Origins of the Islamisation of Hindi Cinema

An essay on how the foundation for the Islamisation of Hindi cinema was laid as early as the 1930s beginning with the film, "Alam Ara."
Origins of the Islamisation of Hindi Cinema
Sandeep Balakrishna

Introduction

In Hindi cinema music, Rama, Krishna, or any Sanatana reference or even chaste Hindi, are conspicuous by their absence. ’Alla’, Maula’, and ‘Ali’ proliferate songs. Urdu/Hindustani has completely taken over.

Hindi songs are rare - they’re at best Hindustani (a mix of Hindi & Urdu). Where are songs like hari bhari vasundhara me neela neela ye gagan sung by Mukesh (Boond Jo Ban Gaye Moti, 1967. Producer - V Shantaram; Music - Satish Bhatia, Lyrics - Bharat Vyas).

It is often seen as the ‘fascination’[1]of the Hindi film world that has been partial towards Mughal themes, but I think it has become a culture in and by itself given the political history of this supposedly artistic universe.

This is a fact.

The Bombay Ecosystem

The emergent ecosystem, especially, in Bombay in the ‘30s was all about party politics and economics, and as a corollary, about art consumption. This is the broad theme of this essay.

Popularity of songs depends on the ecosystem which generates and receives it. An insular audience is a utopia. The tastes of audiences are developed and ‘cultivated’ (to borrow from espionage terminology). The popularity and most importantly, the appeal of a song will depend on the distribution of narratives aimed at developing tastes. Sales of strategic narratives grows in direct proportion to the extent an audience is influenced. In that, the popularity of a film with a certain ideological position is a good measure of how much that ideology has been entrenched.

So, if the distribution of a film is controlled by vested interests then its visibility will also be controlled. For example, ghazals will outnumber say, geets as has clearly happened. Exclusive eulogy of these ghazals by the said ecosystem elements on all forums and a complete neglect of geets is nothing but the planned cultivation of taste and of opinion.

Observations

To my mind, the seeds of Islamisation of Hindi film songs were, inadvertently or otherwise, sowed in our first talkie - Alam Ara. The name itself is an indirect Quranic name for girls.[1] Yet, it may also be seen as an attempt to bring about social change, especially in the Muslim community vis a vis women.

Alam Ara, exactly 91 years and 32 days from today, was made by the Pune-born Ardeshir Irani who grew up in Mumbai. He had set the ball rolling for singers to sing and actors to lip-sync and talk. In effect, the Indian film industry got its voice thanks to this Irani whose father had left his motherland Iran, due to religious persecution and settled in Pune.

While Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra (May 1913) is considered to be the first Indian movie and was based on an ancient Sanatana theme, Alam Ara (March 1931), the first Indian talkie was based on a Parsee play. Both were phenomenal successes. But in Alam Ara, barring one, darasa bina tarse hain naina most of the songs were Urdu ghazals.

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The decision to have a Parsee theme and Muslim actors and music may have something to do with a complex mix of the buying power of the Bombay residents in 1930s and the social message to the Muslims who were better off than the Hindus. The distribution of wealth among the population of Bombay was discernibly unequal and surprisingly, categorizable by the faith they followed.

According to the 1931 Census of India, Hindus were the worst off, followed by Muslims in terms of the kind of houses they lived in. The Parsees were the best placed followed by Jains. But by 1931, the percentage of Hindus living in Bombay had considerably declined and that of that of Muslims had increased considerably when compared to the 1921 Census. I also see a commercial sense in making a film that caters to Parsees and Muslims under such circumstances.

However, there is no denying that Alam Ara paved the way for music and dialogue on screen, in India. It was the first to use source music and sound by placing large microphones inside the costumes of actors. So, diegetic sound (that which emanates from the world of story) was first recorded in India thanks to this 124-minute film. Firozeshah M. Mistry and B. Irani were the music directors. But the film did not have a single non-Muslim singer.

Unfortunately, analysis of the music of this film is at present impossible as we do not have a copy of this film. It is not available even in the National Film Archives of India (NFAI), Pune after a fire in 2003 allegedly destroyed many films including Alam Ara. This was denied by NFAI.

The first song (in Urdu) De De Khuda Ke Naam sung by Wazir Mohammed Khan, has clear Islamic exhortations prima facie, and rather dull lyrics:

De de kuda ke naam pe pyaare,

taakat ho gar dene ki.

kuch chaahe agar, to mang le mujhse

himmat ho gar lene ki.

Give in the name of God my dear,
if you have the guts to give.
if you need anything, ask me
if you have the courage to accept it.

Like most other songs in Alam Ara, the one sung by Zubeida is a ghazal and probably based on the rare Raga Kankan or maybe the popular Mishra Khamaj, the latter being more likely.

India’s first playback song mere ghar mohan ayo arrived in 1935 in Dhoop Chhaon when R C Boral and Pankaj Mallik did the scores. The singers were Harimati, Supra Sarkar, Parul Ghosh and K.C. Dey. This is a very difficult song and must have been very impressive on screen too, but our sensibilities have changed so much that we cannot enjoy it anymore.

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The blind singing sensation of the mid 1930s was K.C. Dey (the celebrated singer Manna De’s uncle). He acted and sang with a rather powerful voice which even Manna De has confessed he cannot replicate. Interestingly, K.C. Dey never ever sang for any other actor. Barring one ghazal type of song, all other eight songs are devotional or philosophical.

There were a number of so-called ‘mythological’ films and there were also movies which reflected a non-Muslim and non-Communist worldview. But these were few and far between and were gradually supplanted by critiques of the Sanatana worldview by the Muslim dominated ‘new age’ of cinema, whose strong messaging was done through music.

Connecting the Dots from the Past

Realising the power of this new medium, the following writers’ groups were formed in the 1930s, again dominated by Muslims, but clearly masquerading as the Left:

• The Indian Progressive Writers' Association: London,1935.

• The Progressive Writers' Association: Kolkata, 1936.

• The All India Writers’ Association: Lucknow, 1936 led by Syed Sajjad Zahir and Ahmed Ali at the Rifa-e-Aam Club, who invited Syed Fakhruddin Balley to join. Writers and poets like Hameed Akhtar, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai joined.

• The All Pakistan Progressive Writers' Association: Pakistan, 1947.

It must be noted that the most influential filmmaker, critic, and script writer of that time, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, was part of the PWA and Indian People’s Theater Association. It is clear why Hindi movies were used as a powerful tool to systematically dismantle the Sanatana worldview. Each Sanatana value was deliberately misinterpreted by these Leftists. Here is Doraiswamy’s (2018) eulogy of K.A. Abbas and the Left:

The Nehruvian vision shaped the ideological horizon of the '50s, and given the presence of a Marxist line in Nehru’s thinking, its coming together with the IPTA line did make the ideological scales weigh in favour of a Left orientation in the narratives of the time. Directors, scriptwriters, song-writers, composers, actors all left their progressive imprints in the films produced during those times. Among the well-known actors who had an allegiance to the IPTA were Balraj Sahni, A.K. Hangal and Utpal Dutt; well-known music directors included Anil Biswas, Salil Choudhury, Hemant Kumar and Ravi Shankar; song writers Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Prem Dhawan, Shailendra, Kaifi Azmi were associated with the PWA and IPTA; scriptwriters K.A. Abbas (also a director) and V.P. Sathe were IPTA members; directors Bimal Roy, Shombhu Mitra, Mohan Sehgal were closely involved with the IPTA, as were the dance directors Uday Shankar and Prem Dhawan (who choreographed songs in Do Bigha Zameen (Two Thirds of an Acre of Land/1953) and Naya Daur (New Age/1957).

Conclusion

It is very clear from the above facts that a strong plinth was laid down for Hindi films to grow the way they have grown subsequently. Today, it is the edifice which is held by this very plinth. It has nothing Hindu about it, barring some songs which are based on Ragas. In the strongest medium today - cinema, lyrics, pronunciation, vocal timbre, story plots, background music, sound effects, etc. are all far, far away from what they should have been, had we held on to our Dharmic roots. As audience and as an artistic community, our timeless traditional value systems have been deeply compromised.

References

  1. Indo-Asian News Service & Khanna, P. Bollywood’s never-ending fascination with Mughal era. Hindustan Times. Feb 5, 2008.

  2. https://quranicnames.com/alamara/

  3. Shah, A (Aditi Shah, 4.12.2018) Remembering A Pioneer. https://www.livehistoryindia.com/forgotten-treasures/2018/04/12/alam-ara-remembering-a-pioneer

  4. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/diegetic-sound-and-non-diegetic-sound-whats-the-difference#what-is-diegetic-sound

  5. Film Heritage Foundation. https://filmheritagefoundation.co.in/alam-ara-1931-hindi-urdu-124-mins/

  6. As sung by Zubeida later in a programme. She could only recall one line.https://muvyz.com/moviepage/xs173894/songs/

  7. Doraiswamy, R. New Narratives for the New Age: The Cinema of K.A. Abbas. https://www.sahapedia.org/new-narratives-the-new-age-the-cinema-of-ka-abbas. (21 Aug, 2018). This author has been Professor at the Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi and her article is an eulogy of K A Abbas and the writers’ and theatre’ associations mentioned above.

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