Let me start by clearing that this is not a critique of the film “Raazi”. In fact, I really liked the movie and the alleged real story that it is based on is really incredible. However watching this reminded me to address the elephant in the cinema hall, i.e. Muslims in our films.
For a really long time now we’ve been avoiding the issue of lack of diversity in the characters of our movies. Most of us either just choose to ignore it or call this trivial or ridiculous when brought up by someone else. But the fact remains that the characters in Indian cinema lack cultural diversity. The exclusion of Dalits and Muslims in popular culture is nothing new. And though it might not be something intentional or orchestrated, it does expose the lack of representation of certain sections of society on the basis of caste and religion. The exclusion of Dalits from narrative deserves a detailed analysis of its own so here I’m going to focus only on the way Muslims characters are treated in our cinema.
While there are not nearly enough roles for Muslims, the few stories which have Muslim characters mostly deal with them in a really peculiar manner. Hindi cinema has a history of ignorant stereotyping and often vilification of Muslims in films. The way these characters are dressed, the way they speak, the not-so-subtle religious references etc., make the Muslim characters more about their religious identity than the individual. It’s very rare that we find a regular character who just happens to be a Muslim. Most of the time it’s a stereotypical or exaggerated version of them.
Vilifying Muslim characters is another notorious thing that our cinema does. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s “Padmaavat” is the most recent example of this. Eating meat grotesquely, sexually exploiting multiple women and showing eccentrically violent behaviour, these all fit into an Islamophobe’s idea of Muslims. Through our stories and films, we have often seen Muslims’ non-vegetarianism, their attire, their facial hair and overall appearance being used to create a dangerous or evil sort of aura.
Another interesting observation is of what kind of Muslim protagonists we accept in our cinema. And this is where “Raazi” comes into the picture. A salient USP of the film was that it shows how Muslims are ‘also’ patriots. But my question is, why is there a need to prove that? Or better, why is that even necessary? Why do we pick stories with Muslim protagonists where they, in some way or other, pronounce their love for India or show a clear stand against Pakistan. It’s almost as if the movie makers are explicitly trying to establish the loyalty of the Muslim protagonists towards India so that people would like them. It sort of conforms to the idea of “good Muslim” that the right wingers these days are propagating.
Treatment of Muslim characters in this manner is discrimination in itself. The writers should introspect as to why are they not writing more normal roles for Muslim characters.
To flush down all these arguments about the exclusion of Muslim characters from our narrative, one might argue that the film industry and the audience have not only accepted Muslim actors but in a sense, they have worshipped them. From Dilip Kumar to Shahrukh Khan, the religion of the actors has never been an issue. However, if we see in the past Muslim actors did have to opt for Hindu names like Dilip Kumar, Madhubala, Meena Kumari etc. So the acceptance of lead actors’ religious identity did come gradually. And it’s not actors that I’m talking about. It’s about the characters. It’s about how we form the narratives of our story or how do we see the world around us, if we speak on broader terms. And sadly, our view is still narrow and is tainted, willingly or involuntarily, by religious and casteist discrimination.