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The shared space of Bollywood

By Jerry Pinto

Popular culture reaches out to us at some level beneath the conscious, and defines who we are. Hindi cinema has been defining India for a long time. Intercultural dialogue as portrayed in Hindi cinema was often crude -- a character called John Jaani Janardhan, the blood of Hindu, Muslim and Christian flowing into one vein -- but it was valuable in a way that we did not notice until it went away

Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan features a diverse cricket team including a dalit boy who’s called ‘Kachra’

At the beginning of A Wednesday, a young actor Ajay Khanna (played by V J Gaurav Kapur) comes to the police with a complaint. Someone has been making threatening calls on his cell phone. He says it must be because he is from the minority community.  

Commissioner of Police Prakash Rathod (Anupam Kher) is slightly perplexed. How can a man with a name like Ajay Khanna be from the minority community? In turn, Ajay Khanna is surprised by such naiveté. All the big stars in Bollywood are Muslims, he points out. That leaves Amitabh, Abhishek (Bachchans both), Akshay (Kumar) and he. That makes them a minority, doesn’t it? Neeraj Pandey, the director and writer of the film, underlines the fallaciousness of this reasoning by making the troublesome call part of a series of pranks.  

Bollywood, its denizens love to say, is one of the places where there is no communal taint. They also deny the existence of the casting couch and, until the public shooting of Gulshan Kumar, the presence of underworld financing. But they also claim that they are a force in maintaining sectarian equilibrium. For instance, Amitabh Bachchan has often stated that Bollywood has had a role in maintaining communal harmony. In a recent interview (, the 66-year-old film actor noted: “Bihar records the maximum crime but has less movie halls. Andhra Pradesh has the maximum movie theatres. It is the movies that keep communal harmony as people of all communities and religion sit together in the hall to watch a movie… where they laugh together, weep together…” 

While one is not sure whether one can make such an easy equation between the number of cinema halls and violent crime, Bachchan has pointed to the fact that Bollywood is a shared space. While no language-based cinema can ever claim to be India’s national pop culture, Hindi films made in Mumbai seem to have achieved as much of that status as is possible in a nation with 22 national languages and uncounted dialects. Turn to a Malayalam channel playing Antakshari and no one bats an eyelid, not the host, not the other contestants, not the audience, when a young woman begins singing the anthemic song from Yaadon ki Baaraat --Chura liya hai tumne jo dil ko  

Part of this is the magic of music. Part of it is the size of the monolith, the way in which Bollywood’s faces are recognisable by virtue of the power of repetition, its music the white noise of the nation. Part of it is the way in which popular culture reaches out to us at some level beneath the conscious, and defines who we are. Hindi cinema has been defining India for a long time. For instance, one of the most popular songs about the nation-state of India, ‘Mere desh ki dharti sona ugle, ugle heere moti’ considers the nation as a whole and valorises its farmers. The jingoism of the song from Manoj Kumar’s Upkar is reinforced by the presence of various Hindu metaphors including an anonymous man playing a flute, a temple with an Om sign painted on it, and the beginnings of the deification of Jawaharlal Nehru.  

This should not really surprise us. Popular culture is almost always patriarchal, mainstream, jingoistic, and paints in broad strokes with pre-approved colours. Since it is also almost always rich, it is conservative and has much invested in the status quo. But there have been many ways in which this has been challenged, and many ways in which Bollywood has challenged popular stereotypes in one way or another.  

This was probably because the early filmmakers often saw themselves as part of the Nehruvian project of nation-building. They sought his blessings and approval when they made films that had social significance. Gandhiji did not think much of cinema, so they couldn’t invoke him, although he has always been a significant and powerful icon, peering down from the walls of thousands of courtrooms and invoked in many debates, including the iconic clash between the thakur (Sanjeev Kumar) who wants to fight the dacoit’s fire with some mercenaries, and the villagers in Sholay.  

The patriarchs of the studio age, and even those of the 1950s, were sure of their position in the world. The masses were illiterate and in need of uplift; cinema was the medium that reached where no other could go, and it was therefore their duty to use celluloid to educate and to build one nation out of India’s disparate religious communities and castes. 

But that was the 1950s, when it did not surprise anyone that a Muslim, Kaifi Azmi, should write lines like these for Haqeeqat:

‘Tod do haath agar haath uthne lage
Chhoone paaye na Sita ka daaman koi
Raam bhi tum tumhin Lakshman, saathiyon
Ab tumhaare hawaale watan saathiyon.’ 

It is possible to track how much this spirit changed by looking at two songs, separated by a decade. In 1957, Sahir Ludhianvi wrote ‘Yeh desh hai veer jawaanon ka’ for Naya Daur, the predecessor of Upkar’s ‘Mere desh ki dharti’ by Gulshan Bawra. In the Naya Daur song, the camera stays with the villagers and the party of bhangra dancers. There are no overt references to any political figures, no religious references, not even in the shots. But then Naya Daur was not concerned with patriotism so much as it was concerned with the processes of modernity and how this might impact a village. It was a more inclusive world in which a horse-cart owner might defeat the horsepower of a bus. In its own way, it was mythopoetic but it seems now to be a gentler myth that was being constructed. 

Many of the Golden Age filmmakers were well-read men. Some like Mehboob Khan were illiterate, but that did not stop them from being cosmopolitan and well-informed. The presence of the progressive writers, the tarakkipasand Urdu poets and the Hindi modern novelists, often mediated their own baser and more commercial instincts.  

For instance, the combination of Raj Kapoor and Khwaja Ahmed Abbas produced some outstanding cinema through the 1950s and 1960s. When the Hindu Kapoor and the Muslim Abbas worked together, their films glued the punters to their seats while talking about issues like homelessness, poverty, child labour, and socialism. When they went their separate ways, Abbas became a demagogue and Kapoor began to turn out cinema that relied on wet women rather than burning issues.  

These men would have known that the young nation’s primary challenge was extinguishing the flames of Partition and starting the process of living together again. To this end, therefore, the Muslim figures in Hindi cinema were always presented in a kindly light. Rahim Chacha was the good guy in the basti in innumerable films. It is Abdul Rashid (Manmohan Krishna) who adopts the orphan and swears to bring it up as a human being (see box) in Dhool ka Phool. In Sholay, the imam (A K Hangal) does not regret the loss of his son (Sachin); instead he says it is time for his prayers and that he will now go and ask Allah why he was not given more sons to lose for the village.  

And while some of this may be imputed to a genuine desire to be inclusive, it was not always an honest impulse. Some part of it was pure commerce. The native Urdu speaker, the Muslim, was a natural part of the Hindi film audience and he could not be alienated. The native English speaker, on the other hand, could be mocked. Christians therefore turned up as morally degenerate figures; their women smoked and drank and were called ‘Lily’ and ‘Rosy’; the men gambled and were small-time hoods called ‘Robert’ and ‘Rocky’. Parsis too were fair game since, like the Christians, they largely preferred western cinema. Thus the prototype Parsi woman was the sex-starved and inquisitive Mrs Pestonji (Piloo Wadia) in Bobby; the prototype Parsi man was the effeminate and hysterical man into whose car Feroze Khan bumps in Qurbani.  

Tribal India? Basing oneself on Bollywood, one might assume that all of them are cannibals who worship totems, shout “hurrr-hurrr” and want to cook the heroine in a stew pot.  

Dalit India? Four films come to mind: Franz Osten’s Achhut Kanya, Bimal Roy’s Sujata in which Nutan plays a low-caste girl; Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan in which one of the players has the name ‘Kachra’. The third one, Souten, is the only film in which one of the characters has an actual hatred of the low caste. Rukmini (Tina Munim) has an almost visceral revulsion for the dalits played by Shriram Lagoo and Padmini Kolhapure. All these roles demand sympathy for the dalit characters, but that only four films come to mind in a cinema that has been around for more than a hundred years is indicative.  

In terms of the making of the nation, it was emphasised that unity was strength and this unity had to stretch beyond the religious. The symbolism was often crude. In Five Rifles, I S Johar’s bizarre film, a king of some Cloudcuckoostan has three images in glittering rhinestones that must be kept safe to ensure that the country is safe. One is Krishna playing his flute, the other is a cross, and the third is the name of Allah in Arabic. One might argue that Five Rifles was a C-grade film, but the crudeness extended across genres. Naseeb, for instance, had a multi-star cast led by Amitabh Bachchan, Hema Malini, Reena Roy, Rishi Kapoor and Shatrughan Sinha (in alphabetical order, as the posters said). For some reason, Amitabh goes by the name ‘John Jaani Janardhan’. In the middle of a song celebrating the golden jubilee of Dharam Veer, another Desai superhit, Bachchan sings a song to entertain the stars. In the course of it, someone asks him how he has three names:  

Extra: Ek aadmi ke teen naam kaise?
JJJ (sings): Yeh teenon naam hai mere…

He goes to a window and points.

JJJ: Allah…

Outside it, a mosque lights up.

JJJ: …Jesus

Outside the next window, a church lights up.

JJJ: …Ram hai mere…

Outside the third window, a temple lights up.  

This may explain what Shah Rukh Khan means when he says: “I have Allah and Om in my room. Karan (Johar) says it’s like a Hindi film,” (in Colas, Cars & Communal Harmony; A Doff to Bollywood's Secular Colours by Bharathi S Pradhan).  

But even if it was crude, it was valuable in a way that we did not notice. Not until it suddenly went away. In the 1990s, Bollywood went Hindu. The Hindu wedding became the focus of several films. The film title, always rendered in three languages (Roman, Devnagri and Urdu), was suddenly down to two scripts and no prizes for guessing which one was dropped. Gadar: Ek Prem Katha was released and went on to be a mega success, perhaps even the apotheosis of the anti-Muslim film.  

Because, a few years after that, the Muslim figure came back. This seemed a little surprising but then, once again, commercial arithmetic may have had something to do with it. The UK market is now a significant factor in the success or failure of a Hindi film. At a median price of eight pounds sterling for a new release, each Briton of Pakistani origin or of Indian Muslim origin who hears that a film has unflattering representations of his community is a valuable commodity.  

In some senses, this does not matter.  

In the world of the imagination, there are many things that play out differently from the way things happen in the streets. This means that the man who weeps at ‘Arre ruk jaa re bandhe’ may still go out with a mob, a mashaal in his hand. But the only way to defend the inclusive, the only way to support the notion of a plural State, is to repeat it again and again. To say that there is no other way. To say that we have to learn to live together. To say that when the blood flows, you cannot tell by its colour where it came from. That the earth has no religion. That man is born into humanity and not into a religion. That the rainbow is made of many more colours than we can imagine.  

When this becomes part of the popular imagination, when we are ashamed of how we ‘other’ each other on the basis of what we eat and what we worship, when we can segregate the fanatic and the sectarian, one is fairly sure that social scientists of every stripe will be forced to look at the role popular culture had to play in how this consensus developed. 

‘Tu Hindu banega na Mussalmaan banega’ 

One of the most famous songs ever written for a Hindi film celebrating pluralism is this one by Sahir Ludhianvi, from Dhool ka Phool: 

Tu Hindu banega na Mussalmaan banega
Insaan ki aulad hai insaan banega        

Achcha hai abhi tak tera kuchh naam nahin hai
Tujhko kisi mazhab se koi kaam nahin hai
Jis ilm ne insaan ko taqseem kiya hai
Us ilm ke tujh par koi ilzaam nahin hai
Tu badle huey waqt ki pehchaan banega
Insaan ki aulad hai insaan banega 

Malik ne har insaan ko insaan banaaya
Humne use Hindu ya Mussalmaan banaaya
Kudrat ne to bakshi thi hamein ek hi dharti
Hum ne kahin Bharat kahin Iran banaaya
Jo tod de har bandh woh toofan banega
Insaan ki aulad hai insaan banega 

Nafrat jo sikhaaye woh dharam tera nahin hai
Insaan ko jo raunde woh kadam tera nahin hai
Koran na ho jis mein woh mandir nahin tera
Geeta na ho jis mein woh dharam tera nahin hai
Tu aman aur sulaha ka armaan banega
Insaan ki aulad hai insaan banega 

Yeh deen ke taajar, yeh watan bechnewaale
Insaanon ki laashon ke kafan bechnewaale
Yeh mahalon mein baithe huey qaatil ye lootere
Kaanton ke wajrooh-e chaman bechnewaale
Tu inke liye maut ka elaan banega
Insaan ki aulad hai insaan banega 

Tu Hindu banega na Mussalmaan banega 
Insaan ki aulad hai insaan banega 

The tendency to preach is much more marked in ‘Mere desh premiyon, aapas mein prem karo’ from Desh Premee, Manmohan Desai’s 1982 flop. It is interesting to note that the women respond first to this cry for national unity, although its major rationale is that the enemy from beyond the borders will take over if we are not united.  

Nafrat ki laathi todo
Laalach ka khanjar phenko
Zid ke peechhe mat daudo
Tum prem ke panchhi ho desh premiyon
Aapas mein prem karo, desh premiyon…  

Meethe paani mein ye zeher na tum gholo
Jab bhi, kuch bolo, ye sochke tum bolo
Bhar jaata hai gehra ghaav, jo banta hai goli se
Par woh ghaav nahi bharta, jo bana ho kadvi boli se
To meethe bol kaho, mere desh premiyon… 

Dekho, yeh dharti, hum sab ki maata hai
Socho, aapas mein, kya apna naata hai
Hum aapas mein ladh baithe to desh ko kaun sambhaalega
Koi baaharwaala apne ghar se hamein nikaalega
Deewanon hosh karo, mere desh premiyon…

Todo, deewaarein, yeh chaar dishaaon ki
Roko mat, raahen, in mast havaaon ki
Poorab pachchim uttar dakshin vaalon mera matalab hai
Is maati se poochho kya bhaashha kya isaka mazhab hai
Phir mujhse baat karo, mere desh premiyon…   

‘Yeh kiska lahu hai kaun mara?’ 

Dharti ki sulagti chhaati ke bechain sharaare poochhte hain…
Yeh kiska lahoo hai, kaun maraa
Ai rahabar mulq-o-qaum bataa
Yeh kiskaa lahoo hai, kaun maraa 

Yeh jalte huey ghar kiske hain
Yeh kat-te huey tan kiske hain
Taqseem ke andhe toofaan mein
Lut-te huey gulshan kiske hain
Badbaqt kizaayein kiski hain
Barbaad nasheman kiske hain
Kuchh hum bhi sunein humko bhi suna
Ai rahabar mulq-o-qaum bataa
Yeh kiska lahoo hai, kaun maraa  

Kis kaam ke hain ye deen-dharam
Jo sharm ka daaman chaak karein
Kis tarah ke hain ye desh bhakt
Jo baste gharon ko khaak karein
Yeh roohein kaisi roohein hain
Jo dharti ko naapaak karein
Aankhen to uthaa nazarein to milaa
Ai rahabar mulq-o-qaum bataa
Yeh kiska lahoo hai, kaun maraa  

Jis Raam ke naam pe khoon bahe
Us Raam ki izzat kya hogi
Jis deen ke haathon laaj lutey
Us deen ki qeemat kya hogi
Insaan ki is zillat se pare
Shaitaan ki zillat kya hogi
Yeh ved hataa quraan uthaa
Ai rahabar mulq-o-qaum bataa
Yeh kiska lahoo hai, kaun maraa  

‘Arre ruk jaa re bandhe’ 

The Indian Ocean song, which was used to great effect in Black Friday has a similar message:  

Arre ruk jaa re bande
Arre tham ja re bande
Ki kudrat hans padegi 
Arre mandir yeh chup hai
Arre masjid yeh gumsum
Ibaadat thak padegi ho… 

Samay ki laal aandhi
Kabristaan ke raste
Arre lathpath chalegi 

Kisse kaafir kahega
Kisse kaayar kahega
Teri kab tak chalegi ho… 

Arre ruk ja re bande
Arre tham ja re bande
Ki kudrat hans padegi ho… 

Arre mandir yeh chup hai
Arre masjid yeh gumsum
Ibaadat thak padegi ho…

Samay ki laal aandhi
Kabristaan ke raste
Arre latpat chalegi ho…

Arre ruk ja re bande
Arre tham ja re bande
Ki kudrat hans padegi ho… 

Arre neendein hai jakhami
Arre sapne hai bhooke
Ki karvat phat padegi ho… 

‘Yeh tara, woh tara, har tara’

The song from Swades makes the oldest argument in the book, and one that probably still works for most people: in unity is strength. It may also be the first time that a rainbow coalition has been suggested in Bollywood.  

Yeh tara woh tara har tara
Dekho jise bhi lage pyaara
Yeh tara woh tara har tara
Yeh sab saath mein, jo hain raat mein
To jagmagaae aasmaan saara
Jagmag taare, do taare, nau taare, sau taare, jagmag saare
Har taaraa hai sharaaraa 

Tumne dekhi hai dhanak to
Bolo rang kitane hain
Saat rang kehene ko
Phir bhi sang kitne hain
Samjho sabse pehle to
Rang hote akele to
Indradhanush banta hi nahin
Ek na hum ho paaye to
Anyaay se ladne ko
Hogi koi jantaa hi nahin
Phir na kehna nirbal hai, kyon hara
Hmm taaraa taaara 

Yeh tara woh tara har tara
Dekho jise bhi lage pyaara
Yeh sab saath mein, jo hain raat mein
To jagmagaae aasmaan saara
Jagmag taare, do taare, nau taare, sau taare, jagmag saare
Har taaraa hai sharaaraa 

Boond-boond milne se banta ek dariya hai
Boond-boond saagar hai varna ye saagar kya hai
Samjho is paheli ko, boond ho akeli to
Ek boond jaise kuchh bhi nahin
Hum auron ko chhodein to, moonh sabse hi modein to
Tanhaa reh na jaayein dekho ham kahin
Kyon na milke banein hum dhaaraa
Hmm taaraa taaraa 

Yeh tara woh tara har tara
Dekho jise bhi lage pyaara
Yeh tara woh tara har tara
Yeh sab saath mein, jo hain raat mein
To jagmagaae aasmaan saara
Jagmag taare, do taare, nau taare, sau taare, jagmag saare
Har taaraa hai sharaaraa 

Jo kisaan hal sambhaale
Dharti sona hi ugaaye
Jo gawala gaiyaan paale
Doodh ki nadi bahaaye
Jo lohar loha dhaale
Har auzaar dhal jaaye
Mitthi jo kumhaar uthaa le
Mitthi pyala ban jaaye
Sab ye roop hain mehnat ke
Kuchh karne ki chaahat ke 

Kisi ka kisise koi bair nahin
Sab ke ek hi sapne hain
Socho to sab apne hain
Koi bhi kisi se yahaan gair nahin
Seedhi baat hai samjho yaaraa
Hmm taaraa taaraa 

Films noted

A Wednesday, Neeraj Pandey, 2008
Sholay, Ramesh Sippy, 1975
Upkar, Manoj Kumar, 1967
Desh Premee, Manmohan Desai, 1982
Naya Daur, B R Chopra, 1957
Dhool ka Phool, Yash Chopra, 1959
Five Rifles, I S Johar, 1974
Lagaan: Once Upon a time in India, Ashutosh Gowariker, 2001
Souten, Saawan Kumar Tak, 1983
Achhut Kanya, Franz Osten, 1936
Swades, Ashutosh Gowariker, 2004
Gadar: Ek Prem Katha, Anil Sharma, 2001
Bobby, Raj Kapoor, 1973
Qurbani, Feroze Khan, 1980
Yaadon ki Baaraat, Nasir Hussain, 1973
Haqeeqat, Chetan Anand, 1964
Black Friday, Anurag Kashyap, 2004
Naseeb, Manmohan Desai, 1981  

(Jerry Pinto is a writer and freelance journalist based in Mumbai)

Infochange News & Features, August 2009