Well Done Abba: Mainstreaming of the ‘Muslim’ in Hindi films

June 7, 2010

Welldoneabba You would be hard put to recall a mainstream film whose hero bore the name Salim, Javed or Asghar – unless it was a ‘Muslim’ film.  You might think of the student-poet Anwar (Rajendra Kumar in Mere Mehboob, 1963) plaintively singing Mere mehboob tujhe meri mohabbat ki kasam in the college farewell function, which was actually addressed to the mysterious beauty whom he had accidentally bumped into, and caught only a  fleeting glimpse of, clad as she was in burqa. He could not forget that suhana manzar, and ever since he had been looking for her in har raah har mehfil with all consuming yearning to have her deedar once again in life. Lest you miss the point, the campus would be Aligarh Muslim University. Regulation Johnny Walker could be there to provide comic relief to the brooding hero and help resolve the mystery at crucial moments.

The alluring glimpse of the heroine through the veil or burqa not only aroused passion, it would potentially cause misunderstandings and tangled wires, sometimes with tragic consequences as in Chaudahvin ka Chand (1960).

These familiar clichés made ‘Muslim social’ a well-recognized genre in the 1960s. Indeed, once in a while, a film would come with a more sophisticated theme such as Garam Hawa on the partition or Nikah on the issue of triple talaq. The most recent My Name is Khan seeks to challenge community profiling in the wake of 9/11.  Chak de India at one level is about women’s empowerment, but the sole driving force of Kabir Khan (Shahrukh Khan), the coach of the Indian women’s hockey team, is to redeem himself of the bigoted insinuation that his suspect loyalty was behind India’s loss to Pakistan under his captaincy in the World Cup final some years ago.

Another stock Muslim character in mainstream films is the cameo of the lovable and kind hearted neighbourhood Chacha – as if the director was trying to make a statement ‘Muslims are also nice people’ or Í have some very close Muslim friends who are like my family members’.  You could think of Satish Shah in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Yunus Parwez in Deewar and Iftekhar, Nazir Husain or A.K. Hangal in countless films.

A Muslim character in Hindi films always has his identity stated in a very overt manner. It is true that India being over 80% Hindu, you relate more easily to Raj, Rahul or Vijay. But there is no reason why there cannot be an Angry Young Man named Afzal who is angry not because he is a Muslim but because he faces the same harsh society that Vijay faced in Zanjeer or Deewar.

Well Done Abba breaks new ground in that its main characters are Muslim in a very un-self-conscious manner, and the situation they face are of everyday India regardless of identity. The main protagonist is the endearing and garrulous driver Armaan Ali (Boman Irani), who had gone on one month’s leave to his village to find a match for his teenaged daughter (Minisha Lamba) who lived there with his twin brother and his wife.  When he comes back after three months his irate boss threatens to sack him. Armaan Ali pleads with him to hear out the story of what detained him. The story told in flashback is of the relentless corruption of the entire government system, from patwari to sarpanch to engineers to photographer he encountered when he was persuaded to apply for a scheme of government well that would have solved his problem of water shortage. After paying out the prescribed bribes to everyone, all he was left with was just a well on paper, but with all the documentary proof of its successful completion. His bold and confident daughter, who is a class XII student and is familiar with the Right to Information Act, spurs him to take on the vile guys which snowballs into a mini-revolution threatening the fall of the government.

The film is a dramatised depiction of Rajiv Gandhi’s famous quip that only 15 paise of every rupee spent by the government on welfare programmes actually reaches the beneficiaries (in this case nothing does).  One can quarrel with Shyam Benegal for showing a bleak reality in an amusing and comic manner. But the film is eminently watchable for its credible performances.

Shyam Benegal has meant it as a satire on a social issue, but what I find striking is the seamless manner in which Muslim and Hindu characters straddle the film without any clichés. Armaan Ali himself is illiterate, but his daughter is educated and confident, not in the way of a message that ‘even Muslim women can be educated’, but in a very matter of fact manner, as a natural consequence of development that each succeeding generation would have more literacy and women’s empowerment.

The mass popularity of Hindi films has played a major role in national integration. They have done more to propagate Hindi in the country than all the sarkari and non-sarkari Hindiwallas.  In a society where caste is seen as a predominant identity, their heroes are casteless unless that is the issue in the film.  We are all happy with their heroes being just Rahul, Raj or Vijay, not caring whether they are a Srivastava or Tiwari.  The film world in their inter-marriages and social behaviour are patently non-sectarian.  Well Done Abba could be a milestone if it were to herald an era of the heroes being Salim or Rahman, just as likely as Raj or Rahul without anyone batting an eyelid.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Shuchi June 7, 2010 at 10:01 pm

I haven’t watched Well Done Abba but on a related note:

We were talking about last year’s release Kurbaan and someone asked why Kareena’s character had to be Hindu. Would a Muslim wife not be equally horrified to discover that the man she had married was a terrorist? Food for thought, that.

2 Abhigyan June 8, 2010 at 1:07 pm

Sad I missed this movie because of IPL :). Have to wait for TV re-runs, just like Welcome to Sajjanpur.

I am not sure if I am the biggest fan of Shyam Benegal (though Kalyug was superb, need to see it again to put Raajneeti in context; have not seen Junoon and Suraj ka Satvan Ghoda). But he seems to have adapted well to the modern times, using big stars and songs when needed. I liked Zubeida as much as Mammo, and they surely speak different cinematic languages.

Regarding the question of identity, I think in spite of having multiple ones for every Indian, not sure if it has been an issue since Amitabh days. He was always the wronged one, usually poor, hence anti-establishment (did Vijay have a surname, except maybe so famously in Agneepath). SRK and the KJo camp ensured that even the social identity stopped mattering. The only impediments in their love stories were superficial circumstances (unexpressed or unrecognised love). Hence, it was refreshing to see Rang de Basanti or even 3 Idiots giving each character an identity, not strictly in terms of stereotype, but for context.

3 AK August 25, 2010 at 11:12 pm

@Abhigyan: Amitabh was always Vijay. It is true within the wider Hindu fold he was not given a sub-identity; but that has been true of Bollywood all along. I am making the point no one thought of making Asghar or Anwar the ‘Angry young man’. In Well Done Abba the protaginsts could have been very well Hindus, and would have appeared perfectly natural. Shaym Benegal makes them Muslims, and again in a very natural way without making any identity statement.

4 Raj Prakash Ratnam December 22, 2011 at 1:42 pm

I am searching for the following song. Cab someone help me ? This particular song is available in YOU TUBE but the quality is not good.Hence this request.

Name of the Song: Bata Mujhe O jahan Ke Malik…..
Singer: Mohammed Rafi
Name of the Film: Ek Shola
Name of the MD: Madan Mohan
Year of Release : 1958

5 n.venkataraman March 21, 2013 at 9:43 pm

I went through this article ‘Well Done Abba-Mainstreaming of the ‘Muslim’ in Hindi films’ sometime in last year. I was curious to know a couple of things. But it went off my radar due to various reasons. Last month I got an opportunity to see this movie at the request of my son in one of the movie channels. I enjoyed it. After seeing this movie I revisited your article written 2years and 9 and a-half months before.

You had devoted almost half the article on ‘Muslim’ characters in mainstream Hindi movies. Nobody will disagree with your observations on this count. A synopsis, a brief review and a short analysis of the characters occupy the second part. Here too I have nothing much to add. Your views are very clear and I am in full agreement with your comment that the movie is ‘eminently watchable’. I enjoyed Bomman Irani’s role and the other characters gave a good supporting performance. Your opinion on Hindi films’ role in propagating national integration, non sectarian views on inter-marriages and social behaviour are well taken.

But my query is from an entirely different aspect. Your first article to appear under the ‘Songs of Yore’ headline on 7th June 2010 had nothing to do with songs in the first place and did not belong to the Yore in any way. The movie was released in 2010. Your second article ‘Door Papiha Bola’ written after 11 days fulfilled both the criteria. In fact ‘Door Papiha Bola’ was the sweetest of your articles I have gone through. So I am curious to know what was in your mind when you started this venture. Was this article written well before you decided upon the headline and its contents?

Secondly, you could have continued writing such reviews. You could have included them under another sub heading. It would have opened up the gates for a different group of readers. This could have expanded the reader’s base. If you wish you can revive such articles not only on movies of yore and yonder, but on the books you have read etc.. Definitely I would like you to travel down the memory lane and share your thoughts at that point of time. It would be quite interesting. You may choose to reply now or you can chose to write in detail during the third anniversary of SoY.

6 AK March 22, 2013 at 9:39 am

Sherlock Holmes would have complimented in his own tongue-in-cheek style, “Well done Dr Watson, you have solved ‘The Curious Case of Well Done Abba in SoY’ without my help.”

You are right, Well Done Abba does not belong here. You are also right, I have wide-ranging interests, and it was possible to give this blog a wider scope. But now, even as it is, the SoY has become very wide around its core theme of old film songs. Therefore, expanding it to other subjects may not be practicable. Writing another blog would require a great deal of effort, and frankly I do not think I am up to it.

Rest of the explanation would be too long to be put here. I have sent you a mail on this.

One of my greatest weaknesses is that I believe every good thing anyone says about me, even if not true. 🙂 Thanks for your compliments, and your belief that I could do book reviews, film reviews etc.

7 N Venkataraman March 24, 2013 at 4:48 pm

I thought Sherlock Holmes would have commented ‘It is elementary Dr. Watson and it took 4 months for youto realize this. It reflects very poorly on your deduction skills! Go and consult AK (ji) to sharpen your skills.’
It was not my actual intention to point out that the article on ‘Well Done Abba’ did not belong to SoY, although it is true. My actual intention was to state that by retaining/reviving it, you could have given a wider scope to this blog and you have mentioned this in your comment. Again I fully appreciate the fact that it requires a lot of effort to give expression to other urges you have within you. I am also into the habit of reading books, but I retain very little of what I read. So if write-ups on movies (current and past) and on books would have immensely helped petty readers like us to see the aspects which we normally tend to miss out. By and large, we tend go by the story line, if it is a non -fiction the lesser said the better. That is where the views on such subjects by writers, whose articles are within my grasp and understanding, help to appreciate them better. Even if you refuse to believe our genuine compliments, they are not away from the truth.

How hard we may try, we cannot do anything to put ‘Well done Abba’ to make it belong to the period of yore. At best we can put a few songs to partially justify its presence, else posterity will not forgive us. All in a lighter vein; please take no offense.
Before that a few words about ‘Well done Abba’.
We all know that this movie was a political satire directed by Shyam Benegal. Most of us also know that it was based on three short stories: Narsaiyyan Ki Bavdi by Jeelani Bano, Phulwa Ka Pul by Sanjeev and Still Waters by Jayant Kripalani. It is the remake of the 2007 Marathi film, ‘Jau Tithe Khau’. Vihir Chorila Geli, another Marathi film, in based on a similar story.
I could not locate any clipping from the movie ‘ Vihir Chorila Geli’. By now I have developed a liking for the Marathi language.
1. Let us listen to a song by Amruta Natu from the other Marathi movie ‘Jau Tithe Khau’. Music Tyagraj Khadilkar. Does it resemble any old Hindi film song?
2. Now let us listen to a Lawani sung by Uttara Kelkar from the same Marathi movie.
Now let us listen to few songs from ‘Well Done Abba’. The compositions by Shantanu Moitra are simple and not bad. These songs are well beyond the boundaries of Songs of yore, but they are worth listening to. The last two songs are the best.
3. Hum toh apni bawdi lenge’ by Mohit Chauhan and others, Lyrics Swanand Kirkire
A catchy satirical song, worth listening to
4. ‘Sandesa Sandesa’ by Shreya Ghoshal and Rupankar, Lyrics Ashok Misra
A romantic love song
6. ‘Meri bano hoshiyar’ by Ila Arun and Daniel B George, Lyrics Ila Arun
An entertaining wedding song.
7. ‘Rahiman ishq ka dhaga re’ by Raja Hasan and Raghab Chattopadhyay, Lyrics Ashok Misra
This is the best song of the movie. Sung in of Sufi style with soft music the song grows on you.
8. ‘Pani ko taraste’ by Raja Hasan, Lyrics Ashok Misra
Finally, there is Pani ko taraste, another very nice song. This too has a Sufi flavor. The soothing beginning and overall treatment of the song makes it a pleasing to the ears. The orchestration is also soft.
I take this oportunity to wish all the member of the SoY family a happy holi.

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