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.