In 1969, the Indian film Do Raaste was released. It was an immediate blockbuster, one of the 17 consecutive hits starring Rajesh Khanna during his 1969 to 1971 golden run.
The movie’s focus was on relations that are stronger than ties of blood irrespective of religion, caste or ethnicity.
In a powerful scene, the matriarch of the respectable, but destitute, Gupta family lies dying, abandoned by her successful son, Birju.
The family is facing a financial crisis, and there’s no money for the dying mother’s medicine, when Satyan (Rajesh Khanna) bursts into the room, announcing that they have received a large money order from an unknown benefactor.
Satyan calls the person a farishta (angel) and at this word, his mother calls in their Muslim neighbour, Khan (Jayant), and makes him confess that he is the mysterious benefactor, as he has been for a long time.
The lesson is simple: Love based on common bonds is stronger than blood.
Jayant, whose son Amjad Khan went on to play the greatest villain of Indian cinema, Gabbar Singh, was a journeyman known for small roles.
But as the saying goes, there are no small parts, and in this scene, he outshone Rajesh Khanna.
As Khan tearfully explained in Do Raaste, the Guptas were his family as well and their mother was the only mother he had known, Indian cinema once again made a case for interfaith harmony: No Muslim ghettos or sectarian riots, just neighbours living together in harmony.
Do Raaste was part of the moralistic and secular genre championed by Indian cinema during the first few decades after Partition.
######It mirrored Jawaharlal Nehru’s socialist views, which included secularism and equality of caste, colour, creed, sex, religion, and language.
Although the word ‘socialist’ was added to the Preamble of the Indian Constitution through the 42nd Amendment Act of 1976 well after Nehru’s death; India, until the late 1980s, was firmly a Nehruvian construct.
This ideology naturally permeated into India’s most popular art form: cinema.
Cinema’s popularity and role in influencing society was well recognised by Nehru. In a mid-1950s speech, he said:
“The cinema, let us remember, is one of the biggest influences of the modern world. There are other things, which influence people- books, newspapers and so on. But I think it is perfectly correct to say that the influence of films in India is greater than the influence of newspapers and books combined.”
He then added, “Anything that has widespread influence is of the utmost importance to society and to government.” The second part of the speech is crucial.
A 1963 UNESCO report on Indian cinema and culture quoted this same speech, as even at that early stage of cinema, the Indian filmgoers numbered over 25 million people a week.
Cinema reflected the tastes of Nehru, who described himself in the following words:
“By education I am an Englishman, by views an internationalist, by culture a Muslim and a Hindu only by accident of birth.”
######Showing Muslims as part of the natural fabric of India and creating positive roles, Hindi Indian cinema was able to play a role in interfaith harmony.
There were two different strands of this process. One was through the ‘Muslim Social’ genre, which focused on Muslims themselves and usually portrayed the Nawabi culture.
The other was through populist cinema, which depicted examples of harmony between Hindus and Muslims.
Belonging to the ‘Muslim Social’ genre, Mere Mehboob, Chaudhvin Ka Chand and Pakeeza are among the most iconic movies of India cinema and transport audiences into a world of aristocratic expressions, Aligarh University, and Muslim traditions.
The actors who played the heroes were often not Muslims; Rajendra Kumar, Guru Dutt, and Raj Kumar starred in the movies mentioned above and were celebrated for their performances.
By connecting cinema to Muslim culture, movies of this genre created a glamorous but positive sensibility among general audiences of their fellow citizens.
These films were set in pre-Partition India or in a particular Muslim-only setting, and so were a form in themselves.
However, the positive portrayal of Muslims was not just limited to this genre and was very much a part of contemporaneous populist cinema.
Yash Chopra’s direction debut was in 1959 with Dhool Ka Phool, which was steeped in Nehruvian secularism.
In this movie, a Muslim brings up an ‘illegitimate’ Hindu child as his own and croons to him, “Tu Hindu banega na Musalman banega, insaan ki aulaad hai, insaan banega [You will be neither a Hindu nor a Muslim; you’re the child of humans and you will be a human]”.
Chopra followed this in 1961 with Dharmputra, and the theme was reversed in this film as a Hindu family brings up an ‘illegitimate’ Muslim child.
The movie rejected hate and intolerance. Its song ‘Chahe yeh mano chahe woh mano’ [‘Whether you believe this or believe that’] reverberated the theme of intercommunal harmony.
Even when Indian cinema became angrier and grittier in the 1970s, Muslim characters and the theme of interfaith harmony continued.
Amitabh Bachan’s breakout movie Zanjeer had Pran play the role of Sher Khan, who befriends and saves the life of the movie’s hero, Vijay.
In Kranti, Shatrughan Sinha was a freedom fighter named Kareem Khan, who teams up with Hindu Sanga (Dilip Kumar) and others to fight the British.
Movies set in small towns and villages usually had a Muslim character such as the venerable imam of the mosque, Rahim Chacha (A. K. Hangal), in Sholay.
By including a Muslim character who, if not the protagonist, was at least on the good side, movie directors kept creating a more inclusive cinematic experience.
Director Manmohan Desai, whose star-studded mega hits combined popular cinema with multiculturalism, was a firm proponent of this tactic.
His movie Naseeb has a hero named Jaun Johnny Janardan (Amitabh Bachan), a name representing the three communities in India: Muslim, Christian and Hindus.
When someone asks Johnny how he has three names, he cheerfully sings:
Yeh teeno nam hain mere
Allah, Jesus, Ram hain mere
All these names are mine
Just like Allah, Jesus, Ram are mine
Johnny’s syncretism is shared by his father Namdev (Pran) who wears three rings with symbols from Islam, Christianity and Hinduism, which he gives away to the three leading men in the movie and eventually saves their lives.
Desai’s Amar Akbar Anthony is also based on the theme of religious tolerance. Its three heroes are brothers brought up in different faiths - Islam, Hinduism and Christianity - and it is full of intercommunal symbolism.
The moment that defines this syncretic spirit is the song Shirdi Wale Saibaba, sung by Akbar Allahabadi (Rishi Kapoor) at a veneration ceremony of Sai Baba. The symbolism is uncanny.
The song is sung by a Muslim for a 19th Century mystic, who is revered by both Muslims as a saint, and by Hindus as an incarnation of Shiva.
During the song, Akbar’s long lost blind mother, Bharati (Nirupa Roy), is pursued by villains, and finds protection at Sai Baba’s shrine, where a snake, sacred to Hindus, comes to her defense.
As the song comes to a climax, Sai Baba blesses Bharati and miraculously gives her sight, uniting her with her son.
It gets better; the song was sung by a Muslim and written by a Hindu, Mohammad Rafi and Anand Bakshi respectively.
These movies may not be undying works of art but they were huge hits and spread the message of tolerance to millions.
There are several factors for this direction in cinema. Nehru and the Congress Party were pushing the idea of a secular India built along socialist lines.
That is what a political party is; it influences everything from art to music, and all aspects of culture.
In that era, India had a Muslim education minister, two Muslim presidents, one acting president who was Muslim, a Muslim chief justice, and a Muslim vice president. The multiculturalism present in the halls of power was reflected in movie theaters.
Indian movies followed Nehru’s love for the Urdu language; his hometown Allahabad was a centre of Urdu poetry, and even Nehru’s wedding cards were printed in Urdu, a language developed in India, but now most associated with just Muslims.
Film Pyaasa has Guru Dutt as a poet who is inspired by Faiz and Josh Malihabadi, while Rajesh Khanna in Bawarchi devotes several lines to talk about Urdu as one of the principal languages of India.
######Perhaps these movies were made to show Muslims that they belong in India and for Congress to garner Muslim votes. Perhaps. However, a political agenda alone would not have produced super hits.
Art reflects life, but life also reflects art. Everyone, from the moviemakers and producers, down to the public sitting in the general seats who paid hard-earned rupees for an evening show, took to the themes of intercommunal accord.
Directors took a conscious decision to create movies that brought people together while moviegoers relished the richness of an India of many hues and colours, sang songs that celebrated harmony over communalism, and fawned over actors who played characters that were above bigotry and hate.
That was the tolerant India I grew up hearing about, the India I so longed to visit. An India that did not celebrate Nuthuram Godse and Savarkar or their corrosive ideology, and saw them as the bigots and killers they really are. An India in which Rana Pratab did not supersede Akbar, and the Taj Mahal was an indelible national symbol.
######Today that India does not exist. Today India tears itself up for a movie based on a Rajput princess who may not have even existed and is only known through a centuries-old poem.
Not so long ago, a Muslim freedom fighter conspired against the British in 1942: A Love Story, and another played cricket against them in Lagaan. Just a few years back a film about the love between Akbar and his Rajput wife was a hit.
Today even a hint of a connection between a 13th Century Muslim king and a Rajput princess has led hardliners to put up bounties for the people involved with the film Padmavati and pushing for its ban.
The movie does itself no favours and further exacerbates the issues of race and religion by making the Muslim king, Alauddin Khilji, a kohl-eyed, lecherous, barbaric villain instead of an ambitious king who conquered kingdoms regardless of whether they were ruled by Hindus or Muslims.
Religious fundamentalism is a slippery slope, one I am all too familiar with. Can a movie today show a Hindu boy brought up by a Muslim family?
As India struggles for its secular roots, now more than ever, cinema needs to play its role in bridging the ever-growing chasm between Indian communities so the India I once knew can once again sing, Chahe yeh mano chahe woh mano.