As I braced myself to watch Sooryavanshi, I was truly prepared for a couple of chest-thumping dialogues peppered with ‘Bharat, Hindustan, watan, mar mitane ke liye tayaar’ and leaving the theatres, I was not disappointed in that respect. And that it starred Akshay Kumar, who has been anointed the “poster boy of Hindutva” in the past, is one of the prominent reasons why. But what we also got to see was an appeasement to one of the most persecuted religious minorities in India at the moment: the Muslims, through a narrative of good Muslims vs bad Muslims. The trope emphasised on how ‘despite their religion and history’, there are still ‘good Muslims’ present in the country. Good, in this Rohit Shetty film, refers to Muslims who do not question the government or the police, who do not resent the system because of the wrongs committed against them by the system, or those who will go above and beyond to prove their loyalty to the country.
In Sooryavanshi, there is one token Muslim police officer who is held up as an example of being ‘ek accha mussalmaan’ (a good Muslim), whose father served in the police as well. In a scene, Akshay Kumar pats both the officer and his father on the back, like kids who are rewarded a piece of candy each, while bestowing the honour of being called ‘a good Muslim’ in front of a suspected terrorist who was brought in for questioning, and who is (yes, you guessed it right), a Muslim. This is the starting point for an undercurrent commentary about ‘Hindustan ke mussalmaan’, which then delves into the dichotomy of a ‘bad’ Muslim and a ‘good’ Muslim, the proof of being the latter lying in their readiness to die for their country.
Sooryavanshi is the latest in a long line of films that often take showing ‘two sides of the same coin’ quite literally. There has to be at least one Muslim police officer, otherwise how will the community be a part of India? There are dozens of Muslim terrorists, and more than often, there is at least one scene where either the Muslim police officer confronts and questions the terrorist OR silently stands while he’s being raved around by the protagonist. And why would there be more than one Muslim cop, when Mumbai’s 46,000-strong force had merely 1200 Muslim police personnel, according to a 2015 report?
Just when I thought it could not get worse, a dialogue in Sooryavanshi goes, ‘Jitni nafrat Kasab ke liye utni izzat Kalam ke liye.‘ Bollywood has seldom attempted a complicated portrayal of a Muslim character, on the lines of Hansal Mehta’s Shahid, MS Sathyu’s Garm Hawa, based on a short story by Ismat Chughtai, Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday, and Nandita Das’s Firaaq. However, films like these require a nuanced and empathetic perspective towards conflict and religion, and the deep impact that they have on an individual. However, films like Sooryavanshi conveniently ignore that and instead, place the Muslim community as either good or bad and aid in the portrayal of the villainisation of the religion instead of the terrorist act.
A particular section of the film really tries to hammer the narrative of secularism in a country that has been fraught with increasing communal violence in the last few years. There’s a slow-mo shot of a saffron flag against a mosque, where the Muslim officer conveniently reaches a temple and a Muslim woman warns a Hindu shopkeeper about a bomb because Hindu-Muslim bhai-bhai (Hindu-Muslim are brothers). To drive the final nail into the coffin, a group of Muslim men help pick up the Ganesh statue from the temple and keep it in the, you guessed it, mosque, where it’s safe.
In the film, there is a constant narrative of Muslims being appealed to and pleaded with to ‘not fall prey to religious discourse’ and ‘think rationally’ and ‘for the country’s good’. Their religion is a collection of overused symbols on screen: the skull cap, the azaan, the mosque and so on… so that the audience knows just how Muslim they are. Bigotry is veiled in the garb of patronisation and the ‘good’ Muslims are not only patriotic but also obedient. Moreover, it’s made to seem like the whole act of ‘defying’ their ‘nature’ is like going through an agnipariksha (an ordeal through fire), because, of course, they will side with religion unless a patriotic police officer doesn’t come and appeal to them.
The lofty goal of saving India from the big, bad Pakistani Muslim terrorists is the arc most Bollywood police films take all the time. Complex and complicated stories are out of the question. Even if it’s a formulaic masala entertainer, it has to come laced with some good old lectures about ‘Hindustan ka saccha mussalmaan’. It’s time to be a little more empathetic and include real stories of how terrorism (irrespective of the religion of the terrorists involved) is fought in the country, maybe without the tired juxtaposition of religious and national motifs?
Featured image source: hitmoviedialogues