Muslim characters, while looking Muslim with their topis, skull caps, kurta-pajama, beards, kohl eyes, etc., were often required to subdue their Muslim-ness in other ways. Note, however, in Garam Hawa, the lead played by Balraj Sahni is shown to be very conscious of his Muslim-ness. When he goes searching for a house to rent in Agra, he declares very matter of factly, ‘Main Musalman hoon’ (I am a Muslim!). But then the period shown is the time around partition when anti-Muslim feelings were high. Towards the 1950s and early 1960s, things were to improve substantially.

However, it is not that Hindu–Muslim interactions were not shown; they were, but mostly living in separate worlds, often with a lot of bonhomie among them. The pandit–mulla pairing was often depicted in comic scenes, as in Bombay to Goa or (Sunil Dutt’s) Dard ka Rishta. In many films of that period, a Muslim person was either a close friend (in Rishi Kapoor, Pental and Neetu Singh’s Rafoo Chakkar) or a sidekick of the lead character, as in Yaadon ki Barat, and sometimes also the long lost brother, as in multi-starrer Amar, Akbar, Anthony.

Interestingly, among all communities in India, Anglo-Indians were maligned needlessly and cast as stereotypes in films, much more than the Muslims. Julie, Ankhiyon Ke Jharonke Se (the 1980’s Indian remake of Erich Segal’s Love Story), Baton Baton Mein, etc. are good examples. Julie, particularly hard hitting, portrayed the Anglo-Indian stereotype—a family with the man, pater familias, working for the Indian Railways—an institution created by the British Raj and mostly run by Anglo-Indians.

takes us back to the period when steam engines were in use and the Anglo-Indian driver  (Morris, beautifully played by veteran actor Om Prakash) is shown as a good, upright man (though a heavy drinker) with his life revolving around his family, and the club (another integral institution of Anglo-Indian life) with visits to the church, dances and parties, Christmas celebrations, etc. thrown in.

But sadly, an underlying though inescapable theme in the portrayal of films revolving around Anglo-Indian’s is that the women were portrayed negatively. Film critics of that period observed how films like Bobby and Julie successfully mingled a set formula—the heroine’s Catholic background, providing an excuse for showing her in waist-high mini-skirts at every opportunity. Ashok Banker, a well-known film critic of that period, observed7 how Bobby played on the Indian fascination for the Christian/Western liberalism of dress, habit and attitude. He writes in his book Bollywood, ‘Bobby is portrayed as the ultimate jail bait tease. Her portrayal would have caused major controversy had she been a Hindu girl in the film, especially in those conservative 1970’s’. All in all while Hindu-Christian romances were within the realm of possibility, depiction of Hindu-Muslim alliances is rare, as much of an impossibility as showing a kiss on the silver screen.

Even though they mostly promoted stereotypes, yet in today’s polarized times at least some Hindi films of the earlier period do have a silver lining.  The journalist Siddharth Vardarajan in a meaningful piece https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/sunday-times/all-that-matters/Why-cant-Mr-Zaveri-live-where-he-wants/articleshow/46893676.cms takes us back to the filmy world of earlier days, citing the example of Subodh Mukerji’s 1957 classic, Paying Guest, starring Dev Anand and Nutan

As Vardarajan writes, ‘A young Hindu lawyer (played by Dev Anand) is unable to rent a flat in Lucknow because potential landlords don’t trust his youthful exuberance. Our hero then disguises himself as a bearded, elderly Muslim gentleman—complete with the exaggerated sartorial and linguistic appurtenances of a Bollywood ‘bade mian’—and is warmly taken in by a Hindu landlord with a young daughter (Nutan).Seeing the film 52 years later, one is struck by how improbable this scenario is in the urban India of today’.

In today’s times, often  it is not a matter of choice for Muslims to find accommodation in a cosmopolitan locality in towns and cities, fuelled by a fear of the ‘other’  which is actively propagated by politicians. Perhaps in the good ol’days there were greater occasions for living together and, in the process, knowing ‘the other’. A young daughter could be trusted in the company of a bade miyan as compared to a young chail chabila. But now with residential localities becoming more and more exclusive, such opportunities are dwindling. There is little chance to interact and know the other at a personal level and not just at a professional level, except for the stereotypes which the media, TV serials and films portray them to be

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Jamil Urfi

Author: Jamil Urfi

Jamil Urfi is a writer based in Delhi. He published his book Biswin Sadi Memoirs, growing up in Delhi during the 1960’s and 70’s.
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