Friday, February 25, 2005

Secularism returns to Bollywood: Mahesh Bhatt

Retired director Mahesh Bhatt has some reflections on secularism in Bollywood cinema on Sabrang. He lauds the 'golden years' of Hindi cinema -- the 1950s and 60s. This was when poet-lyricists like Sahir Ludhianvi and Kaifi Azmi wrote some of the most memorable classic popular songs in Indian history -- in rich, flowering Urdu.

Bhatt also believes that Bollywood went through a 'dark' phase in the 1990s, with a trend towards anti-Muslim cinema. The main example he gives is Gadar, though one can can easily think of some others: Sarfarosh, Fiza, Mission Kashmir. (My colleague Amit S. Rai has an essay on these films of late 1990s "cinepatriotism" at Shobak.)

Bhatt feels that moment may be over, and he cites the popularity of last year's colorized version of the classic Dilip Kumar film Mughal e-Azam as proof. I might also add Main Hoon Na, which tried to make Nehruvian secularism seem hip again.

Let's hope he's right.


arnab said...

amardeep, why is "fiza" anti-muslim?

6:42 PM  
Manu said...

In the same spirit - why is Sarfarosh anti-muslim?

7:26 PM  
Quizman said...

whoa...anti-terrorism = anti-muslim? This is truly shocking, coming from Amardeep. Sarfarosh had a Muslim character who actually criticises Aamir Khan's character for suspecting his patriotism. Fiza and Mission Kashmir was about terrorism and Muslims - in a sympathetic light.

In other words, would one want to whitewash history and produce a bowdlerized version of it? Truly unfortunate viewpoint.

Or does Mahesh Bhatt believe that terrorism and Muslims are synonymous, thus leading to a bigoted opinion?

10:10 PM  
Amardeep said...

Quizman, I'm not at all saying that anti-terrorism is anti-Muslim. These films don't just stop at anti-terrorism; they make the nationality of Indian Muslims suspect. They do make gestures towards national integration at various points, but I read those as tokenistic.

I would recommend people read Amit Rai's essay. Each of these films probably has to be taken on a case-by-case basis, and Fiza is probably arguable. I go with Rai's interpretation, as here:

In the climax of Fiza, we can see this resolution and reconstitution taking shape through the charged dialogue between brother and sister, Amaan and Fiza. The leader of the jihad, Murad Khan decides that two Hindu and Muslim political leaders (Singh and Syed) who try to suppress enquiry into the riots must be killed in order to prevent a Muslim supported, Hindu dominated coalition government. Khan chooses Amaan for the mission. Amaan trains his body, and kills the two leaders. But Murad Khan never intended that he survive: as chaos once again engulfs Mumbai, Khan orders his men to kill Amaan. Instead he kills them. In the last scene of the film, with the police chasing him, Fiza confronts her brother.

Fiza: Throw the rifle away, Amaan.
Amaan: What will happen then? Another will pick it up.
F: So much hatred, Amaan? Forget all this. There is still time.
A: This is not hatred. It is a voice raised against hatred. They call those who die fighting in jihad martyrs [shaheed].
F: Jihad means a fight for truth, and the truth is that we are of this country and will remain part of it. Where is it written in the Koran that to win your point you must spill blood? What kind of warrior [mujahid] are you that you can’t accept this fact? Right yourself, Amaan. Accept it. Look, only what is right will prevail.
A: What is right, sis? What happened to me six years ago, was that right? Are these Singh and Syed people right? If they wanted to, they could fix all this. But they don’t do that, sis. They have power, but with that power they pit us against each other. Separate us from each other so they can retain their own seats of power. If such people are right then I have done no wrong. I am pure [pak]. I didn’t take up this rifle as a hobby. It just came to me through a line of fate in my hand.

As the police take their position against Amaan, he begs his sister to shoot him, saying, “I died a long time ago on the streets of Mumbai. Let me die with honor.” And Fiza pulls the trigger. In this complex and heart rending climax, Fiza stands for the assimilated Muslim and Amaan for that trajectory beyond the pale of normality. In their dialogue honor can be taken ironically to mean both living by the duties of the proper minority citizen and dying with the cry of those who will never be allowed into the nation.

10:02 AM  
Quizman said...


All nice to read, except that Fiza was made by Khalid Mohammed. So he made an anti-Muslim film? Btw, during the same period, here are the "muslim-based" films that did not have any terrorism in them: Mammo, Sardari Begum, Zubeida, [Trilogy by the very same Khalid Mohammed - autobiographical too] to name just a few. [There are many more]

Btw, I'm not arguing about the quality of that film. Most films are typical Bollywood fare. Sarfarosh and Thakshak are reasonably good.

And the last sentence by Mr. Rai: "In their dialogue honor can be taken ironically to mean both living by the duties of the proper minority citizen and dying with the cry of those who will never be allowed into the nation." is misplaced. Wouldn't there be a question of identify when it comes to terrorism?

Bhatt is simply trying to make political capital in Pakistan so that his films find an audience. :-)

12:32 PM  
arnab said...

i don't know that a muslim (khalid mohamed) being the maker of the film would necessarily rescue it from rai's analysis. however, i am not sure i am persuaded by that analysis of "fiza"--have not seen the other films mentioned. that analysis doesn't address the energies this film releases but does not finally contain in its "resolution" (in particular the very sympathetic portrayal of the "terrorists"). rai's own language seems to acknowledge the film's final failure/refusal to neatly resolve the contradictions:

In their dialogue honor can be taken ironically to mean both living by the duties of the proper minority citizen and dying with the cry of those who will never be allowed into the nation.yes, but why can't this instead be a hallmark of complexity? why does a troubling ending like this make it simply "anti-muslim"? it isn't clear either what an alternative trajectory would be according to rai's analysis.

but it is an interesting article--thanks for linking to it.

12:56 PM  
Quizman said...


I mentioned Khalid Md since the contention of Bhatt was:"When the right wing Hindu fundamentalists came to power, they could only pass on their perversion to filmmakers, encouraging them to make movies of a new kind of genre, movies that made some sort of noise temporarily, but a noise that the people of India rejected."Going by that logic, Khalid Mohammed was part of a vast right-wing conspiracy. :-) Where does Bhatt get his lessons from? Hillary Clinton?

2:54 PM  
Quizman said...

Sorry for being a comment hog.:-)

Btw, if you want to watch a far superior film (than Fiza) on the angst of a Mumbai muslim, see Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro by Saeed Mirza. I'm sure Bhatt would find it highly objectionable.

3:13 PM  
Anonymous said...

The secularism portraid back
in the day was banal and childish.... Oh that was and is indian movies so i cant complaint. I havent seen any hindi movie since 1994 and i am sure its saved a lot of brain cells.
BTW as afar as i know secularism in a movie is showing some kind of hindu muslim friendship.... well what about all the other ethnic groups in india....
Tribals? Jain? Buddhist?

4:24 PM  
Anonymous said...

Excellent post Amardeep.

Yes it is obvious for all those growing up with the Manmohan Desai bhai-bhai filsm that there has been an ugly shift in popular bollywood movies.

Let's hope the tide has turned again.

10:18 AM  
ElectricToombi said...

Ahh..yes, Sahir Ludhianvi. Amrita Pritam was a big fan of his. While he was studying in Government College Ludhiana, Amrita pritam fell for him. She even used to smoke butts of cigs Sahit used to throw away. He is a legend in our city. we still call him "college ranjha".

8:14 PM  

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