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Islamicate Imaginaries in Bombay Cinema*


Ira Bhaskar and Richard Allen


This book is a preliminary exploration of the Islamicate cultures in Bombay cinema and the forms and genres within which Islamicate culture is most clearly articulated and expressed. Following Marshall Hodgson and Mukul Kesavan, we use the term “Islamicate” to refer not directly to the Islamic religion per se, “but to the social and cultural complex historically associated with Islam and the Muslims, both among Muslims themselves and even when found among non-Muslims.” Our focus then is on the expressive and social forms associated and identified with Muslim culture and their impact on the Hindustani cinema produced by the Bombay film industry. From its very inception Hindustani cinema, via the influence of Parsi theater, has been informed by Islamic culture and the Urdu language, the Persian love stories of Laila-Majnu and Shirin-Farhad, poetic forms such as the ghazal and masnavi, and song traditions such as nazms, ghazals and qawwalis. Thus, while it is true, as Kesavan points out, that the forms and idioms of this cultural imaginary have been constitutive of and permeate Hindi/Urdu cinema as a whole, they are most intensely realized in the distinctive Islamicate inflections of the larger genres of the Historical, the Courtesan film and the Social to yield sub-genres that we name the Muslim Historical, the Muslim Courtesan film along with the Muslim Social which was the only one among these that was so characterized at the time of its emergence. We examine these three genres in order to understand the specific historical and cultural imaginary and its implications that inform this cinema. Moreover, we argue that it is in these distinctive genre forms that Islamicate culture resonates with a historical imaginary that is symptomatic of larger historical processes and experiences, and is invested with implications for the future.   Islamicate idioms and their distinctive genre forms and inflections emerged during the second decade of the silent cinema though little of its early manifestations survive. The first decade of Indian Silent cinema was dominated by the Mythological, the Historical and the Devotional genres of which there is a reference to one film, a devotional on the life of the Muslim saint poet Kabir – Kabir Kamal from 1919 that focuses on a figure who has been historically significant for both Hindus and Muslims. The teens thus seem to have been governed by a majoritarian Hindu imagination. By the early 1920s however, Muslim Historicals like Nurjehan (1923), Razia Begum ...


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