Muslimness in Hindi cinema


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I saw this scene many times when I was a kid. In some darkened movie theatre, my hand smelling of stale potato chips, Paradise or Roxy in Calcutta or Regal in Ahmedabad, Dharmendra reaching out to Asha Parekh, Rajendra Kumar in Palki reaching out to Saira Banu, tears glycerining from eyes...

…In the cinema, the girl would snatch away her arm, turn and sprint, shaking with her grief. Or the wronged man would turn away and, voice traffic jamming with emotion, bravely grit out, ‘Aapki... aapki suhaag ki zindagi… aapko… aapkomubarakhobegum,’ before walking away, never running, always walking away quickly. As the music rose I would feel Minakshibehn begin convulsing next to me...

Ruchir Joshi1

CONSIDER Palki (Dir. Mahesh Kaul and S.U. Sunny, 1967), as the film begins. The year is 1967, two years after the war with Pakistan. The man singing poetry into the mic wears a black achkan, an article of clothing associated with the students of Aligarh Muslim University, who spearheaded the Pakistan movement in the 1940s. The man’s name is Rajender Kumar. He is a Punjabi Hindu born in Sialkot, Punjab (now in Pakistan), and made his debut in the Bombay film industry in 1950, three years after Partition and Independence. He is known as ‘Jubilee’ Kumar, for there have been times in the fifties and sixties when six or seven of his movies were running simultaneously, each of them doing over twenty five weeks of solid collections at the box office all over India. The phenomenon of Jubilee Kumar is linked to his playing tragic characters, often poets, in films known as ‘Muslim Socials’ – films in which the speech, dress, mannerisms and milieu of the principal characters are all ‘Muslim’.

We saw him just now singing a ghazal in Urdu, surrounded by other poets dressed in 18th century Lucknowi attire, all of which metonymically evoke what we can now only recognize as ‘Muslimness’ – as a brief prelude to a monumental cityscape that viewers of Hindi cinema in the ’50s and ’60s would have found very familiar. As the camera pans over and tracks through ornate but crumbling gateways and mosques built in the 18th century, Jubilee Kumar sings praises of the city of Lucknow, the capital of Avadh, the glorious successor state to the Mughal Empire, and compares it to heaven on earth, in the present tense –

Ae shehr e Lucknow tujhko mera salaam hai/Tera hi naam doosra jannat ka naam hai.

(O city of Lucknow, I salute you /Your name is the other name for heaven).

As the credits roll over this paean to Lucknow, a heaven which looks distinctly worn and shabby, one doesn’t see exclusively Lucknowi or Muslim names, but rather the astonishing diversity of the Bombay film industry – a Punjabi leading man, a lead actress from Hyderabad, Goan-Christian assistants, a Kashmiri Pandit co-director, a Marwari financier, a Parsi principal photographer. Why did this genuinely multicultural industry, located in a city with a very different ethos and histories, make so many movies like this one – celebrating the idealized life of the Muslim community and the culture of a city far away, not just in space, but also, it would seem, in time (but still, as the microphone and cars indicate, somewhat anachronistically present)? Why did ‘Urdu, Avadh (which is to say Lucknow) and the Tawaif’ become ‘the spiritual home of Indian cinema’?2

‘Urdu, Avadh and the Tawaif: The Islamicate Roots of Indian Cinema’ is the title of Mukul Kesavan’s essay which seeks to explain and understand the ‘Muslimness’ of Hindi cinema, in terms of both linguistic and cultural registers, which seems paradoxical given both the minority status of Muslims in independent India, and the secular but increasingly Hinduized and Sanskritized language of government and the official ‘public’ sphere. Kesavan dwells on the history of early cinema and its genealogical links to Parsi/Urdu theatre, and on the affective registers possible in Urdu (with its Arabo-Persian inheritance) and not in ‘purified’ Hindi – but the essay is brief and speculative, and not much attention has been paid since to the intriguing problem of the dominant form of mass entertainment being steeped in ‘Muslimness’ in a country where the norm for ‘secular’ public life has become increasingly Hindu.3


This is especially paradoxical because in most analyses, the Bombay film industry is considered to be centrally preoccupied with addressing the nation; its films are seen as a pre-eminently national form. A standard move is to understand the ‘Muslimness’ of these films in terms of the secular national – the secular credentials of the nation were displayed in the sympathetic portrayal of a minority in the national form; and the erosion of secular ideals in national politics has been mirrored in the marginalization and demonization of Muslims in cinema in recent years.4 But I believe that if we look at the Hindi film industry of the 1950s and look not just at the ‘film as text’, but also at the people writing, directing and acting in films, and the larger networks they belonged to (especially the Progressive Writers’ Association or PWA), a completely different argument could be made. I believe that the ‘Muslimness’ of Hindi cinema stood as a set of complex markers of opposition and ambiguity towards the project of fashioning the new national self being pursued by the explicitly modern post-colonial nation state. Muslimness articulated an alternative way of being, and being Indian, embraced by a populace (irrespective of religion) still uneasy with the modern national selves they were supposed to be(come).


What was this modern national self they were supposed to become? A clue might be found in the pedagogical Films Division documentaries, which by law had to play before every feature film shown in every theatre in the country from 1948 onwards.5 These films excavated and presented national culture, informed the audience how to be better citizens, but most of all, how to celebrate and revel in modernity as ushered in by the big dams, the planned cities, the steel mills of the centralized, developmentalist nation state.6 Roy asserts, following Sankaran Krishna, that the logic of many of these films was one of ‘deference’, where national identity was a ‘becoming’ rather than ‘being’: a future oriented, teleological process.7 But as he pertinently observes, the experience of watching these films was characterized (even by those responsible for producing them) by boredom, disenchantment and non-resonance.8 People would walk out of the hall when such films, say about big dams, modern cities and fertilizers, came on.9


And yet they would be back, gazing with rapt attention, when a man in a black achkan, marked by ‘Muslimness’ came on, singing paeans to a crumbling city; whereas less than one per cent of the 1,742 documentaries produced in the first twenty two years of the Films Division had ‘anything to do with the presence of Muslims in India.’10 How do we begin to understand this strange dialectic unfolding in the darkened cinema halls of 1950s and 1960s India? To try and answer this question I will spend the rest of this essay dwelling mostly, but not exclusively, on Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (Dir. Guru Dutt, 1957). I should note here that the film critic Iqbal Masud considers Guru Dutt as a film-maker and Pyaasa as a film to be highly representative of the what he calls the ‘Muslim ethos’ of Indian cinema.11


On the 6th of December, 1955, the progressive poet Asral-ul Haq ‘Majaz’ of Lucknow drank himself to death in Balrampur. Majaz’s death directly impacted the making of Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (The Thirsty), released in 1957 and considered to be one of the greatest Hindi films of all times. This is not generally acknowledged in film studies. Jyotika Virdi, for example, considers the poet Vijay, the film’s main protagonist as a ‘recreation of the legendary, destructive Devdas figure’ from early 20th century Bengali literature.12 But given that the lyrics for the film were written by Abdul Hayee ‘Saahir’ of Ludhiana, one of the leading progressive poets and a good friend of Majaz (they came to Bombay together to try their hands at writing for Hindi films13), given that the film was released less than two years after the poet’s death, and that film’s protagonist is a poet whose popularity soars after his tragic death, the oversight is almost unforgivable.

By the progressive poets I refer, of course, to those who were members of, or affiliated to the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA), formed in 1936 in Lucknow, with a broad anti-imperialist and left-leaning agenda. Most of the major Urdu writers of the day were part of the PWA, which became ‘the hegemonic ideological force with electrifying speed after its inception in 1936, to such an extent that it defined the broad social agenda and cultural consensus among the generality of Urdu writers for a whole generation.’14 As the Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema tells us, ‘The PWA’s influence on film was both formal, signifying a populist vanguardism for the commercial industry, and economic, giving virtually all the progressive Hindi-Urdu writers employment as scenarists and lyricists in Bombay.’15


Pyaasa is set in the Calcutta of the early 1950s. Vijay, the poet who is the main protagonist of the film, is a Hindu writer of progressive Urdu poetry, a fact which is seen as unremarkable in the film. Given the nature of his poetry, as shown in the film (including a poem published by Saahir before its modified incorporation into the film), it would seem that to be a progressive Urdu poet (the fictional poet on the screen, and the actual poet writing for Bombay film) was actually to be deeply ambivalent about progress and modernity. Work on the progressives and their literary output, such as Aamir Mufti’s has, of course, problematized this notion of a ‘hegemonic ideological force’. Following Mufti’s work on another progressive writer (who also had a brief career as a scriptwriter for Bombay films), Sa’adat Hasan ‘Manto’,16 I want to move away from hegemonic ideology to an idea closer to a unity of affect.

I believe that the progressive writers, and those associated with them, many from elite North Indian Muslim backgrounds, wrote songs and screenplays for post-independence Hindi films pitched not in a register of celebration for the teleological ‘progressive’ move into the brand new future of newly independent India, but in registers of melancholia, despair, and disappointment; registers of critique which found a large popular audience.17 Why was this the case? I argue that this was because along with their progressive, anti-colonial politics, the Urdu progressive writers were conscious inheritors of the culture of the pre-modern elites of North India, an inheritance usually summed up by the term, ‘sharafat’.


Work on the politics of language, of Hindi versus Urdu, shows how the linguistic and affective registers of this elite culture, over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in the long aftermath of the rebellion of 1857, became marked by ‘feudal decadence’ and identified largely with Muslims.18 Thus ‘Muslimness’, as Aamir Mufti writes, has an ‘ability to metonymically stand in for the culture of the pre-modern elites of North India… The ambivalent articulation of "Muslim" and "bourgeois" that characterizes the Indian modern; [is] an ambivalence that is typically misrecognized in secular nationalism as the sign simply of a lag in development.’19

The beginning, the ‘forward’ looking progressive movement is also, simultaneously, an ambivalent, backward gazing one. Among its founders was Ahmed Ali, whose first novel (and cause for rift with the PWA) Twilight in Delhi20 is a lament for a culture lost, and a city transformed, if not utterly destroyed, by ‘modernity’, as it visited Delhi in the form of British retaliation to crush the rebellion of 1857. The uneasy and incomplete transformation of ‘sharafat’ to modern bourgeois respectability that Mufti writes about was undertaken in the shadow of 1857 and its traumas. To be ‘anti-colonial’ did not mean just to look ahead to a post-colonial modernity, but also to be aware of ‘an inheritance of loss’, the affective force of which was probably instrumental in making one anti-colonial to begin with.


Following Mufti, I would argue that we see this ambivalence not just in the ‘exceptions’ among the progressive Urdu writers (Ahmad Ali, the prodigal father’ as it were; Manto, who was virtually excommunicated; or Majaz, ‘the Keats born to Urdu but snatched away by revolutionary wolves’21); but even those who were in the mainstream, as mainstream as you could get; in those writing for Hindi films, like Saahir.

This would explain why Lucknow became the ‘spiritual home of Hindi Cinema’, of an industry based in Bombay. Lucknow was the epitome of sharafat, for Lucknow was a city in which the adab (etiquette) and tehzeeb (culture) had survived, if barely, the brutal assaults of the British in 1857 and 1858.22 Lucknow was also the one major urban centre of Indo-Muslim culture that did not see riots during Partition in 1947, and was saved the devastation which was visited upon other centres of this culture like Delhi and Lahore.


To invoke Lucknow was to metonymically play not just on a sharafat that survived, but also to invoke a haunting, a culture, a way of being, that has already been lost, and which could never be recovered. We see this in the opening credits of Guru Dutt/ M. Sadiq’s Chaudhvin ka Chand (Dir. M. Sadiq, 1960), a Muslim social set in a seemingly timeless Lucknow. The opening credits show us image after image of the glorious architecture of Lucknow. Along with the images is sung a paean to the glories of Lucknow, in the present tense; the famous ‘Yeh Lucknow ki sarzameen’.

Shabaab-o-sher ka yeh ghar

This home of youth and poetry

Yeh ahl-e ilm ka nagar

This home of the people of wisdom

Hai manzilon ki god mein

Ever road here runs through

Yahaan har ek rahguzar

The lap of high mansions

Yeh shahar laladar hai

This town is full of blossoms

Yahaan dilon mein pyaar hai

Here hearts are full of love

Jidhar nazar uthaaiye

Wherever you raise your gaze

Bahaar hi bahaar hai

It is always spring

But the visuals of the monuments are completely desolate and echoingly empty. In many of the shots, a solitary figure in a black burka traverses the frame, heightening the sense of emptiness, and rendering the present tense of the cheerful introductory song bitterly ironic. This emptiness of Indo-Islamic monuments and its depiction of an irrecoverable loss often frames stories in Hindi cinema, or intervenes in complicated ways. We see this as recently as in Rang de Basanti (Dir. Rakesh Omprakash Mehra, 2006), where the ruins are of central importance. First, as a hangout for the young men and women who are completely unable to connect with even the recent past; and finally as the site of the aftermath of sacrifice, of a possible world lost, an empty isolated site of haunting.


There are no ruins in Pyaasa; just human wreckage. Vijay is a poet rejected by the old-fashioned Urdu literary world for being too radical, and by bourgeois society for being a ne’er do well. His own brothers sell his poetry as scrap paper, and Gulabo, a cultured prostitute, buys it from the scrap dealer. Gulabo falls in love with Vijay whereas his college sweetheart deserts him to marry the publisher, Ghosh. Gulabo, along with Abdul Sattar the masseur, are the only two people who befriend Vijay selflessly and recognize his genius. Both Muslim subalterns with lives lived out on the streets; both much more lively, animated and affectionately drawn than the stuffy, dishonest modern upper classes that are scathingly portrayed in the film. It is not incidental, I believe, that the film is based in Calcutta, a city where the court of Wajid Ali Shah and its thousands of dependents were exiled; an experience and diaspora which still permeates the life of the city, most notably in its street cuisine.

Jinhein naaz hai Hind par woh kahaan hain?’ asks Vijay in an iconic song from Pyaasa, as he drunkenly wanders through the red light district. Where are those who are proud of India? This song has a telling history. Saahir had already published the poem (Chakle/Brothels); the song is based on his collection Talkhiyaan (Bitterness), before he was hired to write the songs for Pyaasa. When the poem was brought to Guru Dutt’s notice by his assistant, he said, ‘Raj! This is it! This is Pyaasa!’23 The song as it appears in the film is a slight but significant modification of the poem. The earlier refrain of the poem was ‘Sanakhwan-e tasdeeq-e mashriq kahaan hain?’ Where are those who extol the holiness of the East? The story goes that Nehru had given a speech in which he had remarked, ‘I am proud of India.’ Guru Dutt asked Saahir to work this line into the refrain of the song.24 After his drunken ramble through the red light district while singing this song, Vijay, disgusted by the hypocrisy and disappointed by the realities of the new nation state of India, leaves his poetry with Gulabo, and gives his coat to a beggar, who gets killed under a train, thus making everyone think that Vijay himself has died. Gulabo sells her jewellery to get his poetry published, to huge critical acclaim and popular success, which had eluded Vijay in his lifetime.


But Vijay isn’t dead, and he returns to a public function marking one year of his death anniversary, and sings the iconically nihilist, Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya hai? (So what if this world is gained?) The progressive writer in modern dress we see in the beginning of the film, we now see in traditional dress, a Christ-like figure resurrected, asking a question not just to the nation but to modernity itself, and then rejecting it, ‘Tumhari hai tum hi sambhalo yeh duniya’ (It’s your world and you take care of it). Ghosh the publisher, and all those who profited from Vijay’s poetry, all those who rejected him in his lifetime, do not want him to be recognized, so they put out the lights in the auditorium throwing the crowd into pandemonium. This led to a stampede from which the Maulana, the old-fashioned Muslim publisher who had rejected his poetry at the beginning of the film, saves Vijay. In the melee, Gulabo is kicked in the stomach, implying an end to her fertility, and hence her claims to a future in the new nation state.


At the end of this film, released ten years after Partition, these are the three figures who have stood by the progressive poet. Abdul Sattar, the masseur or champi wallah; Gulabo the prostitute-tawaif; and the old publisher, Maulana Saheb. What does it mean when the three most sympathetic figures in the film are all marked as ‘Muslim’? Are they merely representatives of their community, which it is imperative to portray sympathetically in the new secular nation state, trying to forget histories of Partition violence? Or is their ‘Muslimness’ a sign of something else, images and markers of another way of being, not quite comfortable with the dispensation and demands of modern nationalism as shown in the Films Division documentaries, where there are no Muslims at all?

That this other way of being, this other sense of self is perhaps what the ‘Muslimness’ of the characters hearkens to, the signs of ‘an ambivalence that is typically misrecognized in secular nationalism as the sign simply of a lag in development’, is perhaps best illustrated by what happens to the figure of the Muslim from the late 1980s onwards in a rapidly liberalizing India.25 The ‘Muslim Social’ virtually disappears, ‘The Muslim’ becomes criminalized and equated with terror, and becomes marginal to films about the globalized, yet comfortably Hindu nationalist elite which has come to dominate Indian cinema in the past two decades and whose spiritual home lies not in Lucknow, but somewhere on a Trans-Atlantic flight between New York and London.26


Now, more than ever before, we need to think of and recover the ‘Muslimness’ of Indian cinema as a sign of ambivalence rather than lag, not just looking backwards at a more ‘enchanted’ past, but as a sign of struggle within the self which continues in the present and looks towards an uncertain future. After all, Vijay and Gulabo, their relationship unnamed, their destination unknown, walk away not into the sunset, but into the uncertain light of a coming dawn.



1. Ruchir Joshi, The Last Jet Engine Laugh, Flamingo, London, 2001.

2. Mukul Kesavan, ‘Urdu, Avadh and the Tawaif: The Islamicate Roots of Hindi Cinema’, in Zoya Hasan (ed.), Forging Identities: Gender, Communities and the State, Kali for Women, Delhi, 1994.

3. A notable exception being Bhaumik. See Kaushik Bhaumik, The Emergence of the Bombay Film Industry: 1913-1936, DPhil Thesis, St Anthony’s College, University of Oxford, 2001.

4. For example, see Fareed Kazmi, The Politics of India’s Conventional Cinema: Imaging a Universe, Subverting a Multiverse, Sage Publications, Delhi, 1999.

5. Srirupa Roy, Beyond Belief: India and the Politics of Postcolonial Nationalism, Duke University Press, Durham, 2007, p. 39.

6. Ibid., p. 43.

7. Ibid., p. 38.

8. Ibid., p. 33.

9. Conversation with Partha Chatterjee, December 2008.

10. Srirupa Roy, op cit., p. 53.

11. Iqbal Masud, ‘Muslim Ethos in Indian Cinema’, Screen, 4 March 2005. Available at content_id=9980 on 29 December 2008.

12. Jyotika Virdi, The Cinematic Imagination: Indian Popular Films as Social History, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 2003, p. 131.

13. Nasreen Munni Kabir, Guru Dutt: A Life in Cinema, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1996, p.82.

14. Aijaz Ahmad, ‘In the Mirror of Urdu: Recompositions of Nation and Community, 1947-1965’, in Lineages of The Present: Ideology and Politics in Contemporary South Asia, Verso, London, 2000.

15. Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen, Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1999, p. 180.

16. Aamir Mufti, ‘A Greater Story-Writer Than God: Genre, Gender, and Minority in Late Colonial India’, in Partha Chatterjee and Pradeep Jeganathan (eds.), Subaltern Studies XI: Community, Gender, and Violence, Columbia University Press, New York, 2000.

17. For the progressive poets’ ambivalent relation with modernity, the nation state, and their participation in the Hindi film industry, see Ali Husain Mir and Raza Mir, Anthems of Resistance: A Celebration of Progressive Urdu Poetry, India Ink, Delhi, 2006, chapters 3, 4, 5 and 6.

18. Alok Rai, Hindi Nationalism, Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 2001.

19. Aamir Mufti, op cit., p. 27.

20. Ahmed Ali, Twilight in Delhi, Hogarth Press, London, 1940.

21. Prakash Pandit quotes this in his biographical sketch of Majaz in a Hindi collection of Majaz’s poetry. Prakash Pandit, Majaz: Jeevani aur Sankalan, Rajpal, Delhi, 1995.

22. For the brutal assaults on, and the survival of Lucknowi culture, see Veena Talwar Oldenburg, The Making of Colonial Lucknow: 1856-1877, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1984; and Veena Oldenburg, ‘Lifestyle as Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow, India’, Feminist Studies 16(2), 1990.

23. Nasreen Munni Kabir, op cit., p. 83.

24. Mir and Mir, op cit., p. 122.

25. Though there are crucial moments of transition in the portrayal of Muslims such as Tezaab (N. Chandra, 1988) or Sanam Bewafa (Saawan Kumar Tak, 1991), the films that are seen as watershed moments which shift the paradigm for the portrayal of Muslims, and of the nation state’s ideal citizens are Mani Ratnam’s Roja (1992) and Bombay (1995); both of which were originally made in Tamil, and dubbed and released in Hindi, and other languages. See Nicholas B. Dirks, ‘The Home and the Nation: Consuming Culture and Politics in Roja’, in Rachel Dwyer and Christopher Pinney (eds.), Pleasure and the Nation: The History, Politics and Consumption of Popular Culture in India. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2003 and Ravi Vasudevan, ‘Bombay and its Public’, in Rachel Dwyer and Christopher Pinney (eds.), ibid.

26. In placing the ‘selfhood’ projected in the new Hindi movies on a transatlantic flight, I am exaggerating an argument made by Ranjani Mazumdar of the removal of the street from a certain kind of global-aspirational Hindi film and its placement entirely within a globalized ‘Panoramic Interior’. See Ranjani Mazumdar, Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2007.