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While the portrayal of Muslim women in films made in Bollywood has evolved over the last few decades, a lot is still left to be desired.
We wish to see more Bollywood movies where Muslim women are portrayed as regular women with regular life problems, instead of succumbing to some stereotypes that Bollywood tends to use for them repeatedly.
Let us begin the discussion of a movie that presented to us the stereotype of the Muslim Indian woman. The movie, Nikaah, arguably did a disservice to Muslim women by portraying them as one-dimensional characters, hapless and easy victims to men’s wills. This film provided an insight to what many Muslim women go through – the marriage, the talaq given at a whim, and the re-marriage and the consummation they must go through before they can get another talaq from the second husband. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
In Nikaah (1982), the protagonist, Nilofer belongs to a middle-class Muslim family. She gets married to Wasim, who is a Nawab. Nilofer is a bored and dependent wife, whose greatest desire is to be understood by her husband. But Wasim treats her like an object to satiate his carnal desires and then throwing her out of his life by uttering the triple talaq when she raises her voice against his behaviour. When her parents too refuse to take her back after such a ‘scandal’, Nilofer lives in a woman’s hostel but she is perennially stigmatized for her ‘divorcee’ tag. In fact, she is even refused a position for a lecturer in a girl’s college because of her being a divorcee.
She later marries an old college friend, Haider, and while they are in what seems like a happy relationship, the first husband makes a reappearance into her life saying that he realizes that he made a mistake and he wants her back. Haider is ready to divorce her thinking that Nilofer is still in love with her first husband, but this time Nilofer speaks out and says she will not be treated as a ‘gift’ by these two men and she is ready to leave them both.
Though the director portrayed a socially relevant issue, and even though variations of this might be happening in the lives of many Muslim women, this is not the ONLY thing that defines them, and this is not how they should be constantly portrayed in a media that can affect masses. Many Muslim women, just like women from other religions, lead ordinary lives full of their day to day struggles but as we’ll see here, that picture is seldom portrayed in Bollywood movies and this trend started with movies like Nikaah.
Bollywood has come a long way when it comes to the depiction of women on screen. From the traditional ‘damsel in distress’ portrayal of most of its heroines, we now have movies like Queen, Piku, Parched, and Pink that deal with independent women, capable of taking life in their own hands instead of waiting for a hero to give meaning to their lives. However, Bollywood has not been too generous or fair in depicting Muslim women in films.
When we look down the years to where we are at today, then things might have progressed to some extent but even then, the stereotypes attached to Muslim women characters are still a prevalent norm.
If we go back to movies before Nikaah, that is, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Muslim women in films were mostly shown as dancing and singing girls, pleasing customers with their seductive moves, heavily adorned in makeup and jewellery, their glittery but fully covered dresses being more of a talking point than the uniqueness of their characters and their development with the progress of the plot.
For example, the character of Meena Kumari in Pakeezah, Rekha in Umrao Jaan or Anarkali, played by Madhubala. Despite their conventional clothing, these characters were considered sex objects, the cynosure of the male eyes in the movies.
Though these women were shown to dream about love and generally meet that one true lover, it was as if their life’s sole aim was to be rescued by a man from their ‘unfortunate’ circumstances of being tawaifs. So, all their braveness and their character strength were portrayed only in terms of their love for a man.
I feel that is a one-dimensional portrayal, as well. The strength of their characters could be shown in fighting other battles in life, too, why only for love? Maybe, they ignore the society’s stigma attached to their professions and build a career of their choice in the end? Though, I do understand those times demanded women to be shown in a certain light but still it wasn’t necessary to show all these characters in the same light for one movie after another.
However, there have been a few movies where the strength of Muslim women in films has been shown well. Unlike Nikaah, the film Bazaar, (also released in 1982) etches the character of Muslim women in a stronger light, and not one where they are hapless victims of men’s mood swings.
Bazaar is based on true incidents of the buying of young Muslim women by wealthy people residing in Gulf countries. The two female protagonists are Najma and Shabnam. Though these two women protagonists go through a lot of suffering due to a lack of support from their families and their communities, yet they gather strength and bravely raise their voices against these evil customs. In some way or the other both the women take a stand against patriarchy. The movie also conveys the message how economic independence in women can lead to their independence from being oppressed by society.
Some other good examples of such movies would be Sardari Begum or Bombay. In Sardari Begum, we see a woman who has been abandoned by her family for pursuing a career of being a singer and a courtesan. She is a rebel who chooses to pursue her art by going against the traditions of her family. In Bombay, the heroine is a Muslim woman from a lower middle-class family who goes against her family and community to marry a Hindu man.
Another movie from recent times that does a wonderful job of breaking the stereotype associated with Muslim women is Dor (2006). In this movie, a Muslim woman and a Hindu woman come closer and become friends due to some tough circumstances in their lives, however, it is the Muslim woman who teaches her Hindu friend about a life of independence and freedom.
Recently, even in the movie Pink, one of the lead women character was a Muslim but she was shown to lead a life like her other roommates, without any reference to her religion.
However, such movies are few and far between. Most such movies do not have financial backups of those where Muslims are shown in their stereotypical roles such as a Mission Kashmir or a Fanaa, where the Muslim characters are terrorists or led astray because of the impact of political turmoil in their lives.
In majority of movies, the passive and helpless characterization of Muslim women in films didn’t change much over time. While Pakistani men are commonly depicted as terrorists, Pakistani women are shown in a relatively better way as they tend to fall in love with Indian men, such as in Veer Zaara and Ek Tha Tiger.
If we look at the character of Zara in Veer Zara, she is tolerant of all the wrongs that she is being subjected to, she is docile and doesn’t have a voice of her own. Even though the movie began with her being a rebellious character refusing to bow down to societal diktats, she soon becomes this sad woman whose sole purpose is to dream of being with her lover one day. Though a stronger woman character, Saamiya, helps Zara in uniting with her beloved, yet the character of Saamiya was not well etched other than a tool to just progress the storyline.
Why are there such few examples in Bollywood of Muslim lead characters leading the same mundane life like their Hindu counterparts, facing similar challenges in life, instead of those only based on their religions?
Imagine, if the depiction of Indians would be relegated to only the one shown in movies such as Slumdog Millionaire, would that represent a fair picture of the entire country? Similarly, if Muslims are continued to be shown through the glasses of rigid patriarchy or political strife, doesn’t that provide an unfair representation?
What if movies like Piku or Queen were made with Muslim lead characters instead? Would that make those movies any less appealing? It is high time Bollywood woke up to this realization and started making movies where Muslim women are portrayed as regular women and not as some special set dictated by their religious, cultural and political norms.
Image source: Screengrabs from the movies Nikaah, Mughal-e-azam, Pakeezah, Umrao Jaan.
Kasturi’s debut novel, forthcoming in early 2021, had won the novel pitch competition by Half Baked Beans Publishers.
She won the Runner Up Position in the Orange Flower Awards 2021 for Short Fiction.
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