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.