The bloodline of Saif Ali Khan

Updated July 25, 2017


If Saif Ali Khan is serious in his belief, which he shouldn’t be, that people inherit talents such as movie acting through their bloodline, he needs to see his paternal lineage from Bhopal and also perhaps look at his Bengali heritage from the mother’s side. He will find that the cultural motifs he apparently sees as family heirloom are a product of an evolving social experience driven by new technologies and a perpetually shifting political fulcrum.

The mother’s family links up with the Hindu reformist Brahmo Samaj and the father’s side joins him to the puritan Muslim Ahle Hadith sect, going back to its 19th-century founder Siddiq Hasan Khan. The latter was inspired by ideologues that later fired the imagination of Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Does Saif still want to talk about genetics, which he erroneously called eugenics?

While the father’s maternal side connects with a narrow interpretation of Islam, Saif’s Bengali forebears embraced a liberating perspective of Hindu society, and were in turn shunned by the orthodoxy. The Brahmo Samaj, however, was not born without a context, which was to challenge the Brahminical orthodoxy. Nor did its members see themselves as heirs to any perpetual habit to modernise.

Rabindranath Tagore’s towering genius directly and indirectly influenced Saif’s maternal forebears. But, just as Saif’s father’s and grandfather’s cricketing flourish could not have preceded W.G. Grace, the reformist impulse of the Brahmo Samaj flowed from a blend of two mega events in history — the fall of the Mughal Empire and the rise of the East India Company. Those two events determined new land relations in Bengal, as elsewhere in India, replete with new cultural preferences that came with changing social hierarchies. Without the blending of the old (Mughal or pre-Mughal) with the new (European) thought in a new symphony, it would be difficult to conceive of Tagore’s poetic or reformist prowess, or his enormous musical talents.

What would Sharmila Tagore’s genes be nudging her to do had Europe not given the technology to make movies?

Tagore’s musical imprimatur on Rabindra Sangeet, for example, could not be possible without the imported Western ensemble that had the harmonium as its centrepiece. We take the gadget for granted and old school classical musicians casually call it peti, literally the box. Unnoticed, almost surreptitiously, the instrument became essential to traditional Indian music, one of its forms being the qawwali. The qawwali is said to have its roots in the 13th-century Sufi poet and soldier Amir Khusro’s creative juices. Imagine then the European instrument creating the sama for an essentially Indian experience of spiritual ecstasy. On the other hand, the harmonium was pumped by Mehdi Hasan to croon the progressive poetry of Faiz, not unlike its contribution to Rabindra Sangeet. And of course, there is no Indian genetic heritage to boast here, neither are harmonium players inheritors of a cultural code older than colonialism.

What the harmonium was to Tagore, the movie camera was to Saif’s mother. What would Sharmila Tagore’s genes be nudging her to do had Europe not given the technology to make movies of which she became a celebrated part? Between his mother who became the first Indian actor to sport a bikini on the screen and his paternal great grandmother who posed for the camera in a hermetically sealed burqa with high-ranking British visitors to Bhopal, is there anything genetically codified?

Let’s assume Saif is not unaware also of the fact that in the old days acting in jatra, nautanki, tamasha and other forms of folk theatre — since there was no cinema — was considered a low class thing to do. (It may have been different in the more remote era of Kalidas perhaps, but in relatively recent times, the art of singing and acting came to be patronised by the elite, but not as active participants until the advent of Wajid Ali Shah.)

When cinema came, Dilip Kumar, decades older to Sharmila Tagore in the acting profession and whose father was a fruit merchant, had to hide from his family his joining the sacrilegious world of movies. Before the newly gifted Brahmin girls started singing thumri and khayal, public singing was the preserve of mirasis and tawaifs like Gauharjan, and dancing the realm of Devdasis. As for Gauharjan, the famous singer of Calcutta, Gandhiji considered her so unacceptable that he wouldn’t let her join the Congress.

Gandhi represented an Indian era, a cultural filter, in which Saif’s talent — such as it is — or his mother’s acting abilities would not have made the grade as socially clubbable. In view of his moral fixations, Gandhiji once received a harried letter from Khwaja Ahmed Abbas pleading with him to not look down upon the art of cinema. It was as iffy as that. Abbas’s desperate missive to Gandhi should help Saif understand the stigma that cinema experienced in India before his mother’s times: “You include cinema among evils like gambling, sutta, horse racing etc … Now if these statements had come from any other person, it was not necessary to be worried about them….”

Saif’s Bhopal connection from his paternal granny should make him an heir to Ahle Hadith, which was the prevalent doctrine of Bhopal’s ruling family in the 19th century. If the father’s bloodline is dominant in Saif, then, by his own logic of genetics, he should put his famous actor mother in the burqa. The fact that Saif’s father loved playing cricket and the sitar with passion marked a departure from a social past, not an expression of a genetic code.

The Bhopal regina did many good things for women such as education, but on the condition that they observed the purdah rigorously and kept at arm’s length from music. Yet, there was resistance from within the royal family, and there were princesses of Bhopal that broke from the tradition of puritanism. One of them embraced Sharmila Tagore as her daughter-in-law.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn, July 25th, 2017