Zulfiqar: Yet another stereotype of the Muslim ‘other’ in Kolkata

M Reyaz
M ReyazSep 25, 2016 | 16:15

Zulfiqar: Yet another stereotype of the Muslim ‘other’ in Kolkata

Do you know that Kolkata, “the land of Durga Puja and Rabindranath Tagore”, has a dark underbelly? It has a “small country inside the city of Kolkata”, except “only without a national anthem and a flag”. And can you guess which religion they follow? Ola, you guessed it right: they are all Muslims.

After all who else can ever imagine creating a country within a country - nay within a city - that too in the cultural capital, the land of not just Durga Puja and Tagore, but of many other Nobel laureates, and harbingers of “renaissance” in India - the bhadralok (gentlemen).

Surprised! As a resident of Kolkata, I was shocked when I first got to know of this. Except that the above narrative is a figment of imagination - based on the innate prejudices of many Bengali Hindus - in a much awaited Bengali film, slated to be released on Durga Puja on October 7.

Directed by critically acclaimed filmmaker Srjit Mukherji, Zulfiqar is an adaptation of two tragedies of playwright William Shakespeare: Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. The film is first an out and out commercial venture of Mukherji and is a tribute to the Bard on his fourth centenary, who appealed equally to the gentry and the masses.

The official trailer, which was released over a month ago in August and is being shown across theatres, has created quite a buzz.

Last week, even superstar Amitabh Bachhan tweeted in praise of the film. Amid all this, no one has so far really paid attention to the problematic portrayal of Muslims of Kolkata in general, and Hindustani speaking Muslims in particular, a large number of who are living in the city for generations now.

Commercial films and Muslim stereotype

Commercial films play on the imagery of stereotype of every character, whether it is gay, women as mother or girlfriend or wife, or the new-age working women. There is hardly any shade of grey as characters are represented in black and white.

To be fair to Mukherji, he is not trying anything different; rather he is relying on the time-tested formula of most Indian filmmakers where the villain is invariably Muslim. They are not just everyday Muslim one might encounter in offices or on streets.

Muslim colonies in films always look greener - not because of plants silly, but green coloured flags - and almost all men are wearing skull caps, kohl in eyes, and of course many will sport beards as well.

That they are unruly, picks up fights at the drop of a hat and live in unhygienic conditions goes without saying.  So Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Macbeth could be anyone, but he was Maqbool.

Even worse, anyone, from petty criminals to musclemen-turned-politicians, can have some jihadi connection if he is a Muslim. So in Prakah Jha’s film Apharan, loosely based on the life of Bihar don Shahabuddin and his henchmen, Tabrez Alam (played by Nana Patekar) confesses that extortions, murders and the kidnappings he does are the “work of Allah”. 

It is a different matter that his accomplice in all this was earlier Gaya Singh (played by Yashpal Sharma) and later Ajay Shashtri (played by Ajay Devgan).

Mukherji’s film, however, has gone much beyond these stereotypes. While so far, the imagery of “unruly, separatist and criminal-minded” Muslims would generally be implied subtly, Zulfiqar leaves nothing to the imagination.

The trailer begins with images of Howrah Bridge and Durga Puja celebration; and announces that in the land of bridges, Puja and Tagore, “there is another land”.

The visuals suddenly change to blood on the frame of Tagore with sounds of bullets in the background. The images that follow are about barbarity, bloodshed, butchery, betrayal, suggestions of infidelity and Muharram processions, where young boys are playing with swords and chains, children are reciting Quran, and men are offering prayers in congregation, etc.

All this while the background voice declares, perhaps in the voice of a city police personnel: “Dock area, consisting of Kidderpore, Metiabruz, Garden Reach (is) a small country, inside the city of Kolkata. Yes a country, only without a national anthem and a flag.”

Zulfiqar is a common name, but it was also the name of the legendary sword of fourth Caliph of the Muslims, Hazrat Imam Ali, that is believed to be a gift to him from his cousin and the Prophet of Islam.

Country without a flag?

For those who are not familiar with the urban geography of the City of Joy, as the East India Company set up its base in Kolkata (then Calcutta), it also built the country’s first river dock in the Kidderpore locality, at one fringe of the city. Metiabruz and Garden Reach are on the other side of the Hooghly river bank.

Cheap migrant labourers from the hinterland of what is now eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand were encouraged to settle in the vicinity. It goes without saying that it comprised both Hindus and Muslims.

Though mostly comprising of lower middle class populace, Kidderpore thus was - and still largely is - quite cosmopolitan. Besides the 200-year-old Bhukailash temple, a decade ago, a grand new Lakshmi temple was built by the Goenka family.

In pockets of Kabitartha, Mansatala, Mayurbhanj etc. in Kidderpore, Durga Puja pandals light up the festive celebrations. At many pandals, Muslims are members of the organising committee, bridging the gap between two communities.

Till a few decades ago, many Anglo-Indians and Christians also lived here although now their number is dwindling. There are two churches in the locality besides some of the famous schools run by missionary groups. Two of them are over two centuries old.

The Congress’s Ram Pyare Ram, a Dalit of non-Bengali origin, was MLA of Kabitarth constituency that comprised of Kidderpore, for six terms. After delimitation, parts of Kidderpore now fall under Bhawanipore constituency whose MLA is the incumbent Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, while other parts have gone under the Kolkata Port constituency.

No doubt, Kolkata, and the whole of West Bengal, is one of the safest places for Muslims to live in the current times of communally vitiated environment across the country. From food culture to freedom of prayer, Muslims here enjoy more space than in most states, with the possible exception of Kerala.

That, however, could not make the economic status of Muslims any better, even after more than three decades of Left Front rule.

A voluminous report on the “Living Reality of Muslims in West Bengal” prepared by Association SNAP and Guidance Guild, in association with Amartya Sen’s trust Pratichi India, released earlier this year, notes that Muslims who comprise 27 per cent of the state population are “disproportionately poorer and more deprived in terms of living conditions”.

The Muslim localities in the state capital thus remain a “small country inside the city”, and we, the “citizens” of this “nation” are the lesser mortals, the migrants from “uncultured” Bihar and UP, many of whom also happen to be “barbaric” Muslims!

We can live in this land of “(Durga) Puja and Tagore” and may relish fish, mishti doi and rossolla but can still never by part of Kolkata. We can never call the city our own even if we live here for generations. My father was born in this city, but he will remain an outsider!

It is a fact that not only Kidderpore and Metiabruz, but other pockets of Muslim population, particularly those with Hindustani speaking people, are increasingly turning into segregated communities, like most other colonies. 

In an extremely problematic and prejudicial way, however, Zulfiqar “others” these localities of Kolkata on two counts: one for being Muslim and the other for not being “Bengali”. It reflects on the superiority complex of the upper caste Bengali bhadralok - the custodians of high culture, after all, from Tagore to Satyajit Ray were Bengalis. 

Why no one in Kolkata has any problem with stereotyping of Muslims

As a resident of Kidderpore, when I first saw the trailer I was disgusted at such crass portrayal of Muslims and the locality I call home. My disgust turned into anger though when I googled the name of the film to read about it. To my surprise, most of the news reports were promotional in nature either in English or Bengali.

While everyone has been excitedly waiting for the film, not one article has mentioned this crass stereotypical depiction of Muslims. Kolkata has always prided itself in having some of the best film personalities, literary figures, artistes, political scientists, economist et al, and listing their names would fill pages.

But not one of those bhadralok sadly seems to have any objection to such prejudicial representation of Muslims largely because many of them seem to have consensus on the issue. I spoke to a few Bengalis, from college teachers to sympathetic friends, and they all confided that yes these localities indeed have such an image in their imagination.

In her seminal work, Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition, Professor Joya Chatterji of Trinity College, Cambridge University, has pondered at length over “the construction of bhadralok communal identity” in culture in the first half of the 20th century, even before Partition.

Writing about works of “patriotic historians”, Chatterji noted that by depicting the Middle Ages as a “dark age”, “…they undoubtedly played a crucial part in the creation and popularisation of communal stereotypes, by depicting ‘Muslim rule’ as ‘tyrannical’ and Muslim rulers as cruel, violent, fanatical and sexually unlicensed.”

In a speech at the Hindu Sabha conference in 1926 on “Bartaman Hindu-Musalman Samasya (current Hindu-Muslim problem)”, Sarat Chandra Chatterjee spoke vigorously on how Hindus are “cultured” and that there is no comparison between the two communities when it comes to “essence of learning” and “width of the mind and the culture of the heart”.  

Of course, there were leaders like Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose who questioned the labelling of the “Muslim period” in his An Indian Pilgrim and championed the cause of Hindu-Muslim unity. But from Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Anandamath to Mukherji’s Zulfiqar, Muslims remain the “other”, in the otherwise land of Durga and Tagore even though a large number of Muslims of Bengal are natives who converted centuries ago.

So Muslim prayers, Muharram mourning or children studying in maktab will remain alien to the bhadralok’s imagination of Kolkata even though it has existed in this land for centuries. And in the their imagination, this can never also be the land of Furfura Sharif, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, S Wajid Ali; but only of Tagore and Puja!

Consequently, Muslim colonies may become the subject of a commercial film but these rarely attract the attention of social scientists for ground research, and hence little initiatives towards “mainstreaming” and “integrating” them.

Last updated: September 25, 2016 | 16:15
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