Finding Muslims

Analyzing Muslim Characters in Hindi Film Industry post Liberalisation


“My name is Khan and I’m not a terrorist.”  This dialogue is repeatedly said by the protagonist Rizwan Khan an NRI, played by Shahrukh Khan in Karan Johar’s “My Name is Khan (2010).” This dialogue sums up the issue of depiction of Muslims in Hindi films post 1991; Muslim characters have to prove their allegiance to the country. It also shows the common understanding about Muslims that they are guilty until proven innocent.

Still from the movie 'My name is Khan'

Historical Backdrop

Over the decades, Muslims have been stereotyped in Hindi films reflecting a particular political wave in the country.  The first is the Nehruvian age that is from late 50s till early 70s; here the effort by the filmmakers was to include socialist values in the plot and to break the dominant feudal structure and create a unified India. Renowned Film Critic Syed Ali Mujtaba has worked extensively on political shifts in Hindi Film Industry and its effects on Muslim identity. As Mujtaba points out-

The movies in the 1950s and 1960s portrayed Muslim characters mostly as Kings, Nawabs or Feudal lords. Films like Shah Jahan, Mumtaz Mahal, Anarkali, Mughal-e-Azam, Mere Mehboob, Bahu Begam, Chaudhvin Ka Chand, were all mainstream movies. With refined language and soul-rendering music, these movies depicted the rich cultural tradition of the Indian Muslims. Such movies scaled the charts of popularity with Muslims as the central characters, testifying that the entire nation accepted them as an integral part of the Indian society. The key was [that] Muslims were a thriving community in India. However, as we move to seventies, a distinct change in the characterization of the Muslims started emerging in the Bollywood films. The characters, though for some time continued to remain aristocratic, were pushed towards hedonist pursuits. The indolent Nawabs chewing betel nuts and splurging their money on the notch girls characterized Bollywood Muslims. Mere Huzoor, Pakeezah, Umrao Jaan are few movies for illustration (Mujtaba, 2006).

Anupama Chopra, a film critic also adds how cinematic narrative revolving around Muslim characters was central to earlier times. She adds-

Still from the movie 'Amar Akbar Anthony'

Muslims social dramas were the hallmark of 1950s and 60s. During 70s big stars like Amitabh Bachan played Muslim Characters such as in Coolie and Lawaris. These movies attempt to show essential unity among Hindus and Muslims as the protagonist in these blockbusters belonged to a particular religion but was being brought up in the house dominated by another religion. The decade of 70s showed Hindi films obsession towards Indian secularism.  Amar Akbar Anthony, multi-starrer blockbuster showed a Christian, Hindu and a Muslim who turns out brothers overcoming religious stereotypes and strengthening family ties. Film was a landmark in strengthening the ideal- nation as an extension of family. Similarly Sholay a cult classic talked about rising above religious stereotypes which is very much evident in its setting. Ramgarh a village shown in Sholay, viewers are made to watch a temple and mosque on two different hills tops existing peacefully. Veteran actor A.K. Hangal plays the blind Imam in the film; his character is respected by all in the village and is not shown as someone who is an extremist and full of hate, contrary to what happens today. In fact when his young son gets martyred by Gabbar, a dacoit, he mourns over his son’s dead body and complains to Allah that why he was not given more sons who could serve their life in the honour of the village. In a very subtle approach this scene reinforced communal harmony where village became the nation and the son became a Muslim soldier who died serving the nation. The reason for this somewhat proper representation of Muslims in Hindi films during Nehruvian age may be because a large chunk of film personalities were Muslims. To point out some Dilip Kumar, Madhubala, Nargis, Pran, and Waheeda Rehman were top movie stars. Lyricist includes Sahir Ludhiyanvi, Kafi Aazmi, among singers Mohd Rafi became a household name.  This was the time when films were centred on Muslim Characters and portrayed Muslim social themes and problem faced by Muslim women as shown in B.R. Chopra’s Nikah, Umrao Jaan and Bazaar. With Amitabh Bachan and his contemporaries gaining fame in mid 70s, these veterans lost their presence from the celluloid and so did Muslims. However there was some parallel cinema being made with Nasseruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi but it never got the attention from the mainstream. With 70s ending and coming up of evergreen 80s where music and dance became the only plot for Hindi movies, Muslim characters were pushed to the corner and were given a minimal screen time in a three hour long film. From here, stereotyping of Muslims started taking place. Symbols such as skull caps and burqa became synonyms to Muslim men and women respectively. They were shown chewing betel nuts and reciting Iqbal or Ghalib’s poetry. Ghazal and qawalis became synonyms to Muslims. This all seemed very caricatured and the effort by the filmmaker to represent Muslims in a particular way was very evident. Now Muslims were only viewed as someone who sings or is fond of qawalis, who sports a long beard and wears only kurta pyjama with a skull cap.

This was still acceptable but what happened in the next few decades, led to the rise of “Muslim other” which is deeply problematic and rest on the ideal that Muslims as others- aliens, terriosts, outsiders, foreign spies, protagonist ally and so on.

Muslims as ‘Others’

Whether we choose to agree or not, media does mould people’s identity and Indian Cinema has played a great role in shaping Muslims as other post 90s. This was not only the time when liberalization first surfaced in India but also right wing in India started gaining momentum. Post Babri Masjid demolition, communal riots followed all over India with the most aggressive being in Bombay. Soon after this nationalism became the core ideal for the entire nation, communal thoughts and hate speeches started surfacing in the popular media.  As a consequence Hindi films made then and there after had a huge sense of jingoistic appeal in its narrative. War films became the trend and indeed Hindi cinema started glamorizing war and the problems that war can lead to. Staying very true to the political narrative at that time, Muslims became the antagonists in these deeply problematic films. They were shown as anti-nationals, migrants, mafia lords and what not. Few journalists also call this period as the “Sunny Deol era.”

In a country where cricket and films are idolised and considered to be the best gala time possible, latter made Indians suspicious about Islam and Muslims. Every Muslims is looked down upon, his loyalty is questioned now and is only looked as a jehadi and a foreigner. With 9/11, not only Hindi cinema but Hollywood also paved way for stereotyping Muslims on a global level. Before this, Bombay faced most serve and destructive 93 bomb blasts. This gave Hindi film makers a new genre to play with i.e. the Underworld. As expected every Gangster showed in these movies was a Muslim. Not only gangster but even if they tried to portray a small time thief on screen that too for few minutes they showed him to be a Muslim and here they followed their ancestors technique of showing a typical Muslim without even mentioning the name of the character by using old stereotypes that through their attire- specific beard, skull cap and indeed a kurta pyjama.  

It all started with Roja (1992), a Tamil dubbed film which introduced Muslims to viewers as separatist. Though the film tried to be somewhat realistic but the kind of image it created about Muslims became an issue. Following the theme of national integration and unity, welcome Sooraj R Barjatiya with his back to back blockbusters about extensive Hindu families and the kind of special bond they share amongst each other. Hum Aapke Hai Kaun (1994) and Hum Sath Sath Hai (1999) in a very subtle way showed class distinction between Hindus and the Muslims and subjugation, where Muslim characters came from middle class background and were friends to big bourgeoisie Hindu elite characters.

Misrepresentation of Muslims in Hindi cinema has been in both direct as well as in indirect terms, with latter creating the most problematic stereotypes. As shown in J.P. Dutta’s classic Border (1997). The release of the film coincided with the formation of NDA coalition at the centre, making the flick a big blockbuster. It was based on the 1971 Indo-Pak war, with film showing no Muslim soldier in the army fighting war against the Pakistan.  Another blockbuster of that time was Sarforsh (1999). The film was very direct in its treatment to show Muslims as not loyal and untrustworthy. Ironically it had Aamir Khan as the main lead, who himself is a Muslim. As Rakesh Gupta, Professor of Political Science at Jawaharlal Nehru University points out-

First, the film named Pakistan to be an enemy involved in cross-border terrorism. No other film had been named Pakistan before. Ever since [then], Pakistan is now named in many commercial films, e.g., in Gadar, The Hero Love Story of a Spy both has Sunny Deol as the main protagonist. This is the reflection of the NDA government new radical thrust in dealing with Pakistan. Second, the protagonist, a police officer, Aamir Khan, mouths the dialogue that he does not need any Salim to defend his house. A former Prime Minister of India is reported to have said in an election campaign that his party does not need the vote of Muslims. The film is a part of the dominant political view of the problem of terrorism, as Pakistan-centric. (Gupta, 2004)

Even during this time films like Salim Langde ko mat maro (1989) was being made, grappling with the questions regarding social and economic condition of Muslims in the nation. But as mentioned above this was part of more of the parallel cinema being made in the industry with a limited appeal among the masses.

With 2000s starting, films like Dil Chahtha Hai (2001) changing urban narrative forever, Ashutosh Gowariker came with one of the best films that Hindi cinema could ever make, a fictions historical drama, Lagaan (2001) which went on to compete for Best Foreign feature film at the Oscars. Unlike its contemporaries film became a landmark in the way it projected Muslims and the diversity for which we as a nation known for and are proud of. Ismail a character in the film was retired hurt in the cricket match against the British but still he comes to save his village from losing, metaphorically portraying the real economic conditions of Muslims in the country  who are backward still ready to give their lives to the motherland.

Still from the movie 'Iqbal'

Later came Nagesh Kunkoor with Iqbal (2005). Again a sports drama but one of the few films to be made with a Muslim as a protagonist.  It was a remarkable effort by Kunkoor in portraying a Muslim as a Muslim and not someone as an outsider.  Rang de Basanti (2006) is possibly the best film made in the decade. Directed by Rakesysh Omprakash Mehra, the film was a bold step forward against the rising communal and Hindutva politics in the country and dealt with questions of insecurities and alienation that Muslims face as a minority community. These films tried to depict the real economic conditions of the Muslims which mainstream movies never tried to touch upon.

A year later came Chak De India (2007) by Shimit Amin. It showed how we as common people view Muslim as a traitor and a outsider and how a non Muslim has to prove his loyalty every time. Apart from these mainstream films, parallel cinema also paved way that how communal are we as a nation and how much hatred we have for Muslims in Hansal Mehta’s National award winning movie Shahid (2012). It showed the problems faced by a Muslim lawyer in defending his fellow Muslims against serious chargers such as terrorism and sedition.

During the making of the film Hansal Mehta faced a lot of problems which he points out as-

“When I made Shahid (2012), and we were trying to sell it to some distributors, one of the suggestions that came up was that I should change the name of the film. Having a Muslim name will put the audience off”

Stills from the movie 'Mulk'

Lately films like Raazi (2018) by Meghna Gulzar showed us how Muslims are equally part of this nation and have the full right and can sacrifice their lives for the country.  Another remarkable film of today’s time is Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk (2018). In Mulk Muslims are showed as patriot as well as terrorist and clearly makes a statement about how we shouldn’t stereotype Muslims. It raises questions that how a Muslim is repeatedly asked to prove their citizenship to that government. It talked about how a particular community has been prejudiced since ages. It rightly stated how as a nation we view people as “Us and Them”. With them being considered as anti-nationals and should be secluded from the country. But “We the People of India” should understand that it is “Us” who together form this nation.




Works cited-

1. Jha, Lata. The rise and fall of Muslim Social Drama. Live mint, 2017. Web.

2. Islam, Maidul. Imagining Indian Muslims: Looking through the lens of Bollywood Cinema. Indian Journal of Human Development, Volume 1, Number 2, 2007. Web.

Works Consulted-

1. Jha, Lata. The rise and fall of Muslim Social Drama. Live mint, 2017. Web.

2. Islam, Maidul. Imagining Indian Muslims: Looking through the lens of Bollywood Cinema. Indian Journal of Human Development, Volume 1, Number 2, 2007. Web.

3. Imagining Muslim Identity: An Interpretive Study of Hindi Cinema. Abstract. Web.

4. Majid, Daneesh. A Muslim in Bollywood. The Hindu, Business Line, 2019. Web.

5. Gupta, Shekhar. Finally Bollywood has time to look Muslims as regular Indians not as terrorist. The Print, 2018. Web.


The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Brief Bulletin.


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