At the fifth Subhas Ghosal Foundation Lecture held in Mumbai, noted lyricist, writer, and social activist, Javed Akhtar, touched upon the role of secularism in Hindi cinema, and how much of it is a societal reality
“Art is all about entertainment, but there’s a fine difference between art and circus,” began Javed Akhtar at the fifth Subhas Ghosal Foundation lecture held in Mumbai. The well known lyricist, writer, and social activist had been allotted the topic, ‘The Role of Secularism in Hindi Cinema’. Akhtar said that cinema, although exaggerated, is relevant to the common man, and one can actually learn a lot about real society from Hindi movies. “Dreams don’t offer realism either; but they are relevant nonetheless as they are often a reflection of our thoughts,” Akhtar said. “In a way, cinema is like a relevant dream as well…on decoding it one can unearth the collective psyche of the society.”
Having established the relevance of Hindi movies in society, Akhtar went on to outline the importance of characters in films, and how these are a mirror image of real life. He said that if one makes a list of Hindi film villains over the last few decades, he can actually learn everything there is to know about society’s evolution in India. In the 1940s, we had the Zamindars as villains, which was a reflection of the actual state of affairs. In the 50s, this villain lot was replaced by the factory owner bully. In the 60s, however, the underworld don of big cities ruled the small screen as the bad guy. “In the 70s, this underworld don became a hero,” quipped Akhtar. In the 1980s, the villain in a Hindi film was invariably a policeman or a politician – yet again a reflection of societal affairs. “In the 90s, Pakistan became the villain,” said a candid Akhtar, to everyone’s amusement. “In the new millennium, we don’t have any villains; such characters in today’s movies frighteningly resemble us!”
So then, one saw the era of two categories of Muslims. “The first was who we saw on cinema. The second was my neighbour – an owner of a cycle shop,” smiled Akhtar. This real life Muslim then started believing that his ancestors may have really led the kind of life shown on screen. “As one can see, both these Muslims were far away from reality,” Akhtar said. But the story doesn’t end here. The Muslim social circle reciprocated this stereotype depiction. One then saw the birth of a ‘token Hindu’ or a ‘good Hindu’ in movies; a man who would sacrifice his life for his Muslim friend. For instance, ‘Mughal-E-Azam’ had a Hindu character that dies for the Muslim hero, Salim.
While the rapt audience was still digesting that one, Akhtar hit another jackpot with his next point: that secularism and religious tolerance in Hindi cinema is exclusively a Hindu’s responsibility. On secularism, Akhtar said that while we can have a ‘Vijay’ getting saved by a ‘786 billa’ (metal arm band that Amitabh Bachchan wears in ‘Coolie’), one is yet to hear of a Muslim character being saved by a Ganesh idol. “I haven’t seen a Muslim character play Holi in any film, although millions of them do so in real life,” Akhtar added. Further, while a goon can hide gold behind a Hindu deity, one can’t show a similar situation in a mosque, as filmmakers are afraid of hurting the sentiments of a minority. This is getting reflected in society too. “We find that few got arrested for the Gujarat genocide,” Akhtar said.
On religious tolerance too, Hindus seem to shoulder the burden. “There are films on untouchables and child marriage, but rarely one on a social malpractice by a minority,” said Akhtar. The closest a film came to doing that was ‘Nikaah’ (on the disadvantages of the Muslim divorce system), but that too was a personal story, rather than a community one. It all boiled down to one point: filmmakers know exactly what society can take, and what it won’t accept.
As the Hindu-Muslim debate was getting heated, Akhtar decided to step away for a moment. “Hindi films haven’t treated Christians very well,” he said. A Christian has always been depicted as a good hearted drunkard, or the ‘Mona Darling’ type (the vamps in Hindi cinema took on the form of Rita/Mona/Julie, who dressed and talked in a particular way). “But then, heroines started wearing those kind of clothes, so the differences with the vamps sort of vanished,” joked Akhtar, evoking a roar of laughter from those present at the event.
Akhtar concluded on a promise of a better tomorrow. He placed faith in today’s young generation, as they possess a less tainted view of society, and are healthier than their parent generation, in that sense. “This too, is reflecting in Indian cinema,” observed Akhtar. Secular movies such as ‘Rang De Basanti’, ‘Sarfarosh’ and ‘Iqbal’ are finding their places in the hearts of Indians – three films which wouldn’t have been accepted in the 50s despite the roar of secularism that had erupted then, Akhtar signed off.
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