E-Pao! Film Review - Negotiating Identity

Negotiating Identity

By: Arshad Shah *

What is common among these personalities: Dilip Kumar, Johny Walker and Ajit?

Well, these are Muslim actors with Non-Muslim names, which they had assumed in order to act in Hindi films. During the old days, it was not uncommon for Muslim actors to assume such names when they stepped into Bollywood. Stories vary as to why these actors masked their religious identities.

Some sources say, Hindi film directors in those days would not cast Muslim actors fearing they might fall in love with and wean away Hindu girls. Others say it had to do with the Hindu-Muslim divide prevalent in the aftermath of the Partition. Whatever it was, one thing visible here is the Muslim experience in the early post-Partition days, even in urban India.

Rajinder Singh Bedi's film Dastak released in the 70s dealt sensitively with this urban experience, detailing the trials of a young, respectable and lower middle class couple who are forced to rent their rooms. The wife, a singer who has to remain mute in order to avoid unwelcome attention in the locality, feels suffocated and wants to get out.

Rashid, a clerk in the municipal corporation, decides to succumb to the prevailing culture of open bribes in order to find a better house in Bombay. The telling moment in the film, the oblique comment on how the Muslims perceive their position in a Hindu ambience, comes when Rashid gives his name as Nand Kishore to the builder.

In the Bollywood of old, the trend of Mulim actors using non-Muslim names continued until the entry of Feroze Khan, who walked straight into filmdom without an assumed name.

Cut to 2007. What do we have?

A film Chak de India focusing on a Muslim hockey coach (played by a Muslim) and his young girl's team brings glory to the nation. Chak de India is a drastic shift in the portrayal of minority characters, compared to the erstwhile stock stereotypes of Rahim chacha or John uncle as token gestures of secularism, or the modern anti-national "terrorist" who is praying while the Hindu is trying to save a tricolour from being burnt (read: that fascist scene in Roja).

Today Bollywood certainly can claim to be a society with high levels of advanced professionalism where religious labels are not an issue at all and where the need to mask one's religious identity does not arise anymore. We no longer have actors with hidden affiliations ---- the Khans, the Alis, the Rehmans are all real! That's the ethos of a society the ties have shaped.

I broached this topic after encountering a certain non-Meetei-with-Meetei-name case in Manipuri filmdom, the name well intended to hide the actor's ethnic identity.

A stray case though, it's not a trend for concern. For there are about two or three Manipur Muslims in Manipuri films who carry their identities distinctly with their names.

However, what was intriguing about the stray case was this million-dollar riddle, why would a minority actor in Manipuri films want to use a fictitious name? Of course if my name was Ahmad Khan and I would like it to be Salman Khan, nobody would be bothered because there are no issues involved in such an exercise of choice.

The reason for such a change of name certainly is anything but an ethnic mask. Indeed, many Hollywood actors use names other than their own. Ditto change of faith, if we call ourselves tolerant, and because it too comes under the purview of individual's choice.

But here in the context of Manipur, if my name were Ezhou Ali Lilong Leirong Koijom Baba Blackie and I change it to Yongchakmayum Surchaana Sinju Singjangnamei just because I have to act in films, obviously a lot of questions will crop up, for it's neither a change of faith nor a name for the sake of a name.

Why such a situational identity? Implicit in such a change of name is a situation where it is presupposed that the majority community is community-conscious or communal and therefore would not approve of a minority actor----which in reality may not be the case. Such identity-plays I think should be discouraged by both communities collectively wherever found, because it is based on assumptions, and not reality.

And when I use the word "discourage", I don't imply the militant means of diktats. What happened in that particular case was, an outlawed organization banned the actor concerned (a Muslim banned by a Muslim underground outfit) for a considerable period of time; the reason being the actor's intention to hide his identity.

Now that exactly is a problem again. How can we be so fascist as to ram our wills down people's throats? After all, who are we to dictate people's choices? I believe nothing should be authoritarian, including my own views. Change effected under fear psychosis cannot be real. Democratic norms and mores have to be evolved for legitimacy.

Further, picturise a similar "identity-crisis" case but in a different context. Have you, dear readers, come across North-Easterners living in the metros playing Chinese, Koreans, Thais and what-nots in their real ---- not reel ! ---- life ? I am sure you must have.

Carrying our own identity is about having a self-concept (as oppose to self-centrism). It's about helping minorities shed their minority complexes through "conscientisation" (as Paulo Friere would term it); through instilling in them the idea of conscious and educated efforts in their choice making.

"Identity is a negotiation process," wrote Michel Foucault. The sense of self and its persistence through the vicissitudes of time and tide. In a values system where the Western liberal democratic idea of a basis for one culture and one society is not applicable at all, negotiation is about preserving minority identities rather than assimilation.

And this holds good for every minority-majority equation, be it here in Manipur or Manipur as a minority in relation to India. Indeed, modern identity movements are about the respect for oneself as different; not the demand for respect "in spite of" one's differences.

This self was precisely what James Brown was referring to in his famous protest song,

"Say it Loud
I am Black
And I'm Proud
James Brown probably didn't mean Black achievements, for it does not make sense to exhort others to be proud of achievements of which they were not a part. It's the self he was showcasing in the face of rampant discrimination.

* Arshad Shah, a young Mumbai-based journalist, contributes to for the first time. The writer can be reached at arshadshah247(at)gmail(dot)com . This article was webcasted on December 07th, 2007

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