Film fraternity unfazed by fanatics

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 August, 2008, 12:00am

New Delhi

Indians absorbed a fresh horror recently as they reeled from yet another spate of bomb explosions in Bangalore and Ahmedabad - threats against beloved film stars who are Muslim.

In an e-mail sent to news organisations, a group calling itself the Indian Mujahedeen warned the four actors who dominate the film industry - Shahrukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Salman Khan and Saif Ali Khan - to stop acting or face death. Their families were also threatened. In India, the four Khans (they are not related) are idolised by millions of fans of all religious denominations.

The e-mail described acting in Bollywood as 'against the tenets of Islam' and said that if they failed to stop, 'we are ready for order [sic] to kill you'. It added: 'Today [the bombs in Ahmedabad] is only sample but our next is Muslim film star [sic].'

For an industry that has always prided itself on its secularism, the threats are an outrageous affront. The country might burn in sectarian riots and bloodletting but not a trace of Hindu-Muslim animosity has ever seeped into Bollywood.

Ever since independence in 1947, when Muslim Pakistan was carved out of mainly Hindu India, tensions between the two communities have broken out on occasion. The rise of a Hindu nationalist movement in the 1990s exacerbated suspicions. But in Mumbai, home of the country's film industry, Hindus and Muslims have worked together peacefully as actors, lyricists, scriptwriters, singers, composers, dancers and directors.

Other industries often discriminate against members of the 140-million-strong Muslim minority but the film industry has been a good employer and Muslims have flourished in it.

'In terms of being blind to caste or religion, Bollywood is the most professional industry in India,' says director Rahul Dholakia. 'I used Naseeruddin Shah in my last movie not because he's a Muslim but because he's a great actor. All that counts in Bollywood is talent. Our only god is talent.'

Such indifference towards religion has allowed the industry to flaunt some of its biggest stars. The dominance of the four Khans at present is nothing new: the great heartthrobs of the past - Dilip Kumar, Meena Kumari, Madhubala, Waheeda Rehman - are Muslims. Their religion has been irrelevant to Hindu audiences, and Muslim viewers have no problems with Muslims playing Hindu characters.

Perhaps the ultimate test is marrying someone of another faith and Bollywood stars have nailed their colours to the mast. Intermarriage is still rare in Indian society but not in the film fraternity. Take the Khans. All are either married to Hindu women or dating Hindu girlfriends. Another superstar, Hrithik Roshan, is Hindu but has a Muslim wife.

'The film industry is totally secular. People are interested only in success and not caste or creed or whether you are a man or a woman,' says Farah Khan, a well-known Muslim woman director married to a Hindu.

And yet Indian filmmakers are still wary of showing a Hindu girl marrying a Muslim boy, as though sensing that viewers would be uncomfortable with a relationship they rarely see in the real world. So, apart from exceptions such as the film Bombay, which showed a Muslim girl eloping with a Hindu boy, the subject is generally avoided.

Nor has Bollywood, which churns out 1,000 movies every year, avoided cliches in its portrayal of Muslim characters. The images have changed over the years - from the debauched feudal lord with his dancing girls to the skull-capped, rosary-carrying mullah and, more recently, the gun-toting jihadi - but it has tended towards stereotypes.

The redeeming factor - if it can be called that - is that other minorities such as Sikhs and Christians have suffered a similar fate. Turbaned Sikhs tend to be shown as sunny buffoons and Christian women as short-skirted, cigarette-smoking, boozy floozies.

'I don't think Muslim characters have been offensive. Cliched yes, but not offensive. If they had, do you think Muslims would be stupid enough to spend money watching movies that insult them?' says film buff Ashraf Nizami, a Muslim.

Mumbai-based film trade analyst Taran Adarsh is dismayed at the terrorist group's attempt to drag sectarian tensions into the industry when it has remained splendidly immune to whatever religious toxins have coursed through society.

'Every inflammatory event, whether the demolition of the mosque at Ayodhya or the Gujarat massacre of Muslims in 2002, has failed to damage Hindu-Muslim relations in the industry,' says Adarsh. 'I think this group just wanted some quick publicity and Bollywood is a soft and easy target - anything about the Khans makes headlines and front page news.'

Adarsh's theory that the Indian Mujahedeen chose to single out the Khans purely for instant publicity has wide support in Mumbai.

'Why just the Khans and not other Muslim actors? It's because anyone who wants instant media attention picks on Bollywood actors. When the health minister launched an anti-smoking campaign, he urged Shahrukh Khan to stop smoking. It's because these stars are so huge, they are going to be talked about so you pick them as soft targets,' says Dholakia.

Of the Khans, only Aamir reacted. At a book launch two days after the threat, he turned up without any bodyguards. 'I don't feel the need to change anything about my life. We should not get scared,' he said.

The industry tried not to overreact. 'There is no panic. We are not shaking with fear because they can't harm our secular character,' says Pahlaj Nihalani, president of the Association of Motion Pictures and TV Programme Producers.

Adarsh says the timing of the threat is unfortunate in that big US studios such as Sony, Warner Brothers and Universal are coming to work in Bollywood. 'What are we discussing? Not the great future of this industry but a stupid gimmick by lunatics,' he says.

Director Aziz Mirza, a Muslim, is also unhappy at the media coverage of the threat. He says it is more effective to ignore it.

'The terrorists are stupid guys. You don't react to them. You just negate them. Nobody in the industry should give any reaction. Nobody listens to mad dogs.'



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