It’s been 13 years since Shah Rukh Khan looked straight into the eyes of an American immigration official and declared, “My name is Khan, and I’m not a terrorist.” More recently, in Siddharth Anand’s , when Khan’s character is asked if he’s a Musalmaan, the film consciously (and smartly) evades the question by having him say he doesn’t know because he was abandoned by his family as an infant (in a movie theatre, no less). “Mere desh ne meri parvarish ki hai (I was raised by my country),” Pathaan says before going on to explain that his moniker comes from being nursed to health by the residents of a remote village in Afghanistan. Between these two on-screen moments, a nation seems to have turned beyond recognition and the Hindi film industry has grappled with trying to make cinematic sense of the changing attitude.
Looking at the films released in the last decade and there seems to be a steady stream of stories that stereotype Muslim characters as bloodthirsty invaders, particularly in faux historicals like (2018), (2019) and (2022). A closer look suggests that running parallel to this trend are writers and directors who have sought out ways to gracefully upend blockbuster narratives. So what are the challenges of writing a Muslim character in a contemporary, commercial Hindi film? Can religion be incidental to a character anymore?
Anjum Rajabali, who wrote Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s (2021), believes a part of his writing process is to have a political view. “What’s a political view? The individual choices that a character makes, you connect it with the larger forces in society: It could be the ruling ideology or a dominant way of thinking,” said Rajabali. Asked to write a boxing film set in today’s world, Rajabali thought of including an interfaith marriage to reflect the nation’s growing intolerance. As someone who himself had an interfaith marriage in a time when (by his own admission) religion didn’t matter like it does today, Rajabali said he feels the need to assert his religious identity more today than in the past. “Given the circumstances, given how aware people have become of religion, if you’re writing a Muslim character, it has to come from a milieu. And that milieu becomes a character in the story too,” he said. “Which is why its implications have to be handled with care.”
Toofaan is a middling boxing drama that feels most authentic when Paresh Rawal as Coach Nana (a Hindu) spews venom at Farhan Akhtar who plays Aziz, a local goon (and Muslim). Aziz is learning to be a boxer and wants to marry Coach Nana’s daughter. Some of the film’s most powerful moments are wordless, featuring Rawal as a proud bigot, like when he’s in his living room while his daughter repeatedly knocks on his front door or when he stands at a distance as last rites are performed for his daughter, too full of hatred and pride to even consider participating. “If the film is set in some la la land, then it doesn’t matter. But that isn’t how we write – we try to bring some resonance to our stories. We try to bring an echo of an existing social reality into our works,” said Rajabali.
The only Hindi filmmaker to have consistently included Muslim characters in her films without marking them out as devices or mouthpieces is For instance, Imran (Farhan Akhtar) in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) is an urbane, Delhi-based copywriter whose charming, easygoing ways neither erase nor emphasise his religious identity. Imran’s close friends refer to his father as ‘Abbu’ and it feels organic. Similarly, in (2019), Murad (Ranveer Singh) and Safeena (Alia Bhatt) are fully fleshed-out individuals, with their own dreams, desires, and insecurities. That they are from conservative Muslim households is just one aspect of their life. Akhtar’s films arguably show how Muslims should be depicted in Hindi cinema. However, her understated approach is incredibly rare. Most Hindi films include Muslim characters to articulate a social critique.
Writers Kashyap Kapoor and Raghav Raj Kakker were initially brought on Hansal Mehta’s (2023) to only write dialogues. That changed during the pandemic as the script was given a complete overhaul by the duo, with the events in the film being condensed to a single night. Kapoor and Kakker’s script was based on an outline by Ritesh Shah, and uses the incident of a tragic night in Dhaka, Bangladesh to tell a story of human courage. It’s also a clever indictment of religious fundamentalism. Islamic fundamentalism becomes a device in Mehta’s film to talk about all kinds of extremism. For example, a throwaway line like “Islam khatre mein hai (Islam is under threat)” echoes the oft-repeated slogan of Right-wingers on social media, “Hindu khatre mein hai (Hindus are under threat).”
At one point, Mehta’s protagonist (played by Zahan Kapoor), who is held hostage by a militant, says to his captor, “Mujhe tum jaison se apna Islam wapis chahiye (I want my Islam back from people like you).” Kakker said he got the idea for this line from his own experiences. As a child, he’d be amused by stories of the Hindu god Hanuman. “Even when he’s burning Lanka, there was a comic lightness to it. I was never scared of him. He was a gentle god. And I loved him for that,” said Kakker. Then along came the “Rraudr-hanuman” decal, designed to intimidate and declare the flex of a macho Hinduism. “This was not the deity that I was friends with. It was clear someone was claiming him with the intent to scare people or fill them with false pride,” said Kakker. “The dialogue was conceived from my personal angst.”
In recent years, mainstream Hindi cinema has repeatedly employed the “Good Muslim vs Bad Muslim” trope, which shows a token Good Muslim as a counterweight to the film’s Muslim antagonist. It falls upon the former to be subservient to the establishment and make a spectacle of their patriotism. Take, for example, Anubhav Sinha’s (2018), a high-voltage drama with echoes of Rajkumar Santoshi potboilers from the Nineties. Despite its best intentions, Sinha’s film ended up demarcating a line between the benign, law-abiding Muslim man (Rishi Kapoor) – who looks on with helplessness as his nation mistreats him — while on the other hand, we see the rage in the eyes of a radicalised Muslim (Prateik Babbar) who refuses to tow the line.
Rajabali has no time for such balancing acts. “I think it’s a very weak position to take. Anyone who challenges the status quo is automatically a ‘bad Muslim’, they’re anti-nationals. An axis has been drawn very clearly, and you fall on either side of it. It’s almost too transparent,” he said.
The omnipresence of this trope has affected films like Faraaz. The social media chatter before the film’s release expressed disappointment at Mehta succumbing to this reductive binary when in fact the director was astutely using these preconceived notions against the audience. Faraaz begins in what seems like a bachelor pad of young men, indulging in banter, exercising – just a normal apartment in any South Asian metropolitan city. They didn’t fit the narrow, conventional depiction of terrorists in commercial cinema and when they do turn out to be extremists, it seems almost as though anyone could end up making the choices they do. “The fact that a storytelling trope is called ‘Good Muslim vs Bad Muslim’ is already messed up. Who coined it and why?” said Kapoor. Kakker added, “It’s offensive in a sense it presumes that all Muslims are bad until proven otherwise.
Kapoor and Kakker were also a part of the writers’ room of the Netflix series , which includes a sub-plot about the experiences of a Kashmiri Muslim family, settled in Delhi. “Initially our idea was to explore identity politics, but the characters were native to Delhi. We realised that within that identity politics, there were certain groups that were more vulnerable. The degree of fear and alienation was much higher,” said Kakker. Class also offers pointed commentary on how the hijab is perceived by non-Muslims.
“If we don’t hold a mirror towards society then what else we here for?” said Kapoor, adding that he and Kakker felt confident of their writing ability to not feel any “extra” responsibility while writing a Muslim character. “If we were to only write stories about those we know then we will be reduced to our own community, gender, class and caste,” said Kakker. “Any artistic expression would become vote bank politics!” Rajabali also credited his imagination and his ability to empathise for writing characters. “It’s like how I would write a woman’s character – there is a femininity inside of me, there’s empathy, there’s the ability to imagine what she might be feeling. It might not be 100% accurate all the time, but at least enough to have some credible resonance,” he said.
The audience reaction to stereotypes seems to justify simplistic writing over nuanced characterisation. The almost caricaturish Muslim villains in films like Sooryavanshi (2021) and The Kashmir Files (2022) seem to have found favour with audiences. In some theatres screening Pathaan, the loudest cheers came when the villain Jim told his henchmen to aim a missile for Islamabad. For Rajabali, these are all cause for concern because they encourage a narrow depiction of Muslims in Hindi cinema. “A major problem with any art form getting overly commercialised is your convictions, your ideologies, your morality, your philosophy can take a back-seat,” said Rajabali, “All contentions can be rejected with one blanket rebuttal – ‘The film has worked, people watched it in large numbers, then who are you to question it?’”