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Communal Stereotyping in Bollywood Movies

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Jo Bole So Nihaal tries to cash in on Jat Power

Delhi was rocked by bomb blasts on 22nd May when low intensity bombs exploded in Liberty and Satyam theatres, which were screening the Sunny Deol potboiler ‘Jo Bole So Nihaal’. While no one has claimed the responsibility for this act of vandalism, authorities suspect it to be the handiwork of religious vigilantes who have opposed the movie on the grounds that it hurts the sentiments of Sikh community. The use of local bombs for the explosion indicates that they were meant to deliver a political statement. The location of the bombs (one was put in toilet far from the theatre screen) also point that the motive was not to cause bodily harm to the viewers of the movie.

The movie has already been taken off theatres in Punjab. The nearly synchronized bomb blasts in Delhi might force it to be removed from cinema halls in Delhi and adjoining areas as well. If this happens, it would be yet another climb down for film producers and distributors who have been on the receiving end of religious vigilantism. Sometime back, ‘Girlfriend’, a voyeuristic flick on the subject of lesbianism earned the ire of Shiv Sena and was literally torn off screens. ‘Meenaxi’, another ‘work of art’ by indefatigable M.F. Hussain invited censor from Muslim ideologues because of the use of ‘noor-ala-noor’ in one of the songs. This is considered blasphemous by the faithful who feel the phrase should be used only for God.

The irony in the latest controversy is that its selling point might become a gauntlet for the producers. The latest offering by Rahul Rawail uses cheap punch lines like ‘No if, no but, only Jutt’. Add to that the Punjabi punch of ‘Punjab Da Puttar’ Sunny Deol and you have a sure shot hit which could have run to packed cinema halls in Jat heartland of Punjab, Haryana, Rajsthan and Western U.P. This has been experimented in the past as well. In 2001, Lagaan and Gadar were released simultaneously all over India. Lagaan was a classic – it catapulted Gowarikar to the big league of directors and re-established Aamir Khan as the ‘Tom Hanks of Indian movies’. On the other hand, Gadar was a forgettable movie with a few good songs and an ordinary story woven around a romance between a Sikh man and Muslim woman in the backdrop of partition. Lagaan made it to Oscars and Gadar sent the cast registers ringing. It raked in an unprecedented 100 crores as opposed to 70 crore for Lagaan.

Movie directors have used the formula of using communal stereotypes in the past as well. It is a tightrope walk; it might inflame passions or rake in the moolah depending on whether the caricature of the community strikes a chord with the audience. ‘Sanghursh’ starring Dilip Kumar touched on the delicate subject of mistreatment of pilgrims by ‘Pandaas’ (priests of the river bank). The movie caused quite a furore in Varanasi and had to be taken down after violent protests. ‘Garam Hava’, a parallel cinema film highlighted the struggle of Muslim youth in the turbulent times of 70’s and won critical acclaim. The Madrasi character played by Mehmood in ‘Padosan’ still shapes the perception of North-Indians about people from South of the Vindhyas. The ‘Thakurs’ have long been vilified as an oppressive landholding community in Indian movies. The ‘Baniyas’ are bloodsucking moneylenders whose mortgage account books are routinely burnt by honest protagonists in more movies than one can count. Prakash Jha directed ‘Gangajal’ caused uproars in Bihar because the names of main villains were Sadhu and Subhas Yadav, same as Laloo Yadav’s brothers-in-law. That the movie raised the issue of Yadav domination of Bihar politics by using strong-arm tactics was not lost on protesting mobs.

Sometimes the movies that rely on communal stereotypes fail to capture the imagination of audience. Khalid Mohammed’s ‘Fiza’, which showed a Muslim youth driven to terrorism because of injustices, failed to cut any ice with the audience. Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s ‘Mission Kashmir’ that touched a similar subject also didn’t find any takers. Co-incidentally, Hrithik Roshan played the lead in both these movies and was driven to playing an autistic boy in ‘Koi Mil Gaya’ for getting back his popularity.

One of the most hard-hitting and true to reality stereotypes I’ve seen in Hindi movies was that of Inspector Salim in ‘Sarfarosh’. The tough and upright inspector played by Mukesh Rishi faces traumatic times in police force because of his religious affiliation. After failing to apprehend a gangster Sultan, he is chided for being easy on fellow Muslims and suspended from the job. ACP Rathor (Aamir Khan) continues to have faith in his subordinate and asks the inspector to help him unofficially. Salim refuses, Rathor flares up and pontificates, ‘Mujhe apne desh ko bachane ke liye kisi Salim ki zarrorat nahin’. Rathor starts working on the trail of a gangster ‘Thakur’, Salim furnishes important information using his contacts, Rathor is moved to tears and offers his apologies in a guilt-laden voice, “Mujhe ek nahin dus Salim chahiyeâ€. Salim beams, “Dus nahin dus hazaar milenge saab, bus, phir kabhi na kehna ki tumhe Desh ko bachane ke liye Salim ki zarrorat nahinâ€. Audience goes wild; ‘beards’ have tears; ‘tilaks’ are choked; John Matthew Mathan is feverishly counting the spoils.

Few weeks back, Karan Johar – the new Baadshah of Bollywood masala movies, interviewed Sunny and Bobby Deol on his show, ‘Koffee with Karan’. His opening statement – North India can’t do without three things – ‘Daal’, ‘Dhol’ and ‘Deols’. The statement aptly captures the loyalty of die-hard Deol fans who would do anything to watch their stars bash twenty goons (no less) wit their bare hands, flex their biceps and puff their chests in a show of masculinity very dear to North India. Before it stopped screening, the movie was running to full houses in Punjab, demonstrating for the umpteenth time that caste power is a sure sell in India. Only time can tell whether the ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ surrounding the movie would be overcome and ‘Jutt’ able to recreate the magic of ‘Gadar’.

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