Bollywood’s Muslim Heroines: Of Love and Hate

I have been wanting to write about this for a looooong time. As a South Asian who grew up in Canada, Hindi films (aka Bollywood films) were always a way to stay connected to the my South Asian heritage. However, I have always known this to be a problematic connection, for a number of reasons: 1) I was born in Canada so have never actually lived in South Asia, making the connection distant and the culture often irrelevant to my own realities, 2) I’m Pakistani, not Indian (the cultures are very similar but not the same – again, a little irrelevancy here) and 3) I’m Muslim and the majority of characters in Hindi films are Hindu, despite the large number of Muslims in not only India, but also the Hindi film industry. It is this last point which leads me to ask the question: What happened to the Muslim heroine in Hindi films?

The influence and presence of Muslims in Hindi films is indisputable. From the use of Urdu dialogues and lyrics written by Muslim writers and lyricists, to Muslim music directors, directors, producers, and of course male and female actors, Muslims have always been a part of the industry. There was a time, a while ago, when one would see strong Muslim women characters in Hindi films. Over the decades, this particular character has changed. In the black and white days of the ’50s, when a great number of the top Hindi film actresses were Muslim, the Muslim heroine could be seen every now and then. In fact, some of the greatest hits of the decade revolved around Muslims characters but whose Muslim-ness was just a feature of their character as opposed to central to the storyline. Apart from the typical reciting of Urdu poetry, the main characters were simply main characters who just happened to be Muslim, including the heroine.

For analyses of the role of Muslims in Hindi films throughout Hindi film history see here, and here.

So where is the Muslim heroine today? From what I’ve seen, things don’t look so good for the Muslim heroine in Hindi films. Despite Muslims being the largest religious minority group in India and having a large presence in the Hindi film industry, strong Muslim characters are rarely seen. And when they are seen, they seem to fit into certain roles.

It seems that in the past 10 or so years, it has been difficult to find a film in which the Muslim aspect of a main character’s identity was simply just an aspect of their identity, as was the colour of their hair. Hindi films in which the central characters (i.e., hero and/or heroine) are Muslim maintain Muslim-ness as central to the storyline and the storyline is usually somehow political – either in severe (terrorism) or romantic (inter-religious love) ways, or both.

Terrorism and turmoil

Image via Movie
Image via Movie

Films such as Fiza, Fanaa, and Mission Kashmir depict Muslims within the backdrop of violence. Real original.* Fiza is the story of a young Muslim woman who, after her brother leaves home to join a rebel group, searches the country to bring him back. Fanaa is a love story of two Muslims – the hero a terrorist from Kashmir and the heroine a blind girl. The two fall in love, her unaware of his violent intentions toward his country. Mission Kashmir tells the story of a young Kashmiri Muslim man, who after losing his family as a child, joins a local rebel force to help him find and exact revenge on those who killed his family. The heroine, also a Kashmiri Muslim, is his childhood friend.

In all three the films the heroine, a Muslim woman is, as Amit Rai describes in his article, the force which reigns in the wayward and destructive Muslim male. In his analysis, Rai speaks of the Muslim heroines of two films – Mission Kashmir and Fiza. In the film Mission Kashmir, she plays the educated and modern journalist who “functions as a foil for Altaaf’s [male protagonist] extremism. She provides him with a non-traumatic mooring to his past and, through their romance, to another future.” Similarly, in the film Fiza, the main female character, Fiza, searches for her brother who has left home to join Muslim militants, in hopes of reforming him and bringing him home. I would add to Rai’s analysis the film Fanaa. In Fanaa, Zooni, the heroine, is a calm, sweet, and innocent young woman who helps the hero understand and appreciate love even among the world of hate he inhabits. She tempts him away from the life of violence he has embraced. And all this without knowing about this part of his life.

However, in these films the heroine is not only the reigning force, but she is also the patriotic in contrast to her unpatriotic male counterpart. In Fanaa, Zooni demonstrates a love for her country (as depicted so aptly in the song Des Rangila in which Zooni sings the praises of India). In Mission Kashmir, Sufiya, the heroine, plays a journalist. She does not desire to destroy the nation but rather to serve and educate it. Finally, even in Fiza, Fiza demonstrates her patriotism when she is challenged by a Hindu politician about her sympathies with Pakistan, an assumption he bases simply on her Muslim identity. She retorts by saying that those Muslims who wanted to go to Pakistan went in 1947. Those who remained are Indians. Thus, she establishes not only her own loyalty to India, but also addresses a common suspicion among right-wing Hindus in India that the loyalties of India’s Muslims lie with Pakistan, and not their own country.

Of these three films, the character of Fiza is unusual in Hindi films as she is the rarely seen independent Muslim woman whose Muslim identity does become central as a result of the plot of the film, but who nonetheless remains devoid of the stereotypes of Muslim women. The strength of the character may in large part be due to the fact that the director and writer of the film was Khalid Muhammad, noted Indian film critic and a Muslim himself. Another one of his films, Zubeidaa, based on the life of his own mother, had a strong Muslim female character whose Muslim identity rarely played a role in the storyline and who did not fit neatly into a stereotype. This phenomenon seems unique to Muhammad’s films. (See also Mammo and Sardari Begum.)

Inter-religious Love

Image via Planet Bollywood.
Image via Planet Bollywood

Forbidden love between a Hindu/Sikh and Muslim pops up on the Hindi film screen occasionally, and more likely than not the heroine is the Muslim. Films such as Veer-Zaara and Gadar depict this struggle. In Veer-Zaara, not only is the heroine, Zaara, Muslim but also Pakistani. She falls in love with Veer, an Indian Hindu only to end up being separated from him for years. However, unlike Veer-Zaara, the anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan sentiment in Gadar is clear and obvious as Hindus are presented as the poor victims of blood-thirsty and ruthless Muslims. This film was so anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan that a Sikh friend of mine told me even she and her mother were offended by it. The Muslim heroine, Sakina, meets the Sikh hero of the film, Tara Singh, when he rescues her from a Sikh mob who is out for her blood. (Their anger at her is depicted as a revenge killing for Muslim aggression toward them.)

Salvation of the heroine by the hero is common in Hindi films. The “damsel in distress” narrative is as common in Hindi films as it is in Disney cartoons. However, when the heroine is a Muslim, this narrative takes on whole other tone and sends a very different message. In Veer-Zaara, the hero and heroine meet in this manner. During her visit to India, her bus overturns and it is the Indian soldier, Veer, who saves her. In both films, the Muslim heroine is indebted to the Hindu/Sikh hero for saving her life. One cannot help but wonder these films are trying to create a mentality of gratitude among Muslims, thus maintaining their position of subjugation.

Additionally, in both films, the heroine is loyal and devotes her life to the hero, not wanting to have anything to do with her old life with her Muslim family. She prefers to live her life among those who are not her co-religionists. This films seem to be telling their Muslim viewers how to be good Muslims.

Maybe there is some hope (?)

There are some films which do give me some hope that Hindi cinema is capable of making films with Muslim heroines in a nuanced and non-stereotypical manner. Film such as Saawariya, Zubeidaa, Tumko Na Bhool Payenge and Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal depict Muslim women as simply Muslim women whose presence is not to make any political statement, but simply to be. Not that political films are not great. They are. However, without addressing the inequalities, discrimination and oppression faced by India’s Muslims, including and especially women, these films are incomplete and inaccurate commentaries.

Although films which try to promote harmony between Muslims and Hindus, and which address the complexities of terrorism (if they indeed do) are necessary, with the number of Muslims that exist in India who just live their lives as any other citizen, depicting Muslims in such “normal” roles more often and regularly is also necessary. The arts are a powerful way to propagate culture and including Muslims in this will be necessary in ensuring that the Muslims of India are seen as just as Indian as the Hindus and Sikhs are. (See here for a discussion on this.)

* Sarcasm. In case you didn’t catch it.

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