A lovelorn Shaila Banu (Manisha Koirala) runs towards Shekhar (Arvind Swamy) in the unforgettable ‘Uyire’ song from Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (1995). Her burqa trails behind her till it gets caught somewhere, and she has to leave it behind if she is to reach her lover. The moment symbolises Banu’s decision to choose love over religion and her family’s conservative rules. This was the legendary stuff of interreligious romance that Nineties’ kids grew up on – but how authentic was Shaila Banu’s character from the film?
Writer Salma contends that the burqa was not commonly worn by Tamil Muslim women in the Nineties, much less in rural areas. The stereotyping that informs Shaila Banu in Bombay is all the more evident in male Muslim characters. “A Muslim man in Tamil cinema is routinely shown as wearing an amulet, an Islamic cap, a jibba and having a beard,” said Salma. “They also tend to have surma in their eyes. You’ll hardly see such Muslims in everyday life in Tamil Nadu.”
It’s also likely that the Muslim character will own a butcher shop or engage in some kind of illegal activity like smuggling or terrorism. “Even the Tamil they speak is caricatured. It’s shown to be Urdu-mixed,” she pointed out. “There are barely any realistic or natural representations of Muslim people in Tamil cinema. The representation works towards othering the community. But in real life, Tamil Muslims mingle and live with everyone else.”
The Problem of Tropes
Tamil superstars have rarely played Muslim characters, with Rajinikanth’s Moideen Bhai from Aishwarya Rajinikanth’s Lal Salaam (2024) being among the exceptions. Even when the representation is with good intentions – as in Nilesh Krishnaa’s Annapoorani (2023) — the effect is almost always to exoticise the Muslim. In Annapoorani, which is about a Tamil Brahmin woman (Nayanthara) who wants to become a chef, the climax shows the heroine wearing a burqa and offering namaz in order to make the best biryani and win a contest. The pile-up of clichés could easily be seen as a caricature of Muslim identity, but this scene upset Hindu groups who campaigned against Annapoorani. It was subsequently withdrawn from Netflix earlier this year. In the high voltage discussions that happened around the film, there wasn’t much debate on what the burqa or namaz had to do with making biryani, a dish that Muslims are stereotypically associated with onscreen.
Unlike Malayalam cinema that caters to a much more religiously diverse audience – about 55% of Kerala is Hindu, while 27% is Muslim and 18% is Christian – Tamil cinema has not had enough representations of Muslims as a regular part of the social fabric. This is what sets apart Arun Karthick’s Nasir (2020), an award-winning film about an ordinary salesman – dressed in an innocuous ensemble of shirt and pants – who goes about his day. Based on a short story by Dilip Kumar, the film is about the small moments in Nasir’s (Koumarane Valavane) life. Nasir depicts the protagonist’s interior world, which is created not only with pictures but “rhythms, durée, and perspectives”, said Karthick. These, he noted, are elements with which the ephemeral moment is transfixed in the viewer’s perception.
Karthick decided to make the film days after the 2016 Coimbatore riots with the intention of getting to know a working class man through his day, and everyday details like his love for his wife and family. Karthick said one cannot help but feel close to the protagonist by the end of the story. “The fact that he is a minority and how that robs him of a life contextualises the communal fabric of our times,” he said. “It was important for us to create the inner world of this character Nasir. During prep, we would discuss a lot about how Nasir must be displaced from the real world of Coimbatore - the hustle and bustle, the chaos, the noise.”
The violence and bigotry around Nasir aren’t the focus of the film though the threats are always present. Instead, this ordinary man writes long letters to his wife who is visiting her birth family. One of these letters is broken down to three parts in the film and read out in different circumstances. The Muslim man in cinema is often demonised as a conservative tyrant, especially towards the women at home. Nasir, in contrast, is constantly thinking about his wife and making plans for the next day or week like most of us – and it is to emphasise this ordinariness, Karthick explained, that he made the creative choice to break the letter down to three parts.
Flattened by Vilification
In contrast to Nasir, scores of mainstream Tamil films have depicted Indian Muslims as Islamic terrorists, a trend that Salma believes started with Mani Ratnam’s Roja (1992). “Before that too, we’ve had films on terrorism, but the terrorist was always from Pakistan,” she said. “It’s only a few films like Manthira Moorthy’s Ayothi (2023) or Venkat Prabhu’s Maanaadu (2021) that revolve around a Muslim protagonist who isn’t vilified.” She also cited the example of Ayub (Periya Karuppu Thevar) from Vetrimaaran’s Aadukalam (2011), a supporting character who is Muslim, but is portrayed without religious markers.
It’s not that Islamic terrorism doesn’t exist or that it shouldn’t be represented onscreen – as it has been in numerous blockbuster films like Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam (2013) or Vijay’s Thuppakki (2012) — but it’s the disbalance in representation that is a cause for concern. With an excessive reliance on tropes like the Good Muslim, who must invariably prove their patriotism to India by dying a violent death, or the Muslim Villain, there are too few films that feature Muslim characters and their lives without a subtext of vilification. As a result, it isn’t surprising that negative stereotypes stick in the minds of audiences. Nasir, for instance, was watched mostly by the audience that goes to film festivals. It was supposed to stream on SonyLIV but despite making an announcement about the release, the OTT later insisted on the film being certified by the CBFC.
Speaking about mainstream cinema’s penchant for falling back on stereotypes, Karthick said, “Nasir is almost invisible in a crowd. He is precisely the man we might pass by and not notice on a street. Expressions of cultural nuances are mostly taken for a ride in our industry central film practice.” He further added that those who make mainstream films probably believe that creating one dimensional, cardboard-cutout representations will give them popular appeal. “The way you reflect life in your film is also a question of how you relate to people in life,” Karthick pointed out.
While Nasir generally received positive reviews, there was some criticism about the lack of political agency for its protagonist. But, Karthick feels differently. “I am of the opinion that not every film needs to represent minorities as rebelling forces,” he said.
An Exception Named Farhana
If the Muslim man is highly visible as the villain onscreen, the Muslim woman is mostly invisible. Huma Qureshi’s Zareena in Pa Ranjith’s action drama film Kaala (2018) is perhaps a rare Muslim heroine who isn’t just the love interest. Zareena is politically aware and empowered. She has an agency that is almost never associated with Muslim women onscreen. However, the film doesn’t revolve around her character. In fact, there are barely any Tamil movies centred on Muslim women.
Farhana (2023), directed by Nelson Venkatesan, is a rare exception. Starring Aishwarya Rajesh in the lead, the film is about a Muslim woman from a conservative family who joins a call centre when the family is hard pressed for money. Soon, she realises there’s more cash to be made in the “friendship” chat that requires employees to play along in sexually-tinted conversations.
“I had just finished Kanaa (2018) when Nelson approached me with the script for Farhana. It was initially supposed to be a web series,” said Aishwarya Rajesh. “I thought the script was very unique and interesting. Farhana comes from a very orthodox Muslim family but she’s also well-educated. Getting married and handling the responsibilities of a family are huge for any woman, and it’s a sacrifice that many women are forced to make.”
Farhana is ambitious, but with three kids, housework and family norms that prohibit her from working, she does not have the space to pursue her dreams. The job offers her financial security and she also forms an emotional connection with a frequent caller. This, however, takes her down a dangerous path. “Her child is hospitalised and the family is financially weak, so she gets into the job to support her family. She doesn’t go into the call centre thinking she will do the friendship chat,” said Rajesh. “Everybody needs someone to share their emotions. When she isn’t able to speak about her feelings to her husband – and she says this in the climax – she ends up venting out her thoughts to the stranger on the phone.”
The promos of the film kicked a hornets’ nest, with Muslim groups objecting to the nature of Farhana’s job. However, the furore died down after its release. “I had cops stationed outside my house for weeks,” recalled Rajesh. “We didn’t understand why…there was nothing objectionable in the film.”
Rajesh said that making Farhana a flawed character who slips up humanised her, and made her relatable, but it was interpreted differently by some critics. The film did draw flak for adding to the perception that Muslims are regressive and unwittingly justifying the conservative view that women are safer at home. Disagreeing with these arguments, Rajesh said Farhana acknowledges that another woman may have handled the issue better than she did. “It’s not that women can’t do this or that. It all boils down to how equipped they are to manage a situation when it arises,” she said.
Conservative attitudes towards cinema are among the reasons why there aren’t many Muslims in the Tamil film industry, opined Salma. This, in turn, affects how stories with Muslim protagonists are written and told. “Cinema is considered haram (forbidden) by many in the community and not many Muslims want to get into the field. There are Muslim technicians that I’m aware of, and some actors, but there are very few directors like Ameer Sultan. They’re not exactly celebrated within the community,” she said.
As an actor in the Tamil film industry, Aishwarya Rajesh is all for diverse stories being written and told, especially when it comes to women. “We all have friends from different communities, and their stories also deserve to be seen. Why should all stories be about Malar, Thenmozhi, Kavitha or Radhika? Why not Farhana?”