Including some recommendations, and some warnings.
This post was sparked off by a comment, by blog reader and fellow blogger Ava, on my review of the Sunil Dutt-Meena Kumari starrer, Ghazal. Like me, Ava ‘adores’ Muslim socials, and in her comment, suggested that I make a list of ten of my favourite Muslim socials. A great suggestion, I thought. And then thought some more. Were there ten Muslim socials I loved to bits? Were there some which were fabulous when it came to certain aspects, and horrendous on other counts? Were there some, perhaps, that I wouldn’t watch again (except possibly at gunpoint)?
All that thinking, I decided, had to be shared. Also in the hope that it might elicit some responses from those reading this blog post—please do comment, share your thoughts, and feel free to disagree. With the tameez and tehzeeb one would expect in a Muslim social.
Without further ado, then. First of all,
What is a Muslim social?
(And, before anybody leaps at my throat: let me clarify. This is my definition of the term. Yours may differ).
For me, a ‘Muslim social’ is characterized by the following:
(a) Nearly all the characters are Muslims. There may be some characters who are from other faiths, but the main characters are Muslim. For example, while Mala Sinha, Rehman and Ashok Kumar play Muslims in Dharmputra, I’d not call that film a Muslim social, because these people and their lives form only part of the narrative of the film; the rest, including Shashi Kapoor’s character and the household in which he grows up, are Hindus.
(b) The ‘Islamic-ness’ of these Muslim characters. This I divide further into two sub-categories: the tangible and the intangible.
1. The tangible ‘Islamic-ness’ runs the gamut from clothing (usually, achkans and pyjamas for the men; churidar-kurtas or shararas—and invariably burqas for the women) to food, to the way they speak. Which is invariably in Urdu, though its nuances may differ from one film to another, with some older films tending towards more Persianized Urdu dialogues while newer films may be closer to khari boli. There are also, though these are less common, regional nuances—Dakkani (Hyderabadi Urdu), for example.
2. The intangible, the customs and traditions followed. These are many. For instance, there are customs dictated by religion (you’ll rarely come across a Muslim social which doesn’t contain at least one Eid, or a mention of rozas, or at least one person shown at namaaz).
Then, there are mushairas and qawwalis. Since Urdu is a given in Muslim socials, and since songs are a given in Hindi cinema, it’s hardly surprising that Muslim socials are the perfect platform for both ‘literary’ recitations of Urdu poetry (in the form of mushairas) to rather more popular qawwalis.
Purdah forms an integral part of this intangible ‘Islamic-ness’, and is used almost ubiquitously across Muslim socials when romance comes into the picture. In a period when arranged marriage was the norm (and I’m talking not just about Hindi cinema, but also Indian society well up to the 70s and even beyond), the fact that almost every Hindi film had a romance that ended in a happy marriage was mouthwateringly daring. There would always be barriers to the couple’s love: disapproving parents, differing backgrounds (urban/rural, rich/poor, different castes, etc).
As if that wasn’t enough, Muslim socials added yet another barrier, one that seemed designed to prevent love blossoming in the first place: the purdah, which prevented the hero even seeing (and thus falling in love with) his destined beloved. They got around it in different ways—from a marriage followed by love, as in Chaudhvin ka Chaand, to the heroine doing the pursuing, as in Nakli Nawab, but the purdah was an important part of a Muslim social.
(c) The chronological setting of the film. This is where I’m going to be treading on thin ice, because I’m pretty sure some people are going to disagree with me.
Anyway, here goes. To me, a Muslim social is one set in modern times (which, if you think of it, accentuates the ‘Islamic-ness’ of its Muslim characters, who continue to speak in chaste Urdu, dress in achkans, and participate in mushairas even while some of the men do wear suits, and the characters live in modern houses and have everything from cars to radios). Films with a largely Muslim set of characters, but in a historical setting—say, Jahanara, Taj Mahal, Mughal-e-Azam, etc—I’d classify as historicals, rather than Muslim socials.
Partly, I tend to prefer this classification because ‘social’ itself is a word I associate with ‘society’, a film set in an everyday sort of world, of people like us. The world of Mughal emperors (or other royalty, even if fictitious, such as Lala Rookh, Rustom Sohrab, Aab-e-Hayat, Chor Bazaar, etc), even if with the odd dancing girl or lovelorn poet here or there, is not the world of commoners.
So, with that definition (and what I regard as the ‘essential elements’) of a Muslim social out of the way, let me move on to what I like about Muslim socials. Not all, of course, since (like cinema in general), some are good and some are bad. Mostly, however, I’ve seen that there are certain elements that are common to most Muslim socials, and which make me like these films.
(a) The music. From the absolutely sublime qawwalis of Barsaat ki Raat—undoubtedly the best qawwalis in Hindi cinema—to the songs of films like Chaudhvin ka Chaand, Mere Mehboob, and even otherwise dud films like Ghazal—Muslim socials tended to have great scores. Not just good music, but also often excellent poetry.
(b) The Urdu. Urdu is more or less a given in Muslim socials, and Urdu is, to me, one of the most beautiful, mellifluous languages there is. I remember having once read somewhere about the core difference between Urdu and other languages: according to the writer, in Punjabi you could call a person some really filthy names; in Urdu, the worst you could say was a severe “Aapse yeh ummeed nahin thhi.” (I don’t agree, but even epithets like naamuraad, naamaakool, bewaqoof, etc are, in comparison to the MC-BC stuff you hear in Delhi, very tame).
(c) The tehzeeb, the nazaakat, the gentility. There is—not always, and not consistently, but usually—a certain old-world charm about Muslim socials that I find very endearing.
(d) The achkans. Yes, really. Like military uniforms, achkans have a way of making just about any man look at least passable. Even otherwise-not-favourites-of-mine like Bharat Bhushan, Raj Kapoor, and Rajendra Kumar.
(e) And, continuing with costumes: those gorgeous shararas, the brocade and fine dupattas, and all that lovely jewellery. Hindi cinema’s leading ladies, unlike some of its leading men, have invariably been very beautiful, and a Madhubala, a Meena Kumari or a Sadhana, dressed up as the laaj of a nawabi khaandaan? (Or, alternately, as a tawaif, in Meena Kumari’s case). Stunning.
(Incidentally, I think a black burqa, its front flap thrown back to form a sort-of hijab, makes a very attractive frame for a pretty face. I suspect film makers thought so too).
Finally, the Muslim socials I like. I couldn’t come up with ten (partly, I suppose, because I have actually seen fewer Muslim socials than I thought I had when I began writing this post). Some of these films are likeable only for one or two reasons; others are overall good, and films I’d recommend without a second thought.
Here goes, in no particular order, though some of my favourites are grouped towards the top of this list.
Mere Mehboob (1963): Young poet finds himself loved by two women—the one he loves, and her best friend—while his elder sister, a dancer, tries to prevent the world from discovering that this respectable young man is her brother. Fabulous music, and the lead pair—a gorgeous Sadhna and a surprisingly pleasant-looking Rajendra Kumar (those achkans!)—make for some good eye candy.
Barsaat ki Raat (1960): Another poet, another love triangle. And a match that’s looked down upon. The story may not be anything to write home about, but two stunning leading ladies—Madhubala and Shyama—and the brilliant score make up for it. Besides the title song and ‘other’ songs like Kaisi khushi leke aaya chaand, Barsaat ki Raat had by far and away the very best qawwalis Hindi cinema has ever known, all the way from the inimitable Na toh kaarvaan ki talaash hai to Pehchaanta hoon khoob tumhaari nazar ko main.
Pakeezah (1972): A tossed-about-by-fate tawaif falls in love with a forest officer, but realizes that her tainted past will ruin him too. Like the previous two films, this one had a fantastic score—and Meena Kumari’s costumes were lovely. Plus, it had some interesting symbolism, and probably the most famous penned-on-a-train letter (note?) ever.
Nakli Nawab (1962): A nawab discovers that the local goonda is actually the long-lost orphaned son of an old friend. A makeover ensues, and the reformed goonda falls in love with his benefactor’s sister, unaware of her real identity… a great-looking lead pair, an entertaining story, and some good music. A Muslim social that really needs to be better known than it is.
Chaudhvin ka Chaand (1960): An accidental glimpse of a girl’s face makes a nawab fall in love with her. His attempts to discover her identity have disastrous consequences, because in the process, he ends up making his best friend marry (unwittingly) the very girl the nawab is in love with.
Not a favourite as far as story goes; it’s too melodramatic, and the entire premise of people giving up their love for a friend—without asking the beloved what she thinks—riles me. Waheeda Rehman, however, is lovely as ever, and the songs are memorable.
Bahu Begum (1967): A series of crazy misunderstandings, along with the hero’s evil uncle’s misdeeds, result in the heroine being married – accidentally by proxy – to an older man who has fallen in love with her. When her ‘husband’s’ sister is to get married, the heroine – now sheltering with an old tawaif – comes to his house to pose as the ‘bahu begum’ she actually is.
While the three leads were older than they should have been, an engrossing story, a superb cast, and good songs make this better than I’d thought it would be.
Dil Hi Toh Hai (1963): In a refreshing change from the usually demure, eyes-downcast-and-speaking-in-murmurs Muslim girl depicted in most films, Nutan here played the feisty daughter of a nawab; her character falls in love with a poor singer (played by Raj Kapoor)—and he ends up teaching her music while disguised as an old man. Both of them, and everybody else (barring his foster mother) are unaware that he is actually the changeling whom this very girl had been promised to as a toddler. A melodramatic end aside, this is a fun film with some witty repartee and a couple of good songs, including the brilliant Laaga chunari mein daag.
Chandni Chowk (1954): Meena Kumari—in what was probably one of her earliest outings in the Muslim social (a genre she was to embrace, what with Bahu Begum, Benazir, Ghazal, and Pakeezah)—stars as the daughter of an impoverished but proud nawab who is hoodwinked into letting his daughter marry her childhood sweetheart, the son of a gardener. When the young groom realizes that both he and his irate father-in-law have been duped, and that he is unwelcome, he goes off to Egypt, on a self-imposed exile. Shekhar isn’t my idea of the perfect leading man—and Meena Kumari had her fair share of weeping to do here—but this film was entertaining enough, and boasted of one of my favourite little-known songs: Tera dil kahaan hai, which Roshan was to reuse later, as Rahein na rahein hum.
Those, therefore, are some of my favourite Muslim socials from before the 70s. Not that that was the end of Muslim socials; this was one genre which actually did endure for a while. The 70s and 80s saw several Muslim socials, including the memorable Umrao Jaan and Nikaah. Rishi Kapoor (possibly by dint of being the face of 70s qawwali?) ended up acting in a lot of these films, including the popular Tawaif and Deedaar-e-Yaar, as well as rather more forgettable films like Yeh Ishq Nahin Aasaan.
In the recent past (when it comes to ‘recent’, I generally mean the 90s and since), the concept of ‘Muslim social’ seems to have changed. There have been films with a largely Muslim cast of characters (I’m thinking everything from Mission Kashmir to Well Done, Abba, to Haider, Bobby Jaasoos and Daawat-e-Ishq), but more often than not, you see a definite change from the markedly ‘social’ angle of the earlier films. Mission Kashmir, Fiza, and Haider, for instance, use a primarily Muslim setting—Kashmir—to tell a story, but the story is more about terrorism and strife than the aspects I associate with the ‘Muslim social’. Daawat-e-Ishq is, for me, the one recent film that I thought captured the essence of the Muslim social very well, while also being with the times, definitely contemporary.
And, before I sign off, the third thing I’d mentioned at the start of this post: the warnings. The Muslim socials from the good old days that I wouldn’t want to see again. Benazir (which, despite a superb cast, lacks conviction in its attempted boldness about a young man falling for a much older woman). Ghazal, which is ho-hum and melodramatic. Mere Huzoor, which has its moments, but has too much Raj Kumar and Jeetendra (both melodramatic, and added to that a melodramatic Mala Sinha) for my liking. Neend Hamaari Khwaab Tumhaare, which has an interesting premise: very hep, Westernized Muslim girl falls for a man, unaware that his ‘Nawab’ father is actually an upstart who won a lottery—but falls flat on execution.
Which are your favourite Muslim socials? Which are your pet hates?