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Hindu-Muslim Riots in Bollywood Cinema: Observations on ‘Bombay’ (1995) and ‘Firaaq’ (2008)

By Archisman Chaudhuri

At this juncture, we are witness to a thrust towards majoritarian politics on a global scale. Such politics often uses currencies of nationalism to dish out dictums on who constitutes a nation and who does not fit the bill. While a contender running for the president of the USA wants Muslims and Mexicans to be thrown out in a bid to make America great again, a random youngster assaults a black man on a tram in Manchester asking him to leave England. In South Asia, the Hindu right tries to flatten out the heterogeneous socio-cultural mosaic of India and it labels critics of the political regime as anti-national to snuff out dissent. Across the border, Pakistan and Bangladesh are the sites of similar stories of majoritarian politics. Hindu and Christian minorities are hounded in Pakistan, while writers and intellectuals critical of Islamic extremism are being brutally murdered in Bangladesh. The island-nation of Sri Lanka saw an end to a long civil war only in 2009. Reflecting on how Bollywood films depict nationalism would not be off the mark at this point. I am not a scholar trained to study and analyse films, but someone who, as a common viewer, has penned his observations on how Bollywood depicts nationalism (in this context, communal riots) on the silver screen. Bombay (1995) and Firaaq (2008) deal with two episodes of Hindu-Muslim violence in contemporary India and in a subliminal way give India, the nation, and its people, watertight identities.

Bombay (1995)

Main Hindu hoon, Muslim hoon. Barbar poochhte hain. Nahin poochhein, bolo unhe’ (They ask me again and again if I am a Hindu or a Muslim. Please tell them not to). So spoke Kamal, one of the twin sons of the protagonists in the film, who is traumatised by his encounter with rioters during communal riots in Mumbai. Religious identity can turn quite sensitive, more so when a child is confronted by it. Initially made in Tamil and later dubbed into other languages including Hindi, Bombay explores Hindu-Muslim identities in contemporary India through the trope of an interreligious marriage between Shekhar, a Hindu, and Shaila, a Muslim. Their story is set against the larger backdrop of the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in 1992 and how in its aftermath religious leaders fanned communal violence that affected the couple, their families and thousands of others in Mumbai. The film’s central message is simple: though differences and tensions intrinsic in the relationship between Hindus and Muslims can be exploited by politicians, ultimately the need of the hour is peaceful, syncretic coexistence of the two communities. The narrative runs throughout Bombay, manifests itself in scenes, dialogues, lyrics and, finally, reaches a crescendo as the movie climaxes.

The characters and their actions play out the tussle between communal tension and syncretism quite well. Shekhar and Shaila celebrate their interreligious union by christening their twin boys as Kabir Narayan and Kamal Bashir respectively, after the names of their paternal and maternal grandfathers. The latter, Narayan and Bashir, enact similar tensions on the screen, at times rather comically. They have fierce arguments, first when Narayan orders bricks engraved with the word ‘Ram’ (the Hindu deity whose temple was erected at the site of the demolished Babri mosque) at Bashir’s brickyard, and later when they discuss which religion should their grandchildren follow. However, their differences are settled when Bashir saves Narayan from a frenzied Muslim mob in Mumbai. Soon after, rioters set Shekhar’s house ablaze. Shekhar and Shaila escape with their children, but Bashir and Narayan, who tries to make up for his past actions by retrieving Bashir’s copy of the Quran, perish in the fire. Mayhem breaks out as the twin boys get separated from their parents and more violence follows. This sequence in the film is accompanied by a song whose lyrics translate as, ‘Forget about religions, think of the nation/ we are Indians.’ Shekhar asks his quarrelling friends if the Gita and the Quran sanction killing in the name of religion and tells them his family is neither Hindu, nor Muslim. Their only identity is Indian.

The futility of the violence is beautifully captured in the conversations Kamal, one of the twins, has with a eunuch who saves him from a mob. The eunuch says Hinduism and Islam are separate ways to reach god. While their followers have been living as brothers for ages, but, instigated by leaders, they are killing off each other now. Shekhar says the same to a rioting mob. Examples of interreligious solidarity colour the closing scenes of the film. Hindus and Muslims save each other from mobs running amok and build human chains. One can find parallels between this reel-life scene and the real-life event. During protests against the government in Egypt in 2011, Christians guarded Muslims as they offered prayers in Cairo. Similarly people formed human chains in front of churches to guard Christians in Pakistan in 2013. The movie’s ulterior message is that communalism is a cancer for India and only collective efforts can undermine its menace.

Firaaq (2008)

Maro, kato, yahan mian bhai chahiye nahin humein bharat ke andar’ (Kill [them], butcher [them] we don’t want Muslims in India)’ These are the words spoken by an anonymous woman while being interviewed by a television reporter in one of the scenes from Firaaq which, as its director Nandita Das says, is a work of fiction, based on a thousand true stories – to be more precise stories that were lived and experienced by thousands during the communal riots in Gujarat in 2002. Firaaq literally means ‘separation’ in Urdu (with an Arabic root). Unlike Bombay, violence has little screen time here. Instead, the movie captures the pangs of loss in the aftermath of the communal riots in Gujarat through an anthology woven around a number of characters. This is a story where narratives of personal, social, and historical separation come together, producing a layered film with both covert and overt messages. Anxieties plaguing the Muslim psyche and the emerging Hindu right-wing fundamentalism are the major ingredients of a narrow vision of the Indian nation, as defined by Hindu extremists. Similar to Bombay, Firaaq too employs the trope of a child’s innocence to show the severe damage communal clashes inflict on humans.

The film’s opening scene makes a strong statement on the pointlessness of communal clashes. As two Muslim men dig a mass grave for Muslims killed in the riots, they suddenly come across the corpse of a Hindu woman. One of them wants to smash this corpse but the other dissuades him. Sanjay and Deven, two brothers who have been perpetrators of violence during the riots, complain of the bias of English news channels, which diligently report attacks on Muslims but go silent when Hindus face the same – a favoured rhetoric of Hindu extremists in India. If they happen to be the faces of an aggressive Hindu nationalism in the movie, Aarti, Sanjay’s wife, signifies all that could go wrong when a woman is caught in an abusive marriage. In this context, the narratives of violence on two minority groups merge – on Muslims and on women. Ashamed for not having saved a woman’s life during the riots, Aarti tries to atone for her actions by bringing home Mohsin, a Muslim boy orphaned in the riots. Hanif and Muneera, a young Muslim couple, return to their home and find it looted during the riots. Muneera suspects her friend Jyoti’s involvement in this, while Hanif plans revenge. As Mohsin runs away from Aarti’s house and meets Hanif and his friends, the scenes play out the futility of violence and its imprint on children. Having found a pistol, Hanif and his friends quarrel about who should use it. Their argument is interrupted by a sudden outburst from Mohsin who smashes an ant and exclaims, ‘Mar diya saale ko’ (I killed the bugger). Mohsin watches Hanif being killed by an onlooker, while a cop chases him. The child is scarred so much by his experiences that he refuses to indulge in a game of marbles in the closing scene of the film. I wonder if the scene of one marble hitting another nauseated him.

Firaaq portrays the anxieties the Muslim psyche suffers in the aftermath of the riots. Khan Saheb, a Muslim vocalist, is shattered when he learns that mobs have demolished the shrine of Wali Gujarati, a Sufi saint. His conversation with a friend emphasizes the rich syncretism of Hinduism and Islam that India is, and one of its best gifts – Hindustani classical music. He jokingly recalls a rainy night he had spent at the saint’s shrine accompanied by a Hindu friend with whom he had sung earlier in the day. The only other creature at the shrine that night, he says, was a mouse, the vehicle of the Hindu god, Ganesha. Here the movie subtly remarks that differences stoked up by fanatic leaders give form to a break with a syncretic Indian past. Sameer and Anuradha have an interreligious marriage, and try to come to terms with Sameer’s Muslim identity. Anuradha tells a friend she feels grateful because Sameer’s name cannot be mistaken for that of a Muslim. But Sameer himself is scared and shaken. When donation-seekers ask for money to build a temple, he hesitates to reveal his surname. The perception of Muslims as fanatics and how that flares up frenzy is captured in two scenes featuring Sameer. In one sequence, he laments that Hindus do not have to hide if a Hindu fundamentalist kills people, while Muslims have to hang their heads in shame if a Muslim extremist sets off a bomb somewhere. In another sequence, a roadside food vendor tells Sameer while Hindus are taught to tolerate, Muslims are taught to kill. Suddenly a cop comes asking the stall to be closed and on learning Sameer is a Muslim tells him to leave – for Pakistan. The final jibe is a favourite of self-styled ‘nationalists’ in India. Their parlance identifies Muslims as legitimate residents of Pakistan where they should be sent, and critics of their brand of nationalism, too, deserve similar honours. In many ways, the mise en scéne of Firaaq precluded much of what is often paraded as ‘nationalism’ in present-day India.

Both Bombay and Firaaq offer critiques of communal violence and try to make viewers aware of the perils of ‘religious nationalism’ that tells followers of one religion to hate those of another and insists on a narrow idea of India where Hindus and Muslims cannot coexist. While sectarian and communal clashes between the two are not unheard of in India’s pre-colonial past, I believe the examples of syncretism are stronger. Those are the examples we need to emulate and celebrate if we wish to keep India’s pluralism alive.

Archisman Chaudhuri
is a PhD researcher at the Leiden University Institute for History, Leiden University, The Netherlands.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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