- Dreams and Reality
- Style and prejudice
- Phantasms of the living
- Building a character
- The role of a lifetime
- A certain magic
The profound irony of Aamir is that it depicts the innocent Muslim as being terrorised by his own community
"To call Aamir a thriller would be reducing its power and ambition. The film is an eloquent statement on the state of the nation and the Indian Muslim." – Film critic Anupama Chopra
Aamir Ali (Rajeev Khandelwal), a non-resident Indian doctor, arrives in Mumbai expecting to be met at the airport by his mother and siblings. When no one shows up he calls home but no one picks up the phone. Suddenly, he is ambushed by strangers who toss him a cellphone. Aamir’s life changes. He is left to follow the instructions of the anonymous caller because, as the video clip on the phone reveals, his family has been held captive. From this time on Aamir is on the run, trying to chase the ‘Mcguffin’ that the anonymous caller sets up in order to save the lives of his family members. To cut a long story short, and consequently disclose the ‘surprise’ ending, Aamir is being trapped and blackmailed by Muslim ‘terrorists’ into planting a bomb in a crowded bus. If he fails, his family will be killed.
The director, Raj Kumar Gupta, describes his protagonist as a "common man" whose life changes with one phone call. Ostensibly inspired by the Filipino film Cavite and carrying resonances of Hollywood films like Falling Down and The Game, the eponymous film Aamir (2008) adopts the Hitchcockian narrative device of implicating an ordinary unsuspecting person in a series of dangerous adventures. Structured like a thriller, the film is remarkable for its gritty art design, energetic camerawork and an excellent performance by Rajeev Khandelwal as the main protagonist.
Cinéastes will be quick to notice that the visual style of the film is strongly influenced by Anurag Kashyap’s films, particularly No Smoking and Black Friday. Raj Kumar Gupta has been a close associate of Anurag Kashyap who has been credited as being the creative producer of the film. Given the film’s genre elements – the clip and rush of action, the visceral quality of paranoia and its strong visual style – it is possible that the film will be discussed primarily in relation to its craft and production values. Yet this thriller actively invites a reading of the backstory without which the central plot would be nothing but incoherent.
The entire film unfolds from the point of view of the central protagonist barring one significant exception. While Aamir never gets to see who the voice over the phone belongs to, the audience does. The anonymous phone caller who holds Aamir and his family to ransom is a dark, bald, clean-shaven mastermind who dresses in white. This shadow figure is an Islamist ideologue who, apart from providing instructions to Aamir, berates him for being oblivious to the plight of the "qaum" (community or nationhood) and leading a privileged life which includes having a Hindu girlfriend.
Operating from an undisclosed inner sanctum of safety, the ruthless manipulator denies Aamir a glass of water while feasting on an elaborate cuisine himself. Aamir only gets to eat after he has satisfactorily followed a set of instructions. The mise en scène within which the caller appears is rich with allusions. In one sequence he folds a prayer mat while speaking to Aamir on the phone. In another sequence his voice is accompanied by close-ups of a small child who sits on his lap wearing an oversized prayer cap. As his voice becomes increasingly intimidating, the child begins to cry and is promptly whisked away by a waiting woman. Ensconced in the safety of his home, this ‘bad Muslim’ is a threat not just to Aamir’s family but also his own. He stands in contrast to Aamir whose love and loyalty to his family drives him to negotiate the hellish netherworld.
For a film that relies heavily on verisimilitude, the film’s premise is strangely random. Why, for instance, is Aamir chosen to execute this particular act of political violence? Why should a militant outfit that is so well networked and resourced waste their energies (and chances of success) on an ideologically opposed man-on-the-street? Why would Aamir’s clean credentials matter in an operation where he is not expected to be caught in the first place? Why would Muslim ‘terrorists’ take sadistic pleasure in persecuting innocent members of their own community at the risk of botching up their own projects? I am not sure the film provides any clear answers.
Aamir’s frenetic journey through the underbelly of Mumbai is designed ostensibly to serve a double purpose. It is supposed to lead him to the site of the bomb blast and educate him about the living conditions of his unfortunate brethren. The working-class landscape, saturated with filth, squalor and congestion, is also a hostile panopticon where his every move is monitored by seen and unseen eyes. He is stalked, pursued and chased. Every man and woman who inhabits this shadowy nether land seems connected to the voice on the phone. The entire ‘qaum’, including a seemingly trustworthy sex worker, has been pressed into the service of ‘terrorism’.
Like the shadowy mastermind, the unmarked terrorist (no longer iconographed by the stereotypical beard and prayer cap) is dangerously anonymous and everywhere. This however does not stop the film from mobilising crude metaphors. Aamir, the hapless lamb-to-the-slaughter, is shown walking down a butcher’s lane filled with hanging carcasses. The tension is heightened with close-ups of meat being minced by cleavers. In another sequence the mastermind manipulates a toy performing monkey as he plays with Aamir’s destiny over the phone.
In one instance Aamir is told to collect ‘information’ from a filthy public toilet. The ‘information’ is contained in a tiny scrap of paper tucked into a crack in the wall. He manages to retrieve the clue after reaching across stinking human waste. As he emerges from this fetid claustrophobia into yet another squalid wasteland, he vomits uncontrollably. "Have you seen how your community lives?" the voice on the phone asks.
For the audience Aamir is both victim and hero. His heroism lies in becoming a martyr by default as he subverts the terrorist strike by choosing to die and not kill. The end is poignant for many reasons. Not least for suggesting that Aamir’s sacrifice is atonement for the political violence unleashed by his people. I have yet to see a film where Hindus are called upon to atone for the misdeeds of their community
This journey of familiarising belongs to the audience as well. Here the ‘ghetto’ is introduced in all its visceral texture; the supposed "breeding ground" of terrorism. This landscape, straddling conic Muslim neighbourhoods like Dongri and Bhendi Bazaar, embodies a millennial urban nightmare which, according to the representational logic of the film, has been authored by the violence of the Muslims.
Another situation demands that Aamir retrieve information over the phone. As instructed, he dials the number from a local STD booth. As the phone begins to ring, the sequence cuts to the location at the other end of the phone line which turns out to be a well-to-do drawing room in Karachi, Pakistan. A woman picks up the phone and tells the man next to her that it’s a call from Delhi. The man snatches the phone and grimly provides the next clue which turns out to be a hotel address. This banal slice of information needn’t have come all the way from Pakistan but it serves to reiterate the popular ‘metanarrative’ that marks all Muslims as ‘Pakistani agents’. Having made this point, the film never returns to this connection again.
After making the call to Pakistan Aamir is tailed by an ineffectual policeman who is shown to be tipped off. "Did you see how you were chased by a policeman just because you made a call to Pakistan?" asks the shadow voice on the phone. Clearly, this sequence speaks to the popular belief that Muslims have dangerous connections with Pakistan. This ‘myth’ is invoked but not debunked. On the contrary, any scepticism that one might have about such claims is swiftly subverted.
Let us return briefly to the opening sequences of the film. As Aamir lands at Mumbai airport, he encounters a prejudiced immigration officer who harasses him for no good reason except that he bears a Muslim name. Even though nothing is found in his possession, the officer repeatedly checks his bags. In exasperation, Aamir retorts that he is a doctor, not a terrorist. The immigration officer replies that whether or not one is a "terrorist" is not written on the body.
This is a common enough experience for Muslims in India and therefore it would seem perfectly logical to conclude that we are being encouraged to empathise with Aamir’s predicament. But this invitation to empathise with the central protagonist soon lands us in trouble. In an unexpected turnaround the adversaries mutate as the oppressed becomes oppressor. In a troubling, ahistorical twist Aamir becomes a victim of his own beleaguered community. The one ‘good’ Muslim in the film is pitted against a sea of demonic Muslims.
As the film moves towards its climax, the voice on the phone becomes impatient. Aamir’s encounter with his own community seems to have taught him nothing and so he is upbraided for selfishness. "If everyone is invested in self-interest then what will happen to the community?" he asks. Aamir replies that if everyone were to look after their own interests the community would certainly prosper. The irony in the film lies in Aamir’s failure to do precisely that.
After planting the bomb in the bus he is unable to make an escape and reunite with his family. He is unable to kill for the sake of his own happiness. He returns to the bus, grabs the briefcase (which makes the other commuters think he is stealing) and looks frantically to dispose of the bomb without claiming casualties. But there are people everywhere so Aamir embraces the briefcase and detonates with it. The screen is engulfed in flames as TV news reports are heard describing him as a "terrorist" on a suicide mission. The shadowy mastermind collapses on the floor in what could be seen as defeat, frustration or anguish.
For the audience Aamir is both victim and hero. His heroism lies in becoming a martyr by default as he subverts the terrorist strike by choosing to die and not kill. The end is poignant for many reasons. Not least for suggesting that Aamir’s sacrifice is atonement for the political violence unleashed by his people. I have yet to see a film where Hindus are called upon to atone for the misdeeds of their community.
The profound irony of Aamir is that it depicts the innocent Muslim as being terrorised by his own community. If the filmmaker’s intention was to acknowledge "innocent" victims like Dr Mohamed Haneef, who was falsely accused by the Australian government of abetting the Glasgow terror attack, then all that remains is the stench of burnt good intentions. The irony is no less underscored by the fact that the last decade has witnessed the rise of the Hindu Right along with an acceleration in hate crimes, including the horrifying genocide in Gujarat. Aamir’s proposition that Muslims are oppressed by their own community is a complete disavowal of history, circumstance and the testimony of brute fact.
Cinema is a phantasmic site on which desires, aspirations, fears and anxieties are envisioned. Apart from recreating external worlds cinema can access the dark recesses of our imagination and give shape to repressed phantoms that haunt our inner worlds. It is said that cinema is akin to dreams in that it encompasses our best hopes and worst fears. Films are "cultural dream works" says Ashis Nandy while Ingmar Bergman says that "when film is not a document, it is dream". Aamir is a fascinating document precisely because it is an articulation of a dream; a dream that meditates, albeit unselfconsciously, about communal prejudice. It struggles with what Mahmood Mamdani calls the idea of the ‘Good Muslim’ and the ‘Bad Muslim’. In so doing it invokes amnesia and historical forgetfulness. Therefore Anupama Chopra, whose quote I begin with, is right when she says Aamir is more than a thriller in "power and ambition". I would modify her quote to address the power of ‘unintended ambition’ and suggest that the film is "an eloquent statement on the state of the nation and the mind of the Indian non-Muslim."
Archived from Communalism Combat, September 2008. Year 15, No.134, Cover Story 1
No one strives for truth in cinema because reality is simply too complex for good storytelling
Be it Lagaan (a period drama) or Swades (a social drama), I have just poured my thoughts into those films, especially with regard to our world, society and our nation. I really believe that patriotism is something that we are inborn with. You don’t have to tell a child that he is an Indian and he should be proud to be one. What needs to be inculcated in us is nationalism because that is dormant in all of us. This needs to be given more lift and power. We need to make people realise how we need to work for the upliftment of our country. So for me these things are very important and if I can bring those themes in while telling an entertaining story then why not?"
– Ashutosh Gowariker to Anuradha SenGupta on in.news.yahoo.com, viewed on February 26, 2008
It’s not a new story, not an old one, but a story that seems to recur with ugly frequency. A young man and woman, neighbours who have fallen in love, elope from home. They run away for two years. When they return the woman’s family tries to get her to go back home. A peacemaker from the boy’s side is killed and one more inter-religious marriage finds itself spattered in blood.
If you read this alongside the Jodhaa Akbar controversy, the reasons for the outrage on the part of the Rajput community clear up a little. The film has a Hindu woman marrying a Muslim man. This does not seem to have been about religious pride though it does figure somewhere. This was about the operations of the patriarchy.
In all patriarchal societies, for which one might read in all societies, it is the control of the womb that is of central importance. The woman is thus reduced to her capacity to bear children. And once she has borne those children her importance is effaced again because it is the religious identity of the children that comes into focus. This brings into play another of India’s recurring demons: demography.
Who has how many children and what religious identity these children will have is a question that has traumatised us each time the census figures are released. Since these figures do not tell us patterns of land ownership, since they do not tell us about the religious or caste identities of the owners of the nation’s wealth, since they are prone to misinterpretation of the most unscientific kind, no census is released without someone ‘reading’ the figures to indicate that India is rapidly turning into a Muslim nation. Or that the Christians are taking over.
(Recent developments in Orissa show that the clumsy nature of the religious Right’s desire to demonise minorities continues. The church is now to be associated with the Naxalite. That there is no credible evidence for this is another matter. That the chief secretary of Orissa says that there have been no forced conversions there does not matter. Hatred is not an emotion that allows for rationality.)
But why Jodhaa Akbar? After all, Mughal-e-Azam had already played out the scenario of Emperor Akbar, the Muslim, and Jodha Bai, the Rajput mother of Prince Salim, some time earlier. There is a scene in K. Asif’s classic film in which Akbar is shown participating in Janmashtami, a Hindu festival: he is pulling the palna (cradle) on which the infant Lord Krishna is seated.
No one seems to have objected to the film at all. No one seems to have questioned whether Jodha Bai was a real figure or an imaginary one. One could put this down to the palmy days of the 1950s when there was still a widespread faith in the ability of the republic of India to provide for all its citizens, when inclusivity was an automatic response rather than the exception to be treasured but this seems to me to tread dangerously close to a nostalgic reinterpretation of the past. (The Other, we have always had with us. It is only our response to the Other that has grown more crude.) And this also does not explain why the film’s coloured version, released a few months before Jodhaa Akbar, should not have evoked the same level of rage.
The DVD version of Jodhaa Akbar contains a series of disclaimers. Before the film begins titles run to background music:
"Historians agree that the 16th century marriage of alliance between the Mughal Emperor Akbar and the daughter of King Bharmal of Amer (Jaipur) was a recorded chapter in history…
"But there is speculation till today that her name was not Jodhaa…
"Some historians say her name was Harkha Bai, others call her Hira Kunwar and yet others say Jiya Rani, Maanmati and Shahi Bai…
"But over centuries her name reached the common man as Jodhaa Bai. This is just one version of historical events. There could be other versions and viewpoints to it (sic)."
DVD 3 contains a bonus feature: "Historical References". The disclaimer is repeated here and 12 books are offered, including, surprisingly, the novel Gulbadan by "Ruman Goden" by which presumably the compiler of this list meant Rumer Godden.
But that’s history. We have never been terribly worried about historical truth. Sohrab Modi’s Jhansi Ki Rani established the image of a brave and valiant queen fighting for her land, her people and only incidentally, her right to choose an heir. Her actual role in history has been ignored.
But then Modi was offering us a Hindu heroine. Gowariker is offering us a Muslim hero. His Akbar (played rather capably by Hrithik Roshan) is given to short justice but he is also the kind of person who grants a woman an audience, listens to her requests that she remain a Hindu and have a temple built inside her apartments, agrees and then falls in love with her.
None of this seems offensive to either side and it is a sad thing that such a question would still have sides determined by religion. Akbar himself was slightly more complex a character. His hunger for religious instruction meant that all ‘holy men’ were welcome at his court. And though they fought for the soul of Hindustan through the throne of the grand Mughal, Akbar seems to have managed a diplomatic way out of the mess of Muslim clerics and Hindu sages and Jesuit envoys: he invented his own short-lived religion. At Fatehpur Sikri you see the quarters for his wives and all the guides tell you about Jodha Bai and the Catholic wife from Goa, the Turkish wife and so on. The memory that remains with me is the small church, built exactly as if the architect had seen a child’s drawing of a church.
That may well be why no one strives for truth in cinema; reality is simply too complex for good storytelling.
Archived from Communalism Combat, September 2008. Year 15, No.134, Cover Story 2
The reasons why an actor accepts a role change from time to time? Most times it’s a matter of appetite and newness. Sometimes it is the lure of working with an exciting director. Or even, in more cases than I imagined, the lure of a large acting fee. (Something I have never had a chance to wrestle with my conscience about, as nobody has ever offered me a large acting fee. I get offered large smiles instead.) More seriously, when I was considering the role of Sid in Shaurya the prime reason I accepted was because of the two questions it posed, one direct – are Muslim soldiers in Kashmir looked upon with any kind of prejudice by their contemporaries and superiors? The other, indirect – what remedial measures did the army and other institutions have in place to counter the anti-secular agenda?
The story had been written by the film’s director, Samar Khan, a Muslim himself, who for reasons of indiscipline had been asked to leave the National Defence Academy (NDA) five days before he would have completed its three-year course. By his own admission his lifestyle and the one imposed by the NDA were mutually abrasive. What is most significant are the years Samar spent there – 1991 to 1994. Years that ‘bookend’ Ayodhya 1992, the anti-Muslim riots in Bombay and the subsequent bomb blasts by Muslim members of the underworld.
For a man who was 120 hours away from becoming a gentleman cadet at the Indian Military Academy (IMA), Samar holds no bitterness against the institution. On the contrary, he loves the army, its regimen, its code, its very raison d’être. But he believes civilian India with its growing prejudices silently infiltrates the best of institutions in the only way infiltration can – through a few individuals. Here he is emphatic the infiltration was neither devised nor was it excessively malevolent. "Post-Babri Masjid it was terribly difficult being a Muslim. These individuals expected you to hate Hindus or at the very least were fairly convinced you harboured feelings of resentment against them. Did they hate Muslims in turn? I don’t think so. Were they now a little guarded around their Muslim colleagues at the NDA? Possibly. Were they simply more aware of a classmate’s ‘Muslimhood’? Definitely."
Shaurya is about a Muslim army captain brought to trial for shooting his superior, Major Rathore, at point-blank range while on a night raid in Kashmir. An army lawyer defends this seemingly hopeless case only to find that the major was one of his commanding officer, Brigadier Pratap’s band of communal-minded protégés out to purge the country of all Muslims. The trial is successfully fought and the captain acquitted with honour.
Discussions on the film with a few senior members of the army at different points of time have elicited a fairly unanimous response. One, there is no way religious prejudice in an officer would go unnoticed till he achieved brigadier status. In all cases a communal mind-set is spotted and corrected at a more junior level. Two, there are definitely communal elements in the army but it is always the individual and never the institution. It is correlated to the rise of communalism in civilian India. Three, and most interestingly, the wives of the four officers of colonel rank who I was speaking to on one occasion unanimously agreed that the anti-Muslim sentiment in the army was far higher than their husbands claimed.
It is a matter of sadness to me that in the movie the argument for hatred seems as – if not more – attractive than the argument for peace and non-discrimination. (This is an entirely personal opinion, I might add.) I wonder if in making for an engrossing, entertaining climax Samar has not short-changed his emotional reason for writing this story. Did he too unwittingly succumb to the belief that hatred and violence are more riveting in cinema than peace and love?
While all conclusions based on this random, minuscule sampling must be severely discounted, the unanimity on all three points is certainly interesting. On another occasion I raised the issue of being a Muslim jawan or junior officer in Kashmir with a major-general who had served in the region. He was absolutely sure a discriminatory attitude existed. Not sharing his cynicism, a host of his juniors strenuously countered his argument. Both sides sounded pretty convincing.
As interesting as the rise of the communal mind-set in civilian India and its repercussions on our institutions founded on the principles of secularism is, equally significant for me is how this mind-set is handled by the institutions concerned. Few civilians know that court martials in the army don’t necessarily have to be closed trials. The commanding officer on the case can decide to make it a public trial.
Looking beyond the army there is absolutely no doubt that our civil and administrative services are subtly yet definitely fractured along communal and/or political lines. Having experienced blatant non-cooperation from civil servants who are sympathetic to the cause of right-wing Hindutva, I asked a few members of the civil services how this could be countered and the startling answer was forget about countering, this trend was being further fostered by alumni of the services meeting new inductees in their colleges to subtly spread the communal doctrine. This was corroborated by a few Dalit trainees who claimed they suffered discrimination during training.
So what do our institutions do about this? The only thing they can. Reiterate the theory of secularism as laid down in the Constitution. A theory that today seems naïve in its assumptions. That people hear but don’t listen to. That seems utopian, pedantic and far removed from reality. Ironical, because the beauty of secularism is that it is so easy to fall in love with because practising it makes one feel open, free of fear, strong.
But perhaps the most important point to make is that in today’s India a vibrant secular movement has to start from civil society. Just as the doctrine of any religious fundamentalism, be it Christian, Islamic or Hindu, rises from civil society and spreads its tentacles into established institutions, so should the principles of secularism. I believe the country is too far gone down the communal river to think that the passive, ‘kind-uncle’ secularism of the past is going to be the bulwark against communalism. It’s time we developed an aggressive secular agenda. One that makes a convincing argument to establish why religious non-discrimination is an energising, even profitable proposition. One which convinces people to practise certain directives on a day-to-day basis. This is what our institutions will be happy, even relieved, to borrow, to effectively neutralise the spread of hatred.
Coming back to Shaurya. It is a matter of sadness to me that in the movie the argument for hatred seems as – if not more – attractive than the argument for peace and non-discrimination. (This is an entirely personal opinion, I might add.) I wonder if in making for an engrossing, entertaining climax Samar has not short-changed his emotional reason for writing this story. Did he too unwittingly succumb to the belief that hatred and violence are more riveting in cinema than peace and love?
Archived from Communalism Combat, September 2008. Year 15, No.134, Cover Story 3
Q: What was the reaction in Pakistan to Khuda Kay Liye? Did you visit Pakistan after the movie was released?
A: The reaction was absolutely unbelievable. In Pakistan the theatres are very tacky, badly equipped, there is no air conditioning and rats run across your feet. They are like those old theatres that we still have in towns like Aligarh and Meerut. There are no multiplexes, no places where a person could go with the family. Yet this movie ran in theatres to packed houses for over 100 days. It was released at the same time the Lal Masjid incident occurred. Whether that was engineered or not, I don’t know.
Now I think the government was behind it – backing it – which is why it overrode all objections made by the madrassas. The director and some of the actors received threats. Therefore I credit them doubly for having the courage to do the film. I was recognised everywhere I went in Pakistan. People would hug me and thank me for making this film. It was more than mere sentiment and therefore it appealed to people.
The film was well researched. I consider it to be the most significant film I have ever made despite the brevity of the role. Initially, I turned the film down. I turned it down because I had seen Pakistani movies. But the scenes that were narrated to me were hair-raising and these are exactly the things that matter to me.
I did a thorough study of Islam (for the role of a Muslim cleric). I learnt the Koran in my childhood because I was made to. We still don’t feel the need to tell our children the meaning of what we read. We just memorise it like drill and recite it when there is a need to. That’s all we are taught. This must end. Muslim children must be taught what it means. There I was, a five-year-old child, told by the maulvi that ‘every kafir will go to hell, every Muslim will go to hell; when you grow up you must grow your beard and wear a pyjama’ and so on.
The movie reached more people than my other movies – such as Nishant – did. Nishant was also human-centric. There is a worldwide obsession with Islam. There is a hatred for Islam, which is unreasonable, biased and unfair. What bothers me most of all as a Muslim however is this seemingly rising awareness in youngsters of their identity as Muslims. The rising awareness doesn’t bother me as much as their misdirection. It is almost as if they are vigorously trying to compensate for the shortcomings in their own lives by living in the hereafter.
It seems to be happening a lot among Muslims. You see much more of an assertion of Muslim identity over the last 10 years, you hear many more salaam walekums than you heard earlier, you see many more men visibly sporting beards during namaz. I suppose the same thing is happening among the Hindus.
I’m really curious – particularly among the young Muslim men who are turning devout – whether there is in fact a deep study of Islam taking place or is it just the rewards of what awaits believers after death that is attracting them. These are the kinds of things that worry me. I think I can say this without offending Hindus or Muslims, that you need more awareness of the world and you must learn to interpret the vision according to the needs of the day.
It is in fact very puzzling as to why this is happening. If you’ve travelled to the US and have been hassled by immigration because of your name then I can also sort of understand that angle.
Q: Do you think that – at least in India or perhaps the subcontinent – we are ignoring the sane voice that understands the worldliness essential for living and also understanding religion?
A: Nobody speaks up against this absurd member of parliament who offered a crore of rupees for the head of the Danish cartoonist. Where did this man get a crore of rupees is a question nobody has asked. That seems of no importance. He has offended our sentiments and so he must die. The alarming thing is that you find so many people willing to do this. It can be downright frivolous for someone like me to stand up and talk against this person. So what are we to do if we are not activists nor are we soldiers?
I think the start has to be made in our own lives in a small sort of way. I think too many people obsessed with social change tend to reach too far, too quickly. I feel that if I’m rearing my children with an awareness of each religion as I understand it and not classifying them as Hindu or Muslim it is a progressive step. I’m leaving them free to choose the religion that suits them; that serves their purposes because that’s what religion is supposed to do.
Sweeping it under the carpet and apathy are old characteristics of our nation.
Q: This is obviously a very difficult position to maintain, given the circumstances. Does that sometimes frighten you, the sheer magnitude?
A: It terrifies me because I don’t know when it is going to end. It seems that religion, which was perhaps created to unify, is serving the opposite purpose. At the same time what also terrifies me is if my children, 20 years from now, are confronted by a mob that wants to know their religion. What are they going to say?
But I take solace in the fact that they will not be parochial and hide under the shelter of false hopes, of "I belong to this community and so I am safe".
The narrowing interpretation of Islam that is taking place is what really terrifies me because it is giving Islam a worse name than it already has. Too many of our so-called spokesmen are aggravating the issue. This has become clearer over the past few years.
Q: Professionally, do you feel that you are currently at the richest stage of your life as an actor or do you feel that you have done terrific work earlier and now it is no longer the same?
A: The environment is more conducive to doing better work. I don’t feel like I’ve done whatever I am capable of. I don’t look back on my past work and think it’s fantastic. There’s a lot of it I don’t like in fact and yes, I would say the answer to that is yes. Because the craft of the filmmaker has grown over the last 30 years their consciousness has grown too.
It is no longer fashionable to make movies on exploited peasants about whom we know nothing. The situation is much more alive now because filmmakers are attempting to make films on subjects they know about, subjects they’ve seen before. I’ve always believed that you cannot calculate the success of a movie before it is made; it should be made with conviction.
There seems to be lot more courage in today’s filmmakers. You have, apart from a film like Khuda Kay Liye, a film like A Wednesday and Nandita (Das)’s film Firaaq based on Godhra, which is extremely hard-hitting and extremely well made and which I am very proud of. Even a movie like Parzania, which it still takes an NRI to make. Still, he is an Indian who feels for the situation.
You have directors like Anurag Basu, Rituparno Ghosh and Neeraj Pandey – these are the people I have hope for and these are the people who have got their craft down pat and have a socially aware mind. These are people who want to tackle the real issues and not make fancy movies.
Among the filmmakers of the 1970s there was a bit of posturing and it showed in the way their commitment disappeared as soon as greener pastures arrived. As an actor too I feel it is richer ground for me. I may not be getting great roles to display my abilities as I did in the past but that doesn’t trouble me because to prove my worth as an actor is not of any concern to me any more. To participate in a project which I feel is significant is what attracts me.
Q: You were a very strong critic of the cinema that existed even though you were a part of the industry…
A: I was a critic of the quality of work, not a critic of the type of cinema. I’ve been misinterpreted greatly. In fact, I’ve even been quoted somewhere as saying that I hate good cinema. Why would I be idiotic enough to say that? My complaint was against the level of commitment of those filmmakers and the stagnation of their craft. That’s what I was angry about and that’s what turned me against them in the sense that I don’t want to work with some of those filmmakers any more.
But there are plenty of youngsters who I’m still working with, more first-time filmmakers than established ones. So perhaps it is my maturing as an actor and my realising that acting is not an end in itself. You don’t act to show off your acting, you act because you’ve put your abilities at the service of somebody who helps to make a statement. As an actor you are never making your own statement, you are a mouthpiece for others.
Q: How has the Hindi film industry, in your opinion, progressed? Has it got better?
A: It has become more self-congratulatory. It believes the world is sitting up and taking notice. In a way the world is sitting up and taking notice only because of the multicoloured mithai. I don’t know if there is true enjoyment of these movies or whether they are considered to be anything significant. For the NRIs it is a great link to home – you get together and eat your samosas and talk in Hindi and you cry. It is a mirage to say that Bollywood cinema has gained acceptance worldwide. As far as the film industry is concerned, it is exactly where it was; their concerns are still with making huge amounts of money and satisfying the self-agenda.
Q: It must be a business kind of pursuit when the amount of money involved is so great and so many lives are depending on it. Is this because somebody is coughing up money and you need a return on the investment?
A: Our cinema has modelled itself on the Hollywood of the 1940s and 1950s, with one huge difference. We are still trying to make those kinds of musicals, those musical numbers, those basic stories – exchange babies, boy meets girl or rich boy-poor girl – We are still making those kinds of stories without the excellence of the old music.
You see a film like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and it still delights me even though it was made in the 1950s. You see the Hindi version of it and it turns your stomach. The big difference between Hollywood (at that time) and our industry is that even though the producers of those days loved money and multiplying their investments they also loved movies. And even at that time there were socially aware movies that came out once in a while. Why can’t we do that?
I understand the love for money and I understand you want to get your investment back and see that your family doesn’t lose its standard of living and so on. What is preventing you from searching your conscience, from wondering what kind of movie one should really be making with the kind of facilities at our disposal?
It is obviously sufficient for a person in the position of Rakesh Roshan or Subhash Ghai to continue churning out those Hollywood imitations so that they can multiply their investments. There is a superficial nod towards a technical finish. I think it is just the whole concept of Hindi movies which is so shallow that a person who thrives on that kind of life, for whom it is a part of his bloodstream, I don’t think is capable of these kinds of thoughts. When he is asked to invest one zillionth of his fortune in a film that will state something of importance he will not do it. It is a lamentable situation.
Q: The audience that laps it up…
A: They will always lap it up. There are umpteen movies, with stars and the formulae, which the audience never really went to see. The audience is not taken into consideration. The filmmakers say they cater to the audience but the films are not made for the audience. They are made to multiply their own investments. And now you can recover and make a healthy profit in the first week itself. So all you need to do is to con the audience to get in there on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and you are sitting on a gold mine. The days of 50-week runs are gone, even the desire to make a good film is gone. You just have some slick stuff that will pull the audience in on the first three days and your job is done. I think they are heading down a dark end.
Q: You did make a valiant attempt to become director…
A: The film was not accepted. It was my film producer who completely lost faith while it was being made and then refused to do anything to help it get noticed so it sank without a trace. I don’t feel broken up about it because it would have been just one little straw in the wind. At least it was made. But I do feel disappointed that I couldn’t make a better film.
I feel disappointed that the audience did not respond to it. I don’t feel shattered and discouraged at the end of the day. I hope to attempt another one at some point. That film was attempted, as it was the kind of subject or script that states something or coincides with my beliefs. I had absolutely no hesitation in doing it. There are many things that trouble me, that trouble any man: The lack of consideration towards the common man and his complete facelessness.
I have taken my standing as an actor too lightly. I have participated in movies that I felt were making significant statements but it has not been a consuming passion. I was also at a point where I was struggling to become a popular actor. I have been through it all and survived.
At this moment what is of prime importance to me is to participate in movies that state something and follow ideas that it was not possible for me to do before. And hence my choice of films like Khuda Kay Liye. I’m not someone who believes in making political statements in an individual capacity. I am not interested in politics and politicians just turn me off. Nor have I believed in wearing my heart on my sleeve like many actors do. I didn’t feel the need to do it all these years and have not done it. I finally feel the need. I am approaching what could be said is the last innings of my career.
Early Hindi cinema wins many accolades – for its idealistic themes, for its propagation of Hindustani and for its secular temperament. While it is true that the political atmosphere of the 1950s and 1960s, the Nehruvian era, was responsible for many of these attributes, the contribution of communist writers and poets to early Hindi cinema and to its idiom, language and content is often forgotten.
Obviously, a medium like cinema which is so responsive to public demands and public tastes does reflect its social and political context to a large extent. Therefore the values and excitement of the national movement, the heady brew of freedom from colonial bondage and the novelty of nation building and Nehru’s secular, modern outlook provided much of the inspiration for the best-remembered films of the era. But they would have been incomplete without the contribution of a galaxy of communist literary giants who chose this medium precisely because it was the most effective medium of mass communication.
It is important to remember that there is a basic difference between the way in which a communist uses the word ‘mass’ and the way others do. A communist uses the word with a feeling of reverence and respect and wishes to communicate with the mass in order to imbue it with what he considers to be the highest values and ideals and in order to help it achieve its historic mission to bring about universal equality. Others use the word mass contemptuously, in a pejorative way, with the objective of converting as much of it into mindless consumers of their products, including cultural works, as possible.
It was this attitude towards the mass combined with their enormous talents that made the communist contribution to early Hindi cinema so memorable.
Perhaps no country in the world has at any time in its history witnessed such a large number of first-rate talents harnessed to a common ideology. It is important to remember that communist writers, poets, actors and artists did not come from Hindi and Urdu backgrounds alone. All Indian languages were blessed by similar practitioners at the time.
They were all products of a unique blend of nationalist and revolutionary fervour that was peculiar to the 1930s when most of them came of age. This was complemented by the fact that many of them came from feudal and traditional families. For them the Communist Manifesto, the experiences of Soviet Russia and the national movement in their own country fused into liberating images far removed from the suffocating conservatism surrounding them. Patriarchy, feudal oppression, caste hierarchies and inhuman cruelty would all be blown away by the winds of change that they had not only begun to experience but which they themselves would fan into invincibility. This was the dream they dared to dream – not alone but in communion with each other, with their comrades – and which they longed to communicate to the masses.
Bombay, the working-class capital of the country, was the headquarters of the Communist Party of India. Its journals attracted the finest talents in the country. Sajjad Zaheer was able to bring writers and poets of the calibre of Kaifi Azmi, Ali Sardar Jafri, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Krishan Chander, Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri and a host of others to work as party whole-timers. Without compromising the quality of their work they had the opportunity to test it every day against the touchstone of the people: the textile workers of Bombay, the handloom weavers of Bhiwandi, the fighting peasants of Bhiwandi.
It was this unique circumstance that would stand them in good stead when they brought their thoughts and verses from the world of cramped party offices, factory gates and vast public recitals to the world of cinema. Here they were joined by other comrades from the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) who gave Hindi cinema many of its earliest and finest actors and actresses.
A New World. The New Woman. These were the hallmarks of what is nostalgically referred to as the golden era of Indian cinema. Awara. Shree 420. Mother India. Pyaasa. Do Bigha Zameen. The era’s sheen was provided by the communists. Of course, their convictions underwent changes with the years but their commitment to secularism and to its language, Hindustani, never diminished. And the dross of crass commercialism could never completely dull the brightness of their earlier dreams…
Archived from Communalism Combat, September 2008. Year 15, No.134, Cover Story 5