Romance in Bollywood

Published: May 3, 2015
The writer is the editor and translator of Why I write: Essays by Saadat Hasan Manto, published by Westland in 2014. His book, India, Low Trust Society, will be published by Random House

The writer is the editor and translator of Why I write: Essays by Saadat Hasan Manto, published by Westland in 2014. His book, India, Low Trust Society, will be published by Random House

“Does the wide success of the three Khans (Shah Rukh, Salman and Aamir) in Bollywood suggest that Indians are inherently secular unless politically motivated or manipulated to act otherwise?”

This is a question a woman asked me for a weekly podcast that I have begun doing on the website It is something that I have often thought about and, quite frankly, never been able to figure out conclusively. A variation of this is something that I am often asked when I am in Pakistan, where these is less exposure to Hindus, particularly in Punjab. The editor/cricket administrator/politician Najam Sethi once observed that in Bollywood romances, if there was a Hindu-Muslim angle to the story, for instance in Mani Ratnam’s film, Bombay, it was inevitably the boy who was Hindu while the girl was Muslim. That indicated, Sethi seemed to say if I remember it right, that Indians would be reluctant to accept it the other way around (Muslim boy romancing Hindu girl).

Is this true? I would say not. While it may be absolutely true that some of Bollywood’s directors and writers might think so and therefore script their film accordingly, we need to look to reality. The fact is that the three Khans are either married to or in relationships with Hindus. Four Khans actually, if we include the not-as-successful Saif Ali Khan, married to Kareena Kapoor. There is little or no problem that their fans or Bollywood viewers in general have with this state of affairs.

We could extend this to the screen and assume that there would be not much that would get the audience worked up in a fictional romance set around a Muslim male and Hindu female.

There is a second aspect to this and it comes from the nature of Bollywood’s content and our star system. In most Hindi movies, including the bigger productions, the character of the male lead is not particularly fleshed out and is flat and two-dimensional. Salman Khan plays any character in the same manner, and that is assumed to be the real manner of Salman Khan the man. This tells us that the audience gravitates towards the man and not the character. It assumes that all the angularities and edges and dark places of the man as they have been introduced to him through the media over the decades are true. It also tells us that they admire him for what and who he is. They would really have no problem with him playing a Muslim on screen romancing a Hindu girl.

The point about Bollywood being cautious about such things goes back to the days in which Muslim actors like Dilip Kumar thought they had to give themselves Hindu names to be acceptable. Was their caution justified? We can say from our experience of the great Khans that this is not so and societies don’t change so much in a few decades in our part of the world. Bollywood’s audience in the 1950s cannot have been very much different than it is today, six decades later.

Of course, I accept that Bollywood is only an indicator, even if it is a very good one, given its reach, and that the history of community relations between the two faiths in India is patchy. We have had incidents of extreme violence, even if they are episodic and over the decades they seem to have lessened. And we have the segregation of the communities in neighbourhoods, particularly in the more conservative cities like Ahmedabad and Baroda where it is absolute and where such separation is encouraged by the state through laws like the Disturbed Areas Act.

But do these represent the broad thinking of the communities or are Indians, as that questioner suggests, inherently secular unless they are egged on to remember real or imagined grievances from the past? My view is that Indians, of all faiths, are tolerant. ‘Secular’ is a complicated word and I do not know if I can use it in this instance. Tolerance is something that is inherently sub-continental. One might argue that it comes from the way that Hinduism in its various manifestations is practiced and how this has also coloured other faiths here. I accept that is likely true.

But this brings us to an interesting point and one that the questioner understood. The evidence suggests that we are not communities whose history is one of constant war interrupted by episodes of peace. It is the other way around, and even there the word ‘war’ is inappropriate because such violence tends to be contained within certain geographical pockets. And so I agree with the questioner. Indians are inherently tolerant/secular unless they are manipulated and instigated. This thought made me feel quite good.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 3rd, 2015.

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Reader Comments (10)

  • Pnpuri
    May 3, 2015 - 5:31AM

    I have always wondered why dalip kumar needed a Hindu name. When Nargis and Suraiya remained national heart throb. I still remember visiting Bombay as 10 year old in late fifties the building where Suraiya lived was pointed out. Though by that time Suraiya has stopped acting.
    interestingly of two brothers Feroz Khan qurbani and Sanjay ek phool do Mali , Feroz khan did not suffer for having Muslim name. From Naushad to A R Rehman, Sahir ludhianvi to javed akhtar being a Muslim was never an impediment in India. Even in other spheres of life, like visiting Karim and other Muslim Dhaba /eatery in Delhi or getting your car dented and painted, it is very likely to be a Sikh Or Muslim workmanship Recommend

  • May 3, 2015 - 7:41AM

    The answer is pretty evident. And nothing to hem and haw about.
    Bollywood is basically ‘Aping Western Culture’ Pathetic and sad.
    The Old Graceful Mother India is long dead and gone. Bollywood
    of Madhubala, Nargis, Nimmi, Raj Kapoor, Kishore Kumar, Saigol,
    Dilip Kumar, Waheeda Rehman…..does not exist anymore. There is
    this crass, caricature of an entity churning out nauseous pablum on
    3 shifts a day. Fully reflecting the Indian mindset. Empty, deserted.
    Seems the Bharatis have lost everything. Even their culture.Recommend

  • May 3, 2015 - 8:07AM

    Movies reflects a nation’s soul. They are a capsule of the culture,
    wrapped packaged and presented to you in 2 1/2 hours. Now
    Bollywood, for the last few decades, is truly showing, in bright color,
    a nation lost and confused. A country going nowhere. Is it British India?
    Is it American India? Is it a hybrid of Western/Indian culture? Nobody
    seems to know. However, with the help of Dr Modi, a very scary, dark
    creature, known as Hindutva has come out of the lab from Gujrat. Scary.

    ET moderators please print. Helping Pak’s eastern ‘neighbors’ understand
    their new emerging culture. Nothing mean or nasty, by any stretch of the
    imagination, written here.Recommend

  • Deepwater
    May 3, 2015 - 9:05AM

    @Pnpuri: Many of us consider Naushad, Sahir, Azmi, Rafi, K. Asif, Meena Kumari and others as legends and who hold the highest place in our hearts. The only doubters are the ones that were made to believe that Hindus and Muslims could not coexist peacefully – let alone create priceless memories together.Recommend

  • Tyggar
    May 3, 2015 - 10:50AM

    Tolerance is something that is inherently sub-continental.

    Has Pakistan finally migrated to Central Asia?Recommend

  • ahmed wani
    May 3, 2015 - 11:26AM

    its not about secularism or tolerance…its that all indians inclusing hindu,sikhs,jains,christians etc,, excluding muslims are not that much relgious and are practically..uneducated muslims almost 70% in number are big issue here,,,,Recommend

  • Hella
    May 3, 2015 - 11:58AM

    @Pnpuri, Dilip Kumar was a screen name selected by Devika Rani/Bhagwati Charan Verma. There is no evidence to claim that it was done to appease a Predominantly Hindu audience. Strangely the man himself has shed no light on this. So rest is all speculation by journalists who like to ignore there were plenty of Muslim named singers, lyricists, actors who lost no popularity due to their religious identity. Would Noor Jehan be named differently in India?Recommend

  • Sharfuddin
    May 3, 2015 - 4:11PM

    And how do we explain Pakistani actors taking Hindu names aka Santosh Kumar, Darpan etc.?Recommend

  • sabi
    May 3, 2015 - 11:57PM

    “Indians are inherently tolerant/secular unless they are manipulated and instigated.”
    Its like saying Taliban are good unless they are droned.Recommend

  • Parvez
    May 4, 2015 - 2:51PM

    Nice topic…..your final summation actually holds good for many others.Recommend

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