Can the Muslim protagonists please stand up?
Following the release of Vishwaroopam 2, we analyse the general dearth of Muslim protagonists in our cinema
In the National Award-winning R Parthiepan-directed 1999 film, Housefull, Suvalakshmi’s character, a Hindu, is in love with a Muslim named Hamid (Vikram). She expresses her trepidation over the perception of this difference in religion, and says, "Un kooda irukra ovvoru nimishamum enakku sandhoshama irukku da. Aana naan oru Hindu." Hamid makes light of this: “Appo naa enna Indian Express ah?” Parthiepan by making this casual joke, shows an admirable reluctance to milk the Muslim identity for drama. The emphasis is on the person, not on his religion.
It’s almost been 20 years since, and Tamil cinema is still astonishingly bereft of Muslim characters. Actor Vikram played this role before he would get set on the path to superstardom by another release that same year, Sethu. Barely days after the release of Vishwaroopam 2 in which Kamal Haasan plays a Muslim protagonist named Wisam Ahmed Kashmiri, it’s time to ask a pertinent question: Why does our cinema avoid Muslim protagonists?
It’s important to not confuse this with Muslim representation in character roles, for there have ben a few there, including Charan Raj's role in Baassha and Shah Rukh Khan playing Amjad Ali Khan in Kamal Hasan’s Hey Raam. These were important characters, no doubt, but they are a far cry from the romanticisation and heroism that comes from being a hero in a commercial potboiler. On the other hand, we have had a few Muslim lead roles for women, including in Mani Ratnam's poignant Bombay.
Kamal himself has played a Muslim lead character more than once (Alaavudinum Arputha Vilakkum in which he shared screen space with Rajinikanth for example). The latter, meanwhile, has featured in a number of Hindi films playing a Muslim character. Yesteryear superstars like MGR and Sivaji Ganesan did star as Muslim characters, but typically and in keeping with those times, these strictly belonged to period films or historical dramas like Alibabavum 40 Thirudargalum and Raja Thesingu.
"Sivaji Ganesan played a Muslim character in Paava Mannippu," remembers film historian Mohan Raman, who believes that the lack of Muslim lead roles may have something to do with the filmmakers’ belief that that audience may not really identify with such characters. Citing yesteryear films as examples of filmmakers choosing reach over reality, he says, "There is a reason why in older films, irrespective of the setting of the film, the characters always stuck to speaking neutral Tamil. This was to try and reach out to a large number of people."
This, unfortunately, comes at the cost of some necessary sensitisation about Islam. Filmmaker Thamira of Rettaisuzhi fame, says, “When it comes to Seth Tamil, for instance, we still get fake and comical lines, despite the community having become much better at speaking the language. Muslims typically get portrayed as the others, and generally in a unidimensional way.”
Even with respect to minority religion portrayal, there’s a gap. A 2011 census revealed that Muslims constituted 5.86 percent of the population, merely a fraction less than the Christian population that stood at 6.12 percent. And yet, curiously, the number of Muslim roles played by our top actors pale in comparison with the Christian characters. Mohan Raman has an explanation: "I think it’s probably because many directors are more familiar with convent schools and missionary-run education centres. They typically aren’t exposed to Islam culture as much as they are to Christianity. I think that’s why it’s easier for them to write something they are more familiar with."
Thamira agrees, "Most of our filmmakers fail to understand Tamil Muslims. They think Muslims in our State speak Urdu and don’t get that they have a strong connection with Tamil." He further believes that perhaps part of this under-representation could have to do with the protests that often spring when there’s belief that the religion has been misrepresented.
It’s all in stark contrast to the Malayalam film industry and Bollywood where filmmakers constantly churn out films with Muslim characters as leads, which goes some way in creating an atmosphere of belonging and understanding. Tamil industry’s under-representation of Muslims when it comes to lead roles is despite the increasing number of Muslim directors and actors. Thamira philosophises, “Art and money have to go hand-in-hand. Today, money and good art are in two different places.”
Meanwhile, an Islamic Studies academician (on condition of anonymity) questions why so many memorable Muslim characters played by major stars are painted with a grey shade. In Baassha, for instance, the adopted identity is that of a gangster. One of the roles played by Ajith Kumar in the 2001-movie Citizen is of Abdullah, who assumes this identity to avenge the injustice meted out to his village. Here too, he’s a law-breaker, even if faithful to his adopted religion. We reached out to the director of the film, Saravana Subbaiah, who says that there was some concern over how a Muslim character would be received. “The producer of the film, a Muslim himself, was worried about how the scenes would be received. Thankfully, the audience had no problem at all. Being sensitive when it comes to the portrayal of a Muslim character is enough to win audience approval."
Thamira also believes that another problem is our filmmakers sticking to ‘safe’ genres like romance, comedy, and horror. Calling other film industries like Malayalam and Hindi as more liberated, Thamira cites the examples of Anurag Kashyap's Black Friday and Anubhav Sinha's Mulk. “Compare this with Tamil cinema where filmmakers shirk from making films based on real-life incidents like the Coimbatore bomb blasts. The repercussions of wrong portrayal deter people from funding such films,” he says.
While directors and producers typically blame any potential loss of business, in explaining such under-representation, distributor Tiruppur Subramanian will have none of it. “We are only interested in quality content, regardless of what it is. Kamal himself, after facing stiff opposition to Vishwaroopam, decided to compensate by having both good and bad Hindu-Muslim characters. Typically, the audience doesn’t make a difference between a Hindu and a Muslim character. They see it as just good and bad cinema.”
Irrespective of the merits and demerits of Vishwaroopam 2 — and the pressure on its lead Muslim to be the saviour of the country to be a good Muslim — the film does have a Muslim protagonist and that counts for something. Thamira wishes its lead character was more rooted. “Vishwaroopam does not talk about Tamil Muslims. It is a story set in Afghanistan and hardly a story about our lives. It will make no change as our community is still not accurately represented. Our way of life, culture, and language continue to be barely represented in our films,” he says, and adds, “But when there is too much oppression, the dam will finally give away and such stories will eventually flow.”
Director Saravanan urges stars to use their reach to represent Islam people in films. “A police officer role like Alex Pandian is still remembered with fondness in Tamil Nadu. Isn't it time we had such an adored Muslim hero too?” he asks.
For starters, our stories need to start showing Muslim characters as regular people — police officers, bank employees, IT professionals, unemployed engineers, and entrepreneurs. And it’s perfectly all right to show both good and bad individuals, like people of any community. As Wisam says in Vishwaroopam, “Rendum saerndhadhu dhaan naan. I am a hero and a villain. I'm good and bad.”