What’s in an identity?

Is he Indias biggest film star or Indias biggest Muslim film star?

Is he India's biggest film star or India's biggest Muslim film star?

Of the numerous songs stored on my laptop, Man Tarpat Hari Darshan Ko Aaj from the 1952 classic Baiju Bawra is a particular favourite, but I have listened to it thousands of times without being struck by a most significant fact: one of the most poignant Hindu devotional songs in Hindi film history was written by a Muslim (Shakeel Badayuni), set to music by a Muslim (Naushad Ali), and sung by a Muslim (Mohammed Rafi).

The reason this particular fact struck me only last morning could be that I had just finished reading a report about how the terrorist group that calls itself Indian Mujahideen had sent threatening e-mails to four Muslim actors in Bollywood — to wit, Shah Rukh Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Salman Khan, and Aamir Khan — asking them to stop acting in “films made in India”, or words to that effect, because acting… sigh… is “anti-Islamic”.

Apart from the aforementioned eye-opener, I was also forcefully struck by another paradoxical realisation: it has taken the Indian Mujahideen to make us aware of the religious identities of the four Khans. So large a space do they occupy in the collective consciousness of this cinema-mad nation that their religious identity barely has elbowroom in which to potter around. To most of us, they are four of India’s biggest film stars, not the country’s biggest Muslim film stars.

You will have to pardon this cliché (there will be plenty in this piece, I suspect), but Bollywood has always been a melting pot bar none, providing the kind of cosmopolitan setting that made possible a creation like Man Tarpat Hari Darshan Ko Aaj. Time and again, countless industry wallahs have declared how little meaning religious identities hold for them, and no matter how jaded the sentiment, it remains a fact that religion has played little part in Bollywood, at least publicly. Not even the Shiv Sena, in its more demented moments, thought of asking Hindu actors to stop playing Muslims. Not even the Mumbai underworld, in its more vicious moments, targeted an actor based on his or her religion.

So Muslim actors have played Hindu characters (and vice versa) with aplomb. Off hand, I can think of two very forceful Muslim characters (for different reasons) in Hindi films that two Hindu actors have immortalised. AK Hangal’s Imam saab in Sholay remains memorable for his dignity, restraint, and sensibleness; and Pavan Malhotra’s Tiger Memon in Black Friday was the epitome of vengefulness, ruthlessness, and menace. Now what are the Indian Mujahideen going to do about that?

It has never occurred to us to discuss the fact that all four Khans have/ had Hindu wives/ girlfriends, not to mention Hindu relatives by marriage. But now that we have been forced to consider them as Muslims before anything else, we have to wonder what their families will have to face should the Indian Mujahideen decide upon a more direct course of action. Like the majority (numerical, as opposed to religious) of the country’s population, the stars and those close to them will be sitting ducks for people who think killing and maiming innocents takes them closer to God.

Of course, the Indian Mujahideen have been clever in their choice of targets. Their action seems calculated to generate maximum attention, considering the public stature of the recipients of their threats. If all they want is to gain attention for their hitherto little known group, Bollywood’s stars are safe for now. And to further their quest for publicity, may we suggest that they issue similar threats to Irfan Pathan and Zaheer Khan, asking them to stop playing for the Indian cricket team, because cricket commands at least as large a following in this country as Bollywood. But perhaps cricket is not “anti-Islamic” enough?

They might also consider issuing a demand that Zakir Hussain and APJ Abdul Kalam apologise for ever having been Presidents of India, or that Mohammed Riaz Nabi, Zafar Iqbal, and Mohammed Shahid do the same for having captained the Indian hockey team. But of course, cricket and Bollywood remain their best bets to garner publicity. Apart from the four Khans, they have plenty of other Muslim actors, technicians, junior artistes, and even spot boys to choose from in Bollywood, while in cricket, there are Muslim players at every level in every state, so they can expend considerable time and effort there.

If they can look beyond those two areas, however, just imagine the treasure trove that lies in wait. They could ask Ustad Zakir Hussain or Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and his sons, for example, to stop calling themselves ‘Hindustani’ classical musicians, Farah and Sajid Khan to stop directing ‘Indian’ films in Bollywood, and all Muslim Parliamentarians to give up their seats and stop calling themselves ‘Indian’ politicians.

And in the end, perhaps they should stop calling themselves ‘Indian’ Mujahideen.

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7 thoughts on “What’s in an identity?

  1. I loved the way your thoughts flow in this piece. Well done!

    Regarding not being aware of the Khan actors being muslims – true. But their Khan identity is very out there in Bollywood – its constantly visible. Its an ecosystem thing – not a religious thing, of course. But I remember how everyone on the streets took pride in Hrithik when he first burst on the scene because he was THE ONE who would break the Khan hegemony in Bollywood.

  2. Wow Aspi, didn’t even know you were visiting -:). Thank you. Valid point about Hrithik but was his presence greeted with joy because he was breaking the Muslim hegemony? Or because he was just breaking a monopoly?

  3. Bollywood truely depicts the secular India ..

    Shahrukh khan’s wfe is Gauri ..

    Aamir khan’ wife is Kiran rao ..

    Saif’s ex-wife is amruta singh and he is dating Kareena these days..

    Salman has dated sangeeta bijlani and aishwarya rai..

    Malaika arora is married to Arbaz khan ..

    Sunidhi chauhan is married to one muslim gentleman ..

    So as rightly said – Films are the mirror of the society and bollywood truely proves that ..

  4. jaggo, I always read the blogs of whoever I meet through the drift. I just don’t leave comments if I don’t have anything worthwhile to add 🙂

    soham, agree with your comments – just one correction: Sunidhi is divorced now.

  5. I dont think you guys are getting a hang of reality. While it is true that we the ‘oh-so-secular’ hindus dont worry about the religious identities of entertainers, it is also true that we never cared a dime about the religious identity of anyone, rulers, killers anyone as long as ‘I am safe’. Marauders always killed and maimed us but half of us were on their side. The English raped our soul, but the revolt of 1857 was a colossal failure, because half of us sided with them, and the english, once victorious, put millions of rebellious Indians to sword. But of course these things dont matter to large hearted Indians. We dont care. Whether we dont care because we are large hearted (we must be, seeing the way we all get together to help the poor in our cities, low levels of female infanticide, near absence of caste mania etc), or because we are too selfish to bother about others, is a debatable point. What surprises me the same people who would kill each other in the name of caste and religion and maybe just for anything dont mind the religion of film stars. Is it because Mr X Khan becomes Mr Raj Malhotra is the world of make believe? Who knows? Shouldnt one of our movies try ‘Hey, Kajal has fallen in love with Mohammed Ismail!’, and truly test whether we are secular or dumb enough to belive on the screen truth rather than what is behind it?

    Not to forget, this is the only region in the world that saw a bloody split on religious grounds, where the number of Hindu Muslim riots are a world record. To claim in such a vitiated atmosphere that we are not religious minded is really outrageous. No one in the world will care two hoots about such an absurd claim, except we deluded Indians. Even Akshay Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan are liked in Pakistan. But do I need to tell you about the level of intolerance in Pakistani society?

  6. Abj, there have been movies where Puja falls in love with Rahim, and protests have arisen from both parties concerned, as it were. What I’m trying to say is that by common consent, and unspoken agreement, certain areas have been kept out of the Ram-Rahim debate, at least for the lay Indian. You think?


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