Thursday, 19 April 2012

Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Issai - Inter-religious Bollywood

Artists don't believe in conventions, everyone knows it. Ordinary mortals are expected to follow the social rules, but for artists we are usually ready to make exceptions. Look at Bollywood. It is common enough to find marriages and relationships that go accross religious lines in Bollywood.

But if film artists can go beyond social conventions in their private lives, they also need to sell the tickets of their films. Do people go to watch films that defy social conventions?

In this three parts article, I will look at - (1) inter-religious families in reel-life Bollywood; (2) inter-religious love in reel-life Bollywood; and, (3) inter-religious stories from real life Bollywood. This first part of the article is about inter-religious families in Bollywood films.


Bollywood and mixed religious relationships

Multi-religious societies & Cinema

I think that among all the different films made in different parts of the world, Bollywood and Indian cinema have touched on the issue of inter-religious issues many more times, compared to all other countries. May be it has something to do with the way Indians perceive themselves?

Almost all the countries of the world today are multi-religious. However, most of them do not think of themselves as multi-religious. Or rather did not think of themselves as multi-religous till recently. On the other hand in India, we think of ourselves as being part of a multi-religious country for a long time. May be it is because of our history. It may be also because many religions started in India.

In India 80% of the population is Hindu, though Hinduism can be interpreted very differently among different groups of people in different parts of India, and remaining 20% is composed of different religions. In US, about 75% of population is Christian (protestants and Catholics), while the remaining 25% belong to different religions, including those who do not believe in any religion. In UK about 70% of the population considers themselves as Christians. In Italy, 80% of the population identifies itself as Catholic. So more or less, all these countries have similar percentages of majority groups and minority groups.

Yet, in my opinion, the awareness about different religions and their beliefs, is much higher in India than any where else. Could that be the reason why Bollywood has been extra-sensitive to the issue of inter-religious relationships?

If I think of films from any other country - USA, France, Italy, Japan, Korea, China ... I can't remember even one film on the subject of inter-religious relationships. Even when their films have characters from other countries/religions, usually they are shown in a way where religious differences are not an issue. However, I have seen some American documentary films on this subject, specially on the issue of inter-religious marriages between Christians and Jews.

If you know of some examples of mainstream films from any country touching on inter-religious relationships, please do let me know.

Persons of different religions in Bollyworld

Bollyworld is the make believe world of Bollywood that exists only inside the cinema halls and DVDs. In Bollyworld, the idea of including persons of different religions is so pervasive that it hardly makes news. For reaching out to people of different religions, often Indian films include persons of different religions, most common being Muslims but also Christians and Sikhs, shown usually as "almost family" like friends.

Films where Muslims, Christians or Sikhs or Parsi are the main protagonists are less common, but there are some examples of these. Muslim socials was distinct category of Bollywood films till 1980s with films like Nikaah, Mere Huzoor and Mere Mehboob. However, this genre of films is less common today. Sikh culture has found greater expression in Punjabi cinema, though there are some examples from mainstream Bollywood such as Singh is King and Jo Bole So Nihaal.

More commonly, Bollywood places its main stories in Hindu famlies, while persons of other religions are shown as friends, or less commonly as villains. There was a time when this practice allowed film makers to introduce specific things like ghazals and shairo-shayari in the narrative. It is hard to think of films which did not have such characters from 1960s and 1970s. From Hrikesh Mukherjee, to Ramanand Sagar, Prakash Mehra, Manmohan Desai and Tarachand Barjatya, all their films had such characters.

Even more recently, some of the big box-office successes of Karan Johar, such as "Kuch kuch hota hai" and "Kabhi Khushi kabhi gham", have continued with this idea of close family-friends kind of relationships with persons of different religions.

I think that the basic idea behind it is to make sure that persons of all religions can relate to the film (and make it a commercial success). At the same time, it does reflect the real-life reality of India, where it would be impossible to find any person who has not interacted with persons of other religions in the neighbourhoods, friends and workplaces.

Mixed Religion families in Bollywood

While the more popular Bollywood films used characters of different religions in close family and friendship relationships, they also maintain clear boundaries between them. Thus, in most of these films, Muslims are always married to Muslims, Christians to Christians and Hindus to Hindus.

However, the idea of mixing up of religions in the Bollyworld families has been touched upon many times. When I think of significant Bollywood films that have touched on theme of inter-religious families I think of four films - Dharamputra, Amar Akbar Anthony, Zakhm and Bombay.

There are other significant films like the recent Kurbaan, but I see them more about inter-religious love stories rather than about inter-religious families. However, I do concede that this division into inter-religious love and inter-religious families is arbitrary and subjective.

Dharamputra (1961): This Yash Chopra film was my introduction to a world united and yet divided because of religions. It was about a Muslim girl (Mala Sinha) who has to give away her son, born before her marriage, to a Hindu couple who are her family friends (Manmohan Krishen and Nirupa Roy). Years later, that son (Shashi Kapoor) grows up into a Hindu fanatic and during the partition riots goes to burn the house of his Muslim mother.

Amar, Akbar, Anthony (1977): This Manmohan Desai film is another old favourite about three brothers who get separated when they are young, and grow up in three different families beloning to three different religions - Amar (Vinod Khanna) grows up as Hindu, Akbar (Rishi Kapoor) grows up as a Muslim and Anthony (Amitabh Bacchan) grows up as Christian. One of its most celebrated scene had blood transfusion tubes running from the arms of the three brothers and going into the arm of a blind woman (Nirupa Roy) who is actually their mother, but they don't know it.

The film looked at religious differences as being important for the individuals and yet almost unimportant for the relationships among people. The three brothers growing up with different religions, are shown to be in love with girls from their own religions. They are shown living in the worlds made of persons of their own religions. The film never discusses the impact of religious differences but rather seems to take it for granted that the persons from different religions would love each other "because they are brothers".

There are no religious fanatics or any speeches about religions in this film. Thus, I see this film as an allegory for the ideal multi-religious India, where each religion can maintain its distinctiveness, its own costumes, and yet be like a family.

Zakhm (1998): This is one of the my favourite films of all times. Directed by Mahesh Bhatt, this was an autobiographical film. Against the backdrop of religious riots in Bombay, the film tells the story of an old woman (Pooja Bhatt), who has been burned alive by a Muslim guy. As she struggles for her life in the intensive care unit of a hospital, her younger son, with the help of Hindu hardliners would like to take a revenge on the Muslims. Her elder son (Ajay Devgan) tells the story of their family to his younger borther.

It is the story of a Muslim woman in love with a Hindu film director, who dies in an accident leaving her with two sons. She hides her own faith and brings up her two sons as Hindus, even though she is rejected by her husband's family.

The film had a powerful performance by child actor Kunal Khemu as the elder son, during the parts in flash back, where Ajay tells about his childhood.

In South Asia, the boundaries between religions can often be hazy. Many families carry hidden histories of inter-mixing of different religions. I felt that this film brought out the issue of those hidden histories in a powerful way. It was also a strong voice against the fanatics and the hate-mongers of different hues.

Bombay: This 1995 film by Mani Ratnam is one of those rare films that touched on a vital question in all inter-religious marriages - the question of the religion of their children. The Hindu-Muslim couple in the film opt for a civil marriage and ignore the religions.

However, their two fathers would like that their grandchildren follow the family religion. The couple has twins and thus, the two grandfathers decide that one grandchild can receive Muslim religious knowledge and the other can be Hindu. Only when there are Hindu-Muslim riots that threaten the lives of the two children, it makes them understand the futility of religious fights.

Many mixed-religions couples today are like the couple of this story, who do not feel very religious and who feel that they can continue to follow different faiths. However, the issue of their children's religions is a thorny one, especially when there are family expectations and pressures from the two sides.

The different ways in which families deal with this issue, I think that it needs to be tackled in more films.

Conclusions

Bollyworld often shows persons of different religions, living together as close family friends or relating to each other in positive ways.

In a way it is a reflection of the Indian society and at the same time, I believe that it strengthens knowledge and relationships between people of different religions in India.

The past few decades have been marked by shifting of religions towards more exclusionist and radical positions, not just in India but all over the world. In such a situation, I think that Bollywood's role in promoting a multi-religious society is important.

There are many examples of mixed-religions families in Bollywood cinema. Personally, I believe that in this direction, Bollywood (and Indian cinema in other languages) has been much ahead of all other cinematic traditions in the world.

So if you think of Bollywood films dealing with inter-religious families, are there any films that have impressed you? Are there any such films from other countries, that you know of?

In the next part of this article, I will touch on inter-religious love stories in Bollywood films.

***
This article is part of my reflections for an email based research on mixed religious couples and families. This research is called "Mixed Doubles: You, I and our Gods".

If you are or were a part of a mixed religious relationship or if you grew up in a mixed religious family, please consider joining this research by sending me an email at: sunil.deepak(at)gmail.com

You can find more information about this research at the Mixed Doubles Blog.

***

Monday, 2 April 2012

Firoze Manji: The Voice of Africa

Firoze Manji is founder and editor of Pambazuka News, a newsletter with articles, news and links about different countries, people, civil society organisations and movements of Africa. Pambazuka News provides weekly information and links to articles on new developments in Africa in English, French and Portuguese by email. You can also read Pambazuka News along with its archive of hundreds of articles on its website.
Firoze Manji, Pambazuka News

Recently I interviewed Firoze through email for an article in the AIFO magazine. So this interview will appear in Italian in the issue of June 2012.

I think that for all persons interested in development issues in Africa and in reading and listening to the more important voices of African thinkers and civil society leaders, Pambazuka News is one of the most important gateways. I join Firoze in asking you to become friends of Pambazuka and help in maintaining it independent.

Here is the interview


Sunil: How did the idea of Pambazuka came and how was the idea turned into reality?

Firoze: Pambazuka News was the serendipitous offspring of a programme established to harness ICTs for strengthening the human rights movement in Africa. Its birth was intimately intertwined with an attempt to develop distance learning materials for civil society organisations in Africa. In 1997, Fahamu (ndr: an African network of civil society organisations with offices in Kenya, South Africa and Senegal) set out to examine how developments in information and communications technologies can be harnessed to support the growth of human rights and civil society organisations in Africa. Like many others, we saw the potentials opening up with the growth in access to the internet. One of the outcomes was that we began receiving requests from human rights and other civil society organisations for assistance in finding information on the web, and with disseminating information about their own work.

Initially, we responded on a case-by-case basis, sending off the results of searches or disseminating by email information we had received from others to those on our modest contacts list. But soon the demand became overwhelming. We simply could not respond to all the requests we received.

We decided to establish Pambazuka News as a means of sharing information relevant to the this constituency, but rather than just send out information, we decided also to include op-eds that would provoke reflections about the potentials for freedom and justice in Africa. From a small base of subscribers in December 2000, Pambazuka News has grown rapidly with 28,000 subscribers, and an estimated readership approaching one million. Today we publish some 20-30 articles every week, with contributions from more than 3200 authors across the continent and the African diaspora.

We have published some 580 issues of the English edition of Pambazuka News over the 11 years of our existence. And four years ago, we started publishing a French language edition, and two years ago a Portuguese language edition.

Pambazuka News is used widely by activists, commentators, social movements, alliances and networks to foster debate, disseminate analyses and share information. We monitor some 250 websites related to Africa, and publish summaries every week of some 100 sites.

Sunil: What are the biggest challenges Pambazuka has faced since its inception

Firoze: Perhaps the greatest challenge we have faced has been to keep up with the demand from the growing constituencies that depend on Pambazuka News as an advocacy tool as well as to get an African progressive perspective on Africa and world affairs. To respond to these demands means that we need the necessary resources, and those are hard to find.

There are very few funders who fully understand the importance of what we do, despite the fact that most of them depend on Pambazuka News as a source of analysis and information. And with the growing African awakening that we have written about in our recent book "African Awakening: the emerging revolutions", there is a critical need for Pambazuka News to grow and provide support for the struggles for freedom and justice taking place across the continent.

Which is why we have decided to turn to our readership: we have asked our readers to join the Friends of Pambazuka and to donate to keep Pambazuka free and independent.

Sunil: In which ways Pambazuka has changed and evolved since the beginning?

Firoze: Pambazuka News has grown substantially in terms of the amount of coverage provided as well as the quality of the articles. We have attracted some of the leading thinkers across the continent to write commentary and analyses, while a the same time providing a platform for social movements such as Abahlali base Mjondolo in South Africa and the Bunge la Mwaninchi in Kenya.

We have produced radio programmes as well as podcasts and multimedia materials such as the 'Burden of Peace", a documentary on violence against women during the post-election violence in Kenya. In 2008 we expanded our operations to including a book publishing enterprise - Pambazuka Press. Today, Pambazuka News is produced by staff in Senegal, Kenyam South Africa and UK.

Sunil: Who are the most popular writers or star writers at Pambazuka?

Firoze: There are many 'star writers' such as Mahmood Mamdani, Sokari Ekine, Samir Amin, Horace Campbell, Issa Shivji and many others who are well known - but we are proud that there are many regular contributors from social movements and the activist community who also write and who enrich the dialogue, debates and analyses that appear in Pambazuka News.

Sunil: Any information campaigns launched by Pambazuka that resulted in change on the ground?

Firoze: Perhaps the best known campaigns was the support we provided to the campaign for the ratification of the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa, coalition of some 30 regional organisations, producing special issues profiling important aspects of the protocol as well as publishing a 6-part radio soap opera in English, French, Portuguese and Kiswahili.

We also developed and hosted a petition on the Pambazuka News website in support of women’s rights that involved the development of an SMS function that enabled people to sign the petition by SMS and receive SMS updates about the campaign. This campaign led to the fastest ratification of any international instrument in the history of Africa - today more than 30 countries in Africa have ratified the protocol.

Sunil: How does Pambazuka reach out to French and Portuguese speaking Africa?

Firoze: We publish a French and Portuguese language edition of Pambazuka News. Originally we thought that these editions would be merely translations of the English edition, but in practice these are distinct editions, with articles originated in those languages. As a result, the three editions of Pambazuka News contain articles that have been cross translated from each other.

Sunil: Is there going to be a Kiswahili Pambazuka?

Firoze: I would hope so. There are certainly demands for a Kiswahili edition, but this will require raising resources to make that possible. We also want to develop an Arabic language edition of Pambazuka News, and are trying to raise the necessary resources for that.

***
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