Friday, August 07, 2009

muslimness in hindi cinema

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'Muslimness' in Hindi Cinema: The Ambiguity of the (Anti)National Self.

Anand Vivek Taneja


I saw this scene many times when I was a kid. In some darkened movie theatre, my hand smelling of stale potato chips, Paradise or Roxy in Calutta or Regal in Ahmedabad, Dharmendra reaching out to Asha Parekh, Rajendra Kumar in Palkhi reaching out to Saira Banu, tears glycerining from eyes...

In the cinema, the girl would snatch away her arm, turn and sprint, shaking with her grief. Or the wronged man would turn away and, voice traffic jamming with emotion, bravely grit out, 'Aapki... aapki suhaag ki zindagi … aapko … aapkomubarakhobegum,' before walking away, never running, always walking away quickly. As the music rose I would feel Minakshibehn begin convulsing next to me...

    • Ruchir Joshi, The Last Jet Engine Laugh, 167


Consider Palki, as the film begins. The year is 1967, two years after a war with Pakistan. The man singing poetry into the mic wears a black achkan, an article of clothing associated with the students of Aligarh Muslim University, who spearheaded the Pakistan movement in the 1940's. The man's name is Rajinder Kumar. He is a Punjabi Hindu born in Sialkot, Punjab (now in Pakistan); and made his debut in the Bombay film industry in 1950, three years after Partition and Independence. He is known as “Jubilee” Kumar, for there have been times in the fifites and sixties when six or seven of his movies have been running simultaneously, each of them doing over twenty five weeks of solid collections at the box-office all over India. The phenomenon of Jubilee Kumar is linked to his playing tragic characters, often poets, in films known as “Muslim Socials” – films in which the speech, dress, mannerisms and milieu of the principal characters are all “Muslim.” We saw him just now singing a ghazal in Urdu, surrounded by other poets dressed in 18th century Lucknowi attire, all of which metonymically evoke what we can now only recognize as “Muslimness” – as a brief prelude to a monumental cityscape that viewers of Hindi cinema in the 50s and 60s would have found very familiar. As the camera pans over and tracks through ornate but crumbling gateways and mosques built in the 18th century, Jubilee Kumar sings the praises of the city of Lucknow, the capital of Avadh, the glorious successor state to the Mughal Empire, and compares it to heaven on earth, in the present tense –

Ae shehr e Lucknow tujhko mera salaam hai O City of Lucknow, I salute you

Tera hi naam doosra jannat ka naam hai. Your name is the other name for heaven.

As the credits roll over this paean to Lucknow, a heaven which looks distinctly worn and shabby, once doesn't see exclusively Lucknowi or Muslim names, but rather the astonishing diversity of the Bombay film industry – a Punjabi leading man, a lead actress from Hyderabad, Goan-Christian assistants, a Kashmiri Pandit co-director, a Marwari financier, a Parsi principal photographer. Why did this genuinely multicultural industry, located in city with a very different ethos and histories, make so many movies like this one – celebrating the idealized life of the Muslim community and the culture of a city far away not just in space, but also, it would seem, in time (but still, as the microphone and cars indicate, somewhat anachronistically present)? Why did “Urdu, Avadh (which is to say Lucknow) and the Tawaif” become, “the spiritual home of Indian cinema (Kesavan 1994)”?

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