Forging Identities: Gender, Communities, and the State

By Zoya Hasan | Go to book overview

Urdu, Awadh and the Tawaif:
the Islamicate roots of Hindi cinema

Mukul Kesavan

This essay was originally meant to chart the relationship between the Hindi cinema and Muslims, specifically Muslim women. There are two ways of doing this. One is to survey the people involved in the making of Hindi cinema—actors, directors, song-writers, composers, technicians, producers—and to cull from them the Muslim personnel. This list would read like an honour roll of Bombay filmdom, but given the acute under-representation of Muslims in virtually every sector of public life, such an enumeration would be salutary. These names could be winnowed further to sift out Muslim women; the individuals on this residual list, given that they suffer the double handicap of gender and community, would glow with that special lustre reserved for exceptional beings. Such an exercise would be legitimate both as enquiry and as homage.

The alternative would be to examine the archetypes of Muslim women vended by Bombay's film industry: tawaifs, begums, khatoons, matriarchs in purdah, pubescent victims of Gulf-rich lechers, the presence, absence and nature of the "modern" Indian Muslim woman in Hindi films—such types and categories could be multiplied.

Of these two methods, the first is a census operation and the second a taxonomy: both serve their purposes, but neither encompasses the singular relationship between Hindi films and Muslim-ness. Since Muslim-ness sounds both vague an objectionable, I shall try to explain what I mean with a parallel: the relationship between, say, post-war American fiction and Jewishness. Let us assume that a literary critic sets out to explain why ambitious American novelists are always writing about outsider protagonists in search of themselves. And the reason, he discovers, is that Jewish giants like Bellow, Malamud, Singer, Salinger, have,

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