With a middle-finger to stereotyping, Paatal Lok wins big with Imran Ansari — a law-abiding, soft-spoken Muslim gentleman —a not-so-commonly seen phenomenon in Indian depiction of Muslim characters

If you didn’t pick up on his name in the first episode of Paatal Lok, you almost miss the fact that he is Muslim. To rub it in, in an uncomfortable scene while roughly interrogating Kabir M, a suspect, Jaideep Ahlawat’s Hathi Ram Chaudhary apologises to his right hand man, the young and green Imran Ansari, for using a derogatory term while talking to Kabir. He blames it on “heat of the moment”. Imran smiles and brushes it off. He must be used to it by now. Most Muslims are. In the latter episodes, the show tries to make Imran’s religion a more prominent topic of conversation — his colleagues discussing his failures, a fellow interviewee during his civil services screening telling him that he needn’t worry as he’ll surely get in through the minority quota — and props him up like many urban Muslims who want to break through decades of assumptions, judgements, and stigma.

Portrayed with astute perfection, nuance, and insight by Ishwak Singh, Imran Ansari is a handsome, young, wide-eyed idealist. He is fit but not well-built, is soft-spoken, and sports an Indian good-boy haircut. He is always formally dressed. Always polite. Even when he is angry, he is not rude or disrespectful. He is not sarcastic or snide. He is not intimidating. He has been a model policeman and is diligently studying for the administrative exams, later cracking them too. He believes in the rule of law, in justice, in doing things by the book, and most importantly, in human kindness. If you met Imran, you’d say that he is a Hufflepuff within minutes. I’d call him a Hermione too. Imran’s a nerd. But Imran is also warm and affable. You would want to be friends with Imran. Unlike Hathi Ram, Imran hasn’t been hardened by the inequalities of life yet. Imran hasn’t lost faith in humanity. He is the perfect foil for Hathi Ram’s frustration and angst, creating a wonderful balance.

But, when was the last time we saw a subodh baalak Muslim man on our screens? That leads to a more uncomfortable question: when was the last time we saw a positive, non-villain, male Muslim character in Bollywood (film and OTT)? A regular Muslim chap, not riddled by history or dark secrets, not running from the law or aiding corrupt activities, not a terrorist, not a slumdog or a gun lord, not a Qawwal or an Urdu poet or a shayari enthusiast, not involved in a grisly interfaith love story with a rowdy gun-totting bunch of brothers, not a pimp, not a fundamentalist or a sympathiser, not a family affected by a member’s unlawful connections, or not maligned by Islamophobia or agenda. These are broad strokes, but also the most common male Muslim representation in Bollywood. So, I decided to dig deeper. When I look at the feature films and web shows released since 2010, what I find is an appalling imbalance. In feature films, over ten years since 2010, the male lead is Muslim in only 38 films. Out of the 38, the Muslim lead plays a non-stereotype role in only 8 films. These 8 roles are characters that have religion-agnostic plotlines — something most Bollywood leading characters are. But, by default, even when the plotlines are religion-agnostic, the faith of the character is Hindu.

 

In the web show space, only one web show, Taj Mahal 1989, has a religion-agnostic plotline for a Muslim male lead. Imran Ansari isn’t a lead role either, but is a much wanted breath of fresh air. When I read up on the plotlines of every released Hindi film and web show for the last ten years, I realised that so many of the leading men could have belonged to any other faith, not just Islam. Is it that the moment a Muslim character is introduced, the collective consciousness immediately expects a political or communal backstory and undercurrent? Zoya Akhtar’s Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara is a fine example of a Muslim character having a religion-agnostic character graph. Farhan Akhtar’s Imraan Qureshi is not defined by his Muslim identity. But then, why is it, that even when characters, so many of them, are not defined by their faith, they are always written as Hindu characters?

Let’s look at possible narrative restrictions that religion tends to pose while building a character in Bollywood: Maybe, if creating a big, fat Sikh family drama, it makes most sense —although, not necessarily — to place it in northern India or have some connection to northern India. But, while Christian families reside in every state in this country, Bollywood has happily stereotyped certain cities or states as “Christian states” whenever they need a “Christian” tapestry for the story. Goa has been the biggest victim of this unfair business, given the large Konkani and Maharashtrian Hindu population of the state. When telling Muslim stories, Bollywood’s favourite spaces are Delhi and Mumbai — Delhi, for its poetry and old world charm, and Mumbai for its underworld. Over the last decade, with the rise of content-driven “real India” stories, UP has also found favour with Bollywood, with scope for both poetry and crime when basing Muslim characters. But do we find Muslim stories from Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, or down south? If I really had to congratulate Prime Video’s The Family Man, it would be for introducing the Malayali Muslim (albeit as a terrorist) to Bollywood and north India — a phenomenon many seemed to be unaware of. I read a bunch of surprised comments online, the funniest of which was “how can a south Indian be a terrorist?” The number of problems with that question is just too much to unpack. Evidently, narrative restrictions exist only in the minds of the writers, directors, and creators.

How would it matter if Aditya Roy Kapur’s character belonged to any other faith in Ok Jaanu? Or Rajkummar Rao’s, in Trapped? SRK in Dilwale or Varun Dhawan in Judwaa 2? These are just a few of the many leading male characters we have written in the last ten years whose religion, in no way, affects the character’s identity or the narrative. From Housefull to Golmaal to Baaghi, we have built franchises that could just have had leading men who were Muslim. Or Christian. Or anything else. Why do we think of writing a character as Muslim only when we are writing a villain? What’s worse is, if the last ten years is to be seen, unless the villain’s a terrorist, we don’t think of Muslims even then.

In the US and Europe, black and Asian actors most commonly say that “how can I make my presence felt when roles are not even written for people who look like me?” But that is not the case with faith. People of all faiths look the same in this country. We, as creators and showrunners, decide what people of a certain faith shall look like in our films and shows. And, for decades, the most consumed entertainment industry in the world — by default, due to sheer volume of release and population — has been peddling old and wretched typecasting.

Which is why, Imran Ansari is a welcome change that should be celebrated.