March 3, 2020
The scene is colored with pastel to usher in the first hint of love. The actors are framed in soft focus, so each of their features looks delicately hand-painted. Of course, Shah Rukh Khan is there, his lips quivering with hesitation, his eyes determined with desire. The heroine can be whoever you want it to be; Khan can evoke chemistry with any of them. He saunters in close and dares to break the silence. “Rahul, naam to suna hi hoga,” he whispers. Rahul, you must have heard the name. Yes, we say, because we’ve witnessed different iterations of this scene many times before.
Khan’s Rahul, a name he has adopted on-screen eight times (tied with ‘Raj’), remains synonymous with Hindi cinema’s most stirring romances. His contemporary Salman Khan is known to play Prem, the dutiful, tradition-bound son. Unlike them, Aamir Khan has preferred variety and gone on to play, among many memorable characters, an aging wrestler, a haunted cop, an alien stuck on Earth, and most affectionately, a mentor to a dyslexic student. Together, the Khans have tasted unparalleled success and longevity in Bollywood.
But India’s most popular Muslim icons have something else in common: they rarely ever play Muslim characters on-screen. And when they do, Muslim characters aren’t always portrayed positively — one study of Bollywood movies from 2009 to 2013 found that Muslim characters were portrayed positively only 25% of the time. While this statistic does not fully capture the nuance of representation, it reveals Bollywood’s failure in reflecting the breadth of Muslim identities on-screen in a country where Muslims make up at least 14% of the population — or hundreds of millions of people.
This isn’t to suggest that Muslim actors must be relegated to playing their own faith. But if India’s most popular and loved Muslim icons are cast as upper-caste Hindu characters to maintain their popularity, opting for Muslim characters only in stories of political crises, then in what other ways is the Hindi film industry abetting Muslim misrepresentation on screen?