For all his copious verbal and textual nonsense, even Jawaharlal Nehru, the Granddaddy of secularism in India, couldn’t have come up with the stealthy genius of Salim-Javed who so subtly, insidiously promoted Islamism in mainstream cinema in the garb of secularism and the “Hindu-Muslim Bhai bhai” template. Deewaar was their high point. They were themselves unable to replicate, much less better their own record ever since.
This record singularly rests on a badge or Billa. Literally. The selfsame Billa No. 786, which after Deewaar, became a ubiquitous presence for nearly two decades not just in Hindi cinema but even in mindless Chiranjeevi (Telugu) flicks with titles like Khaidi No. 786. Oh, there is also the epic Mithun Chakraborthy movie with the no-holds-barred title, Billa No. 786.
And if you think that that hilariously mindboggling scene of “Captain” Vijaykanth ricocheting off a bullet with nothing but his metallic chest encased behind his blue shirt was a pioneering moment in Indian cinema, it’s because Amitabh Bachchan had set a precedent way back in 1975. In the selfsame Deewaar. Only, Amitabh Bachchan is a perpetually angry and frustrated labour-class dockyard worker oppressed by greedy, rich people. Therefore, he cannot afford a metallic chest. But given the subtext of the movie, the metallic chest becomes wholly unnecessary because he has kept Billa No.786 in his chest pocket, which saves him from the bullet. On two separate occasions.
It might sound funny and ridiculous today but if you had lived through that period, these scenes were one of the highlights contributing to the stupendous success of the movie. They actually resonated with the audience back then because they were done so skillfully, and in an emotionally compelling fashion.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
To replay an old record for the nth time, the premise of Deewar’s secularism lies in subtly promoting Islam as a peaceful, benevolent and protective religion, Muslims as poor, hardworking, honest, devout and Allah-fearing people, and monkey-balancing it with enough positive stuff about Hinduism. The atmosphere of the day was not sufficiently conducive to make movies openly bashing Hindu traditions, culture, symbols, customs and Deities akin to say, Haider, Raman Raghav, PK, Leila, and the whole slew of such trash. In other words, enough number of Hindus had not been sufficiently softened to subconsciously accept the snake oil that Islam was a religion of peace and Hindus had to be ashamed of their Sanatana Dharma.
Remember where the scene that first shows Amitabh Bachchan wearing his coolie badge of 786 is shot? In front of the Shiva Temple where his mother, Nirupa Roy goes every day. The camera lingers at some length on Billa No. 786.
In the next scene, we’re told its complete significance by the benevolent and aged Rahim Chacha, the selfsame archetype of the poor, hardworking, helpful and pious Muslim. The dialogue explaining the munificence and protection afforded by the number 786 is straight out of some sermon delivered by a kindly Maulvi in a mosque, complete with Billa No.786 shining resplendently in the morning sun. Here are the lines. For those who want to watch the scene, click this link.
786…hum logon mein is se bohot mubarak samajhte hai. Jaise hota hai na woh OM? Waise yeh 786…786 ka matlab hota hai beta, Bismillah. Shuru karta hoon Allah ke naam se. bohot Mubarak cheez hai beta. Badi barkat hai is mein. Is Bille ko hamesha apne paas rakhna.
Rough Translation: In our community, 786 is considered to be very auspicious. 786 is similar to OM. My son, the meaning of 786 is Bismillah. It’s like saying, “I shall start by invoking the name of Allah.” It’s a very auspicious thing, my son. It is endowed with a lot of prosperity. Keep this badge with you always.
This is truly exemplary script-writing. Right there. Within a space of less than a minute, the Salim-Javed duo pulls off a brilliant subterfuge at softening Hindus to lower their guard vis-à-vis the reality of the core Islamic doctrines despite the lived historical experiences of Hindus with Islam. In other words, it is Halal-ing the Hindus via cinema. In this case, the subterfuge specifically is equating Bismillah with Om. It’s beyond the scope of this essay to elaborate on this point.
Following the blockbuster success of Deewaar, it appears in hindsight that there had to be a mandatory Rahim Chachaesque character in every movie made since then. The supremely annoying A.K. Hangal, the village Maulvi in Sholay extolling Allah and his Prophet (PBUH, as insurance). The pious Muslim Fakir in Muqaddar ka Sikandar, a similar Fakir in Laawaris…then there’s a poor Muslim butcher played by Suresh Oberoi and a Muslim cop character in Sharabi who utter pious stuff about the greatness of Khuda and Rasool …then there’s the repulsive Feroze Khan whose movies featured at least one song or scene extolling the glories of Islam…the list is nearly endless.
The complete gamut of the secularist insidiousness in Deewaar cannot be understood without a comparison. Take the case of Nirupa Roy, the epitome of the ever-suffering but loving and caring mother in the film. She is every inch a highly devout Hindu mother who unfailingly goes to the Shiva Temple and her devotion towards him is unswerving. Yet what does her devotion get her in the end? A criminal son and a police officer son at war with each other culminating in the death of the former.
The cop-brother, Shashi Kapoor’s faith and conviction in Shiva is largely ambivalent and fuzzy but Amitabh Bachchan is perpetually angry with his mother’s favourite Deity because Shiva has done such enormous injustice to this pious and kindly woman. In a very telling scene at the beginning of Deewaar, the temple Pujari tells Nirupa Roy that the day Amitabh Bachchan develops Shraddha (loosely speaking, faith or conviction) within himself, he will automatically come to the temple. Yet the same Amitabh Bachchan instantly develops Shraddha towards 786 after the devout Rahim Chacha explains its divine powers.
Indeed, Amitabh Bachchan’s extended conversation with Shiva in the same temple towards the end is both a brilliant piece of dialogue and scene execution.
It is also an exceptional feat of ideological psy-ops.
The question to ask is this: does Amitabh Bachchan go to the Shiva Temple because he has finally developed Shradda? It’s clear that that isn’t the case. He goes there because it’s his desperate attempt and prayer to save his ailing mother from dying. So when Amitabh Bachchan’s character pleads with Shiva, “don’t punish my mother for my sins,” and we place the whole thing in the context of the entire film, the impact is like an ideological sledgehammer. Shiva is a punishing God who never heeds Nirupa Roy’s lifelong prayers while 786/Allah is a protecting God. As we’ve seen earlier, it is only Billa No.786 that repeatedly saves Amitabh Bachchan from certain death. It is only when he loses Billa No.786 that he is fatally shot and eventually dies. In other words, he loses Allah’s protection. And where does he die? Precisely in the selfsame Shiva Temple.
That is how it’s done. Sincere hats-off to Salim-Javed.
Now, activist Hindu types can blame Salim-Javed all they want but unless they provide a better and a more compelling alternative…well, too bad…nobody respects a constant complainer. On a broader plane, the downfall of Hindi cinema began the day it transmogrified into Bollywood. There was a lull after the end of the Salim-Javed and Angry Young Man and anti-establishment movie era. That lull was filled by the rich and entitled dynasts in Hindi cinema who transformed it into Bollywood. Today, Bollywood has no connection with either India or with reality itself. Consequently, over the last decade or so, it has become artistically barren and increasingly relies on perversion to hawk its wares. It remains to be seen who can fill the vacuum. Scoring ideological points via cinema has brought Hindi cinema to this abyss. Relying on the finest traditions of Indian and classical aesthetics might help.
Javed Akhtar has since shed his cloak and emerged naked as a hardcore Hindu-hater. Like his wife, the highly overrated Shabana Azmi, he also went on to become a Rajya Sabha MP and the couple squatted on a lush government bungalow in the super-expensive Lodhi Estate locality in Delhi. Nobody should grudge them for that but we need to call out their bigotry when they ungratefully claim that they couldn’t get a flat in Mumbai because they were Muslims. The toxic Shabana Azmi went so far as to say that Indian democracy is unfair to Muslims.
Meanwhile, Javed Akhtar’s estranged writing partner, Salim Khan has reasonably remained decent notwithstanding his indefensible defence of his rogue son, Salman Khan.