Is Bollywood edging out Muslim culture?

Is Bollywood edging out Muslim culture?

There’s a friend of mine who lives in Kashmir and who I call up every Eid to give my good tidings. In his younger days, “Freddie” was a militant separatist: 25 years ago he was involved in some nasty incidents including the kidnapping of foreigners in the Kashmir Valley. He experienced rapid burnout and grew disillusioned with militancy. Now he spends his time on the web, following events across the Muslim world and occasionally writing lucid columns for local newspapers.

“Freddie” narrated to me about the time when he was caught by the Indian Army and kept in solitary confinement in one of its camps in the valley. Though he had access to the camp library and during those months was able to feast his mind, he often dreamed about home-cooked food, about the famous Kashmiri Wazwan, and about his favorite dish, tabak maaz (fried lamb ribs). Freddie often fantasized that if he were to get a hold of some tabak maaz, it would be Eid for him.

When he said this, it struck me that the sheer joy and festivity of Eid was dimming in my memory as I got older. I knew Eid when I was much, much younger, and not just because of friends who invited me over for a bite of the delicious spread, or because of neighbors who I would see stroll past in crisp new clothing, but because of popular culture, particularly Bollywood. If you remember films from the 1970s, where three friends like Amar, Akbar and Anthony could coexist in harmony, then you would inevitably watch an Eid scene (in true Bollywood tradition of sequencing, the Eid scene would be followed by catastrophe). True, the Eid scenes would be clichéd, everyone would be in a hugging frenzy, and the dances were choreographed in a surreal manner (although nowadays, choreographed dancing is de rigueur at urban Indian weddings). And that’s how non-Muslims like me would get a feel of Eid, so that when it came around, we would ebulliently greet our friends and neighbors.

Bollywood even used to have a category of heavily Urdu film called the “Muslim social.” When I was doing my MA in London in the mid-1980s, my closest friend, Farikh, was the British son of Pakistani immigrants. I often used to visit his home in High Wycombe, and spent a bit of time during his sister’s marriage to another Pakistani-Briton from Birmingham. One evening, Farikh’s brother-in-law and sister brought home a video-cassette of a 1971 film, “Mehboob ki Mehndi,” starring Rajesh Khanna and Leena Chandravarkar, that the family had seen before and that they loved immensely. We cracked up at the silly comedic scenes and sang along to the soft melodies, and 30 years later I still have vivid memories of that evening. Just imagine.

Nowadays it is altogether different. Though you may find Eid songs in a film or two, they are likely to be films that appeal to the “masses” rather than the “classes”: the 1991 economic liberalization brought in its wake (among other things) multiplexes to India for film exhibition, so that the ever expanding middle-class – which, according to government statistics, has increasingly fewer Muslims as a percentage – stopped going to single-screen theaters. The once-mandatory Eid scenes are now more likely to show up in films that are primarily destined for the single-screen theaters and small towns; you’ll find that beyond the occasional “Delhi 6” or “My Name is Khan,” you are unlikely to find any reference to Eid in the new breed of independent cinema, gritty film noir or even the silly pastel-colored rom-coms. And the “Muslim social?” All but extinct.

Of course, this may not turn out to be the case with the film slated for release this week – the three Khans take turns in planning an “Eid release” – which is Salman Khan’s “Sultan.” It has already generated some controversy with Salman’s Neanderthal-as-usual comment about how shooting the wrestling scenes for his latest film was akin to a woman being raped, and the inevitable backlash from women in general and the National Commission for Women in particular. (It won’t matter for as I’ve mentioned in this column earlier; Salman’s fan base is overwhelmingly male conservative, who have little use for subtlety. So his new film, no matter how much an assault on refined senses, will likely be raking in pots of money.) 

Yet even if “Sultan” is wall-to-wall with Eid scenes, it will still be the exception and not the norm in Bollywood depiction.

Of course, decreased Eid awareness in quality Bollywood cinema is not at the top of the fears and anxieties facing Indian Muslims nowadays; it pales before contemporary issues, be they economic, political or just security-related. Still, Bollywood remains the widest platform of Indian culture and a fairly reliable mirror for our society and its aspirations, and if it is edging out what was already a passing awareness of Muslim culture, then the chasm that exists in contemporary life has little hope of closing in the foreseeable future.

*Aditya Sinha is a senior journalist based in Delhi. This abridged article is taken from