The essay is inspired from two recent events related to Indian cinema and its audiences. The first is the very successful film Bajrangi Bhaijaan and the second is the much in demand short film for film festival circulation, Noorah.
Bajrangi Bhaijaan was made in 2015 and released in the same year in the country to record breaking runs. It became the biggest grosser of the year collection over Rs 975 crores at the box office. It was welcomed in Pakistan where again it broke existing records and collected over Rs 11 crores at the box office becoming the second highest grosser Indian film for the year 2016 after Sultan.
The short film Noorah (2018) unknown to its popular Indian audiences has had a record run of popular demands for screening at over thirteen international short film festivals worldwide.
The common thread in both the film productions is the theme that of the people of Kashmir and how events are seen by its residents for the people living across the fence.
In Bajrangi Bhaijaan, the hero an ardent worshipper of Lord Hanuman finds a young girl lost in a crowded bazaar. He soon discovers she is both deaf and dumb and worse for his discovery, she is found to be living in Pakistan at an unknown address. Our hero finds that taking the conventional route to locate the home of this girl would create more problems for her, so he decides to take his ward to Kashmir and attempt to cross the line of actual control. In his attempt he is caught on the Pakistan side, and the arrest causes the news of the circumstances known in Pakistani media who find the human angel to the situation of the girl. The news splash finally also reach the girl’s parents and now all want a reunion. The Pakistani army decides to push Bajrangi across the LOC and once again create a new media situation. This time the villagers from both side join in the proceedings and while Bajrangi is being pushed across, the little girl espies her benefactor, and breaks the fence to rush to her ‘uncle’. The emotional reunion also leads to high burst of crying in the audience specially among the women attending the show.
Noorah lives with her family in a village, located nearest to the LOC. Her days are routine. Each morning she readies to go to school and on her way meets the army personal guarding the fencing whom she greets with an adaap and gets her response. One sentry has promised her a toffee also. But in her class she is often chided for falling asleep during the lectures. One day her classmates asks her why she falls asleep so often, and Noorah, on promise that her friend will retain her secret, tells that she has found that whenever she keeps the lights of her bedroom on at night, there is no gun fire from across the LoC.
Next night we find many bedrooms in the homes in this village, are lit!
In our brief presentation here we will not dwell into the larger issue of how Bollywood is treating its Muslim audiences since 1947, instead we will focus our attention to Bollywood after 1990 and to date. The year is significant for in 1991, the Tamil version of film Roja was released in south India to record historic jubilee runs. The film director- producer, Mani Ratnam, decided to make a Hindi version and that too in 1992 had a well remembered commercial run. Its international screenings also ran for weeks in USA, Canada and South Africa.
Film Roja was in some ways different in its story narrative. It was for the first time in which Pakistan was named for harbouring terrorists, and they leading a militant movement in Kashmir. The audience response to many exchanges in dialogues for and against militancy, led more films under production, to start calling Pakistan by name and in each Pak bashing the audience approvals came with rounds of clapping. Decidedly the climate for any Hindu- Muslim neighbourly feelings had undergone a change.
It’s interesting to note that when film Kashmir Ki Kali was made in 1965, there was no native Kashmiri in the frame as part of story telling. Yet within six month later, when film Jab Jab Phool Khile was released the first ‘Muslim Kashmiri’ was introduced to an all India audience with no ill effect! He was supposed to be a poor boatman falling in love with a rich Khatri girl from the Plains. In the same year again in film Arzoo, we have a Kashmiri Muslim from a middle class background as part of the story telling and playing a sympathetic role. Hindi cinema thus took a full circle to portray both a poor and a rich Muslim Kashmiri within one year. In the same decade of 1960-70 we met many a Muslim character in sherwani from the era of the Oudh who within their own households loved and died without any harm to the world outside.
But the world was changing. The creation of Bangladesh once again brought the Hindu- Muslim divide existing in East India sharply. Right winger in Pakistan made a lot of noise which began to also echo in Kashmir Valley. Hindi films took their cue from these happening and a new Muslim emerged who was either a ‘good’ Muslim or a ‘bad’ Muslim. The bad Muslim was now a smuggler based in Mumbai or in Punjab who was also planning to create havoc in India. The good Muslim was still the family man, serving God and going about his family business unmindful of the politics around him. Unfortunately the good Muslim was still not keen to join the mainstream as he had promised in film Garam Hawa (1974) and he saw now the rising tide of Hindu right wingers which destroyed finally the Babri Masjid (film Naseem,1991).
Bollywood now saw the rise of a distinct right wing sentiment and the silence of those who sought sadbhavana for all. Between 1990 and 2010, Bollywood launched its tirade of Pak bashing symbolized with militancy in the North engulfing the bad Muslim who was a suspect as a community living in India. This suspicion was buttressed by Pakistan staging a brief war in Kargil. Bollywood took to the gun with films like Border (1997) Sarfaroash(1999) Gadar(2001), Maa Tujhe Salaam(2002), Kargil (2003), LOC(2003) and Lakshya(2004). Recreating army operations like in film Uri, The Surgical Strike did not help matters. Even a sport film like Bhaag Milkha Bhaag(2013) found a moment for Pak bashing.
India shares a Muslim population which is about 21 percent of its total people. Its cinema audience too is massive in numbers. The continued assault on the image of the 21 percent Muslim population does no credit to the sensibilities of the educated class which creates its artistic world. Bollywood cannot tar this segment of its audience with a negative image. This sentiment needs to be now put behind us, also because the social climate in the Valley is undergoing a change. Bollywood needs to now recall the theme of Hindu-Muslim unity like once depicted in a film of Shantarams’ Padosi, or by Abbas’s Aasman Mahal(1965), or My Name is Khan. Even recent films like Dor (2006), Sikandar (2013) Half Widows(2017), Hamid(2018), Haidar, No Fathers in Kashmir(2019) are very relevant. On its own the ‘Muslim Social’ film can be made or even stories from the court of Oudh.
In a nation like ours where the ordinary person is semi literate, an audio visual medium like cinema carried a big impact in molding public opinion. Kashmir Valley is still one grey patch in North India where cinema is only read of, and not experienced for the current generation. We need to now fill up that vacuum and recreate the environment of Kashmiriat and tolerance, eroded by events of the past three decades.
Again it is not enough the UT Administration invites Bollywood to come and undertake film shooting to provide temporary employment to the local youth, the Administration would do well if it encourages the reopening of old cinema halls and support the construction of new small single screens in the towns and enclaves, where the local people are keen to see the films of Salman Khan and his brawny muscles, defeat the bad man lock stock and barrel !
Gautam Kaul is Chairman, Vitasta Healthcare Trust, Jammu.