By Devraj Singh Kalsi
With Urdu losing its appeal among film lovers, the decline of Muslim social dramas has been rapid. Take a look at the films made in the last two decades and you notice the waning trend. Fitoor is perhaps the last mainstream Bollywood flick with more than a smattering of Urdu that unfortunately floundered at the box office even though there were other flaws in the film to account for its dismal performance.
In the ’80s and the ’90s, Muslim family dramas were panned for the inclusion of the courtesan and the concomitant glorification of her character laced with a sordid tale of exploitation. After a long time, Bollywood has seen the revival of the courtesan in a pivotal role in Mira Nair’s A Suitable Boy – with Tabu and Ishaan Khattar playing the besotted lovers on screen. Whether this would lead to a possible resurgence of the courtesan is nothing more than speculation since the series did not receive an enthusiastic viewer response even though Tabu essayed her role with conviction.
Take a trip down memory lane to consider films from the 90s. The flames of communal conflagration could not singe the secular silver screen after 1992. There are some notable gems such as Shyam Benegal’s Sardari Begum played by Kiron Kher, Saeed Akhtar’s Naseem, and Sawan Kumar Tak’s Sanam Bewafa. However, it is clear that the efforts were minuscule, and the world of mainstream Hindi cinema had outgrown its fascination for Muslim socials that were popular till the ’80s. Aside from the language factor, directors and writers were also unable to reinvent something new within the same format and the clichéd tag got stuck badly, leading to its ultimate rejection and formidable decline.
So far as public taste goes, the audience were indeed hungry for something new. They were looking for a new kind of cinema that was ready to break away from the formulaic structure and offer films to suit viewers who were now more consumerism-driven and had a good source of entertainment in the form of multiple TV channels beaming right into their homes. As a result, screenwriters and directors had the uphill task of repackaging their content to pull them back into the multiplexes.
Nobody could have predicted that the ’80s would be the last decade of popular Muslim social dramas in Bollywood. Released in 1981, Muzzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan starring Rekha depicted a courtesan in the lead but the film did moderate business even though all the songs were super hit. With films like Nikaah in 1982 and Tawaif in 1985 proving to be blockbusters for storyline, music, and acting, it appeared that the success was here to stay for long. The success of Nikaah was attributed to the sensitive handling of the issue of divorce in the Muslim society in the film. When Deedar-e Yaar, Razia Sultan, and Salma trounced in spite of lilting music, it was read as a clear case of badly made films that did not resonate with the audiences because of weaknesses in the screenplay. While Tawaif starring Rati Agnihotri and Rishi Kapoor encashed the courtesan angle and became a runaway success, Salma Agha-starrer Salma failed to repeat the earlier success despite a similar story angle.
Since Urdu was considered a refined language worth picking up even in non-Muslim households, the acceptance was kind of universal, without any bias. The language of royalty was chaste and grand and the celluloid world opted for it. You find many Urdu words used in dialogues during those days – even in films that were not overtly Muslim social dramas. It became the template – to pepper the speech with highfalutin words that sound good on screen and the lead pair learned the language from Urdu teachers to get the accent right.
One positive takeaway is that Urdu flavour is still retained even if it is toned down a bit. The young generation has built its vocabulary with words like janasheen, fizaa, ulfat, kayanat, wafa, shaarafat, nawazish, watan, sarfarosh, junoon, kurbaan, ishq, jazbaa from Bollywood. Some directors still prefer to use Urdu words in the title of the film and the millennial crowd has to search it online to find the meaning. The engagement with Urdu is very much on.
A beautiful, tender, and poignant Muslim drama based on Anita Desai’s Booker-shortlisted novel, In Custody was directed by Ismail Merchant. Starring Shabana Azmi, Shashi Kapoor and Om Puri, Muhafiz failed to rouse the Indian audiences who took no notice of the film portraying the life of a moribund poet named Nur and exploring grave issues like ravages of time projected through the demolition of the property.
In this context, mention must be made of Gulzar and his iconic TV series on the life of a legendary poet, Mirza Ghalib portrayed by Naseeruddin Shah, with mellifluous ghazals sung by none other than Jagjit Singh. It remains a classic example of poetic ambrosia on the small screen from the ’80s.
Nobody knows when Urdu came to be identified as the language of the Muslim community. As the films portrayed Muslims as wine-drinking courtesan-lovers, it was felt that Bollywood was harming the image of the minority community. Many found it a valid objection as Bollywood directors encashed the successful formula without any rhyme or reason. Those films without any Muslim connection also projected the hero as the forlorn guy who went up the Kotha stairs to visit some courtesan named Zohra Bai, to bury his face in her cleavage-exposed bosom or enjoy her gyrating moves with a bottle of wine in hand. A contrived subplot was introduced to show the courtesan fall in passionate love with the hero, take the cop’s bullet in her chest and die in the arms of the protagonist with Alvida on her thick red lips. As the reality-driven cinema picked up pace and the newspapers splashed the names of underworld dons, the problem turned worse. While the Muslim socials in the ’50s, ’60s, and the ’70s helped generate benevolence for the minorities and strengthened the secular fabric, things took an ugly turn by the end of the ’90s.
Muslim social dramas gave way to anti-social dramas after 2000. As the threat of terrorism spread globally, films based on terrorism, bombings, and the underworld found space in Bollywood. The new typecast season began with most of the negative shades played by characters with Muslim names. Projecting any community with generalisations is bad, but the contemporary issue became a hot favourite with filmmakers as the canvas for novel interpretation was wide. Not all films became raging hits but the fixation led to a warped mindset and tarnished the image of the minority community as good for nothing else except guns and grenades.
Raees attempted to marry social issues with gangster drama but the mishmash did not generate a new trend. Occasionally, there have been films with Muslim characters in the lead – Maqbool, Zubeida, Haider, to name a few – but these have not been instrumental in the revival of the golden era of Muslim social dramas. Such movies hit the marquee, do good business but nothing more happens. It is impossible to imagine a landmark film like Hum Aapke Hain Kaun in a Muslim family set up doing roaring business in the present scenario.
A film like Mulk – despite the presence of a Muslim family – gets an overwhelming response because the audiences are not blatantly communalized yet. They judge a film based on its content and it is a healthy sign that lovers of good cinema admire a film based on the treatment of the subject. With evolving tastes and new aesthetic sensibilities, the era of Muslim social dramas is unlikely to get a fresh lease of life but a well-made Muslim social drama may be accepted by the young audiences in India.
Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. He writes a monthly column for Singapore-based Borderlessjournal.com. His stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, The Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. He has written one novel, Pal Motors and is currently working on his second book.
Like Cafe Dissensus on Facebook. Follow Cafe Dissensus on Twitter.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, born in New York City and currently based in India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Special commemorative issue: 100 years of Satyajit Ray – the indefinable genius”, edited by Roshni Sengupta, Jagiellonian University Krakow, Poland.