Saturday, July 7, 2001
M A I N   F E A T U R E

The Gadar between
real & reel history

Photo by ReutersMainstream films dealing with issues related to the Muslims have, time and again, invited protests from a section of the Muslim community. Noted film critic Gautam Kaul recalls films which have earned brickbats from a section of their audience but have, nonetheless, been successful.

REAL history and reel history is once again getting mixed up. A section of the Muslim community is angry at the manner in which some aspects of its religious symbols and practices are being portrayed in a Mumbai potboiler. This is the latest upswing on a continuous wave of the all too familiar scenario marking the release of any worthwhile film which attempts to show the minority community beyond the portrayal of fez-capped people and, perhaps, depict them in a more contemporary manner in flesh and blood. Sample some recent memories.


a pre-Independence film, must take the cake for rolling the Right wing ball at full speed. It was the first that caught the Muslim community’s ire by pleading for the re-marriage of widows. The outcry against the film was amazing, as old-timers recall. Only a united campaign by the Press in favour of the theme helped to keep the film from being torched, and preserved it for posterity.

Muslim ‘social’ cinema in North India regressed into the 19th century culture epitomised by Hindi films like Palki, Mere Mehboob, Chaudvin Ka Chand, Ghazal etc. Hell broke loose when Garam Hawa was released. The protectors of Muslim tehzeeb protested that a Muslim maiden would never cavort in a boat drawn on the river Yamuna behind the Taj Mahal, with a Muslim boy violating the purdah. Besides, there was a long litany of other hurt sentiments. The normal demands for a ban on the film’s screening were made. It required the intervention of Indira Gandhi to help this film remain in movie halls and be discussed on the merit of Muslims joining the mainstream of public life in the country.

After a quiet of near 10 years, the film Talaaq became the focus of protests. This time the complaint was that the film was infringing upon the Muslim Personal Law with regard to marriage and divorce. The actress Salma Agha, herself a divorcee, handled her Press well and ,helped by the moderate opinion within the community, the film overcame its objections until the Shah Bano case hit the headlines nationwide.

Around this period, the Partition came into focus in the visual media. It first emerged in the tele-serial Buniyaad in which two families were shown early victims of the event. However, the tragedy was missing. Official television then took good care of the tele-serial Jewel in the Crown which showed the arrival of trains with massacred passengers. For the same reason, 30 years earlier, the film Bhawani Junction was not allowed to be filmed in Indi. It was banned from being screened when it was released. Today, the TCM channel does a repeat run of this film every five months with no protests.

The real test of Indian audiences came in Tamas. This was the first time that television audiences in bordering Pakistan also joined their Indian counterparts as viewers. Now it was the Right Wing Hindus who found something amiss. Their Muslim counterparts did not want ‘reel’ history to reveal ‘real history.’ Again, for the first time after Partition, a younger generation came to grips with the tragedy of the Partition that their parents had tried to cover up in an effort to start life afresh, forgetting their past. This cathartic experience for the first time helped the urban Indian population to arrive at the realisation that a second Partition of the country should never happen. Tamas is still recalled because Gandhi came too soon thereafter. The Partition scenes were remembered, as they have been recalled in Gadar.

Now it was the turn of two films by Mani Ratnam to take on the Hindu-Muslim relation and portray it on a more personal plane in Roja, followed by Bombay. The timing of release of the Hindi version of Roja coincided with the peak of militancy in Kashmir. Bombay was, however, announced as a reactive effort to the blasts that had preceded one year earlier. This time a Hindu-Muslim marriage was first in question and then the saving of the Holy Koran by a Hindu was objected to. Bombay weathered rough seas from both Hindu and Muslim opinions of the extreme kind accompanied with moderate rioting in some towns. Finally an overwhelming saner public opinion helped the film emerge as a document that spoke for national integration. If India cinema was beyond entertainment, Bombay was an eloquent example.

National political currents after 1992 decidedly went through a sea-change and a new kind of definition of patriotism could be read. Pakistan’s own agenda only helped to push the status of the Indian Muslim community into a corner. The Right Wing fundamentalists within this community, by their actions and utterances, painted a villainous picture of the community which it hardly deserved. Two incidents, the Shah Bano case and the Taslima Nasreen case, which received nation-wide exposure in moderate and intellectual circles, created a view amongst the majority Hindu community that the local Muslim community was living out of time. The Babri Masjid episode only created a bigger divide. Three films now reflect this unhappy state.

Sarfarosh, on its release, raised a hue and cry because it had cast the ISI as the prime villain. It was protested that it painted Muslims as suspects in India. But public opinion kept the issues separate and the Muslim sentiment was placated. The film was banned in the West Asia and Malaysia.

Border was a watershed in Indian cinema. This was because the success of this film created an acceptable Right Wing Hindu sentiment, historically correct in facts which protests could not suppress. In sections of this film, Pakistan-bashing met with official approval. Gadar, though portraying an earlier time, is in fact an extension of the same official approval. Four wars with Pakistan have finally led to this situation and that too after over four decades.

The third film in context is Nasreen. Can you recall it? Beautifully narrated, this is only five years old. It should have received the endorsement of the Muslim community whose cause it espoused. But it failed to do so. It is here we see the possibility of the seeds of self-destruction of the special culture of the Indian Muslim: it is unwilling to change from its Mere Mehboob syndrome, and, like the nawabs of Lucknow, destined to wither away.

The real Gadar (1857) had been that point in history when the Hindus and joined hands for the salvation of the subcontinent. Gadar offers a poor example of the same spirit.