Mee Raqsam: In step with the times

Mee Raqsam, a film about a Muslim girl learning Bharatanatyam, promises to break yet another stereotype

Social media is abuzz with the trailer of Baba Azmi’s Mee Raqsam, the tale of a Muslim girl who wants to learn Bharatanatyam, and how her father, despite opposition from conservative elements, backs her. The series, which will be telecast on an OTT platform, is another addition to the changing representation of Muslims in Hindi cinema in the last few years.

We have had examples of Anarkali standing up to emperor Akbar in Mughal-e-Azam and a Mammo here or a Zubeida there writing their destiny, but Muslim women have largely remained limited to the Bahu Begum or Umrao Jaan mould.

The Muslim male was given a little more space. At times, he was a nawab, ready with an Urdu couplet, a vestige of the past who had little resemblance to your Muslim neighbour. In other films, he was a friend, keen to prove his loyalty to the Hindu hero. Javed Akhtar, who himself wrote many such characters, describes them as token characters. There have been some exceptions over the years, like Garm Hava, Coolie, Iqbal, Chak De! and 3 Idiots, but they have been few and far between. Those of us who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s realised the importance of 786 (refers to Bismillah) for Muslims when Vijay wore it as a badge on his sleeve in Deewar, but by the turn of the millennium, Gadar and its variants had begun to demonise Muslim characters and symbols in cinema.

Shades of change

Then, with Bobby Jasoos in 2014, with Bilqees Ahmed playing the defiant private detective, one saw the first shades of change. Around the same time, Chandraprakash Dwivedi took us into the household of Aslam Puncturewala (Adil Hussain), a common man caught in a political game in Zed Plus. It was as refreshing to watch a central Muslim character without a sherwani or a gun, as it was to see Imran (Farhan Akhtar) in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara throwing poetic punches and tomatoes with equal relish.

In 2016, came Ali Abbas Zafar’s Sultan, the story of a Haryanvi wrestler who happened to be a Muslim. His girlfriend Aarfa Hussain is also shown as a wrestler. But where Bobby Jasoos had to grapple with her unusual choice of profession, no such questions were asked of Aarfa and she conversed with Sultan in Haryanvi, not Urdu. It sounded unusual because it had seldom happened on screen before. With Salman Khan and Anushka Sharma in it, the message percolated to the masses.

Two years later, Anushka appeared as Pari, a rare horror film rooted in Islamic mythology. Moody and atmospheric, the Prosit Roy film was about the relationship between Arnab and Rukhsana, but within its layers, it held a deep message on trusting the ‘other’ and how love heals.

Interesting portrayal

Another work that impressed in 2018 with its subversive take on Islamophobia was Patrick Graham’s mini-series Ghoul on Netflix where a ‘nationalist’ woman in uniform Nida Rehman (Radhika Apte) turns in her father for seditious activities, but gradually discovers the truth is much more dangerous than the ghoul she has to counter in the garb of an alleged terrorist.

In Mulk, Anubhav Sinha showed, in the character of Murad Ali Mohammed (Rishi Kapoor), that symbols like a sherwani, skull cap and beard don’t necessarily come in the way of a character being progressive and liberal. Then came Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy, where instead of shayari, the Muslim protagonist (Ranveer Singh) raps. And his girlfriend Safeena (Alia Bhatt) is a feisty medical student quite capable of breaking a few heads to protect her love.

Mee Raqsam looks like it will take this interesting trend ahead, and like Alia, Aditi Subedi too will step into henceforth forbidden territory.

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