Two portrayals of two real Muslim men within two years played by the same actor. A world of difference in what they mean for India’s Muslim community.
BY PULARI BASKAR
In recent years, Ranveer Singh has become the actor to watch in Bollywood. In 2018, he appeared as Alauddin Khilji (one of the rulers in the Delhi Sultanate period) in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat, a re-telling of an epic poem inspired by the life and beauty of Rajput queen, Padmini. A year later, Ranveer took up the role of Murad Ahmed, a youth from the slums of Dharavi with a flair for making rap music. Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy (2019) was inspired mostly by the life of rapper Naved Shaikh and also partly Vivian Fernandes, more popularly known by their stage names Naezy and DIVINE.
Both these movies were box office hits, and unsurprisingly so. Gully Boy was a much- needed reality check that amplified Mumbai’s lesser-heard voices. Its inspiring storyline combined with its well-crafted soundtrack had an “infectious energy” according to the Film Federation of India jury, and was sent in as India’s official entry for the 92nd Academy Awards earlier this year. On the other hand, we have a historical drama; Padmaavat’s vibrant, grand cinematography and star-studded cast were bound to enthral an audience. But the artistic features of the film were not the only reason why it gained attention.
Padmaavat famously faced vehement backlash from Hindu right-wing groups and the Rajput community, as they believed the portrayal of Rani Padmini was demeaning to Rajput heritage. Violence broke out and threats were raised against Bhansali and the release of the film, to the extent that its release was delayed by over a month. Bhansali was ultimately pressured into apologizing for offending the sentiments of the Rajput community.
The Rajputs were not the only ones who were angered by Padmaavat’s allegedly inaccurate and offensive representation of historical events on screen. Muslim leaders came forth and voiced their contentions about the inaccurate misrepresentation of Alaudin Khilji and his followers who were shown as a ruthless group of barbaric invaders. However, despite requests made to check historical accuracy and edit out scenes which could cause tensions between Hindu and Muslim groups, no efforts were made to console the Muslim group. Bhansali did include a disclaimer at the very beginning of the film stating that this film was not historically accurate, but we’re all too well aware of the disclaimer of disclaimers: nobody takes them seriously enough.
Legally speaking, the disclaimer holds- one can still debate whether period art requires historical accuracy till the cows come home, but this debate should not ignore the ground realities of those who suffer because of such misinterpretations. Instead, the question we should concern ourselves with is should artists be held accountable for the social implications of their art?
Let’s review the behaviour of Alaudin Khilji as we see it in Padmaavat. Ranveer Singh’s costume and make up portrays him as some sort of savage- long, unkempt hair, exposed hairy chest, smeared kaajal. His mannerisms included messily eating raw meat straight off the bone, and his laugh sounded more like the howl of a predatory beast than an amused human. Khilji is a violent, sex-crazed, and oppressive husband. He disrespects his wife, never consults her, and she has no agency to speak of her problems. She only challenges him towards the very end of the film and is immediately punished for doing so. This is in stark contrast to how the protagonist Rajput king is depicted. Rana Ratan Singh is a well-dressed, well-mannered ruler- with all the characteristics of the ideal, chivalrous ruler. His wife, Rani Padmini, is shown outdoors, hunting, at the very start of the film. Rana Ratan Singh loves her, is gentle with her and treats her as an equal, even taking her advice on strategies to defeat the Muslim invader. Her self-immolation (jauhar) at the end of the film is not shown as a symbol of the absurdity of patriarchal practices that existed, but rather as the preservation of her honour and heritage from foreign Islamic intrusion.
The binary could not be more clear: the Hindu Rajput ruler was civilized, whereas the Muslim invader was a barbarian, and the nature of their characters are made to seem like direct consequences of their religions. For instance, one of the scenes in the films shows Ratan Singh telling Alaudin to learn some morals in order to become a man, implying that he is a beast, who needs to be cultured. Ratan Singh’s death is caused by Khilji’s “moralless” army that disrespected the honour codes of war. Perhaps artistic license could have sufficed as justification enough for the implications of this film if our country were not still, to this day, being ravaged by religious violence. The portrayal of Alauddin Khilji in Padmaavat embodies the vilified stereotypes that Hindutva has created for Muslims even today- aggressive, misogynistic, and invasive, non-indigenous members of the Indian subcontinent (hence, invalid members of the nation).
In contrast, let’s look at the character of Murad Ahmed in Gully Boy. He lives with his family in the slums of Dharavi. He is in love with a bright girl from a family that is better off than his, but the relationship is egalitarian. He does whatever he can to get by, but he has a dream- Murad wants to write and perform rap music. And no, he does not rap about sports cars, swimming pools, dollar bills and models. His lyrics are the voice of the poor, deprived, silenced, and socially invisible masses. They communicate the realities of their lives, the problems they face and show what it is to be on the receiving end of systemic discrimination. The song ‘Mere Gully Mein’ makes references to violent police intervention in slums, the peaceful mingling of various religious communities, and the big-heartedness of the people who live there, despite having so little for themselves (“Dekho toh idhar mere gully mein hai ghar chote chote / Lekin zara dekho dil mein hai jagah beshumaar, de pukar”). Moreover, they are a symbol of hope for those who believe that they cannot afford to dream. Apna Time Aayega is a reminder to be patient with ourselves, to not lose hope and to not stop working towards our goals, no matter how distant or wild they may seem.
Here’s the catch: this entire movie could have been made with a Hindu lead, and with a few alterations of the specifics (clothing, household practices etc.), it would have made no difference. What does this imply? In Gully Boy, we see a man from a minority community who is not defined by his religious alignment, representing the interest of a diverse group of people living in the margins. Murad is not a member of his religious group alone, but simultaneously a citizen of the nation. This movie doesn’t show an assertion of minority rights- rather, it gives us a slice of what should be normal in an equal plural society.
At this point, a clarification is due: Gully Boy is not a perfect movie, and Padmaavat is not a bad film. They belong to completely different genres and are concerned with vastly different ideas. The only point of comparison I am drawing here is the nature of Muslim representation in the films, and more importantly, the impression that this representation makes on its audience. It is true; Murad is the protagonist of the film while Khilji is the antagonist of the other. But the inferiority of Khilji as the antagonist could have been made without making allusions that his disregard for ethics was due to his religious principles. Bhansali perhaps did not intend to paint the Muslim community in such a light. But the artist’s intent is not always translated into the impact the art has on the audience, whose perception is already coloured by their own social experiences and beliefs.
Especially in today’s political climate, in which volatile reactions have become the norm, other seemingly non-political sources of mass influence could attempt to take the responsibility to be more careful with the messages they are sending out. Confirming a population’s biases in a movie through plot and direction makes a much more meaningful impact on an audience than a disclaimer shown on screen for a few seconds at the very beginning. In a 2019 interview, Hollywood actress Scarlett Johansson stated that, “In an ideal world, any actor should be able to play anybody and Art, in all forms, should be immune to political correctness”. But art is in many ways, (aesthetic) expressions of, and insights into reality, and reality is currently still very far from what we believe to be ideal. Media has been manipulated to reinforce values and beliefs of dominant or majoritarian positions and Padmaavat is just one example of the continuation of this trend.
Of course, the Bollywood film industry does not consist of art alone- it is still a business. The art produced induces a response from its audience, not just emotionally but also monetarily. Artists must therefore, to a certain extent, cater to their audiences in order to be able to sustain producing their art. But considering that the audiences received Gully Boy with open arms just as Padmaavat was a hit, it is time for artists to realize that they need not compromise on social responsibility to be successful.