The Muslim Narrative in Hindi Cinema: 20 Picks by Shazia Iqbal

It is strange that in a country whose people are majorly known to walk, talk and sleep Bollywood, the portrayal of its on-screen characters from a particular religion has always been slightly warped. In an industry that churns out hundreds of films every year, only a handful of them accommodates the Muslim narrative with honesty and proper research in place. In the rest, perhaps viewed through a very cylindrical lens of ‘nationalism’, these characters continue to be ridiculously in the black or (seldom in the) white.

But in over a hundred years of Bollywood, we have come across a few brilliant films that have spoken about Muslims – not just as the kohl-eyed villain or the occasional tawaif, but in its entirety – their ways of living, their joys, sorrows, and struggles. Production Designer-turned-award-winning filmmaker Shazia Iqbal curates a list of 20 of these films and pens down her thoughts on them.

Garm Hava

Year: 1973

Director: M.S. Sathyu

Writer: Kaifi Azmi, Shama Zaidi (Based on a short story by Ismat Chughtai)

Starring: Balraj Sahni, Gita Siddharth, AK Hangal, Jalal Agha, Shaukat Azmi, Farooque Shaikh

“Azaadi mili hai, sab uska apne apne dhang se matlab nikal rahein hain”, responds Salim Mirza (Balraj Sahni), when a tongawala demands four times the money because he’s a Muslim. Mirza is threatened that if the price is not okay with him, he can go to Pakistan. Mirza’s response states the theme of the film – that freedom is open to individual interpretation and comes at a price.

Set in newly free India, M.S. Sathyu’s epic revolves around the struggles of survival of a Muslim family that decides to stay back; it was the first time in Hindi cinema where a Muslim family was portrayed realistically, rather than having one token Muslim character. The film got nominated for Palme D’or at Cannes, but was rejected by the censor board and got stuck for 11 months, till Prime Minister Indira Gandhi herself pushed the CBFC to clear it.

Watch On: YouTube


Year: 1961

Director: Yash Chopra

Writer: Akhtar-Ul-Iman (Adapted from Acharya Chatursen Shastri’s Novel)

Starring: Mala Sinha, Shashi Kapoor, Rehman, Manmohan Krishna, Nirupa Roy

The year 1947. A Hindu nationalist man (Shashi Kapoor) searing with hate against Muslims in the post-partition days, discovers he was born a Muslim.

The timeless film has a strong secular voice of the writer and director, and there are quite a few scenes with conflict around religion, culture, identity, that gave me goosebumps because the same mind-numbing political discourse is still happening in 2021.

“Dharm kya aadmi se bada hai?”, says the Hindu mother, who has adopted the Muslim kid. That is what the film wants to say. Humans, who behave like slaves to religion, forget they made the belief system and not the other way round.

This film is a paradigm of a golden period in Hindi films, when films on communal harmony were celebrated – something that seems lost now. Kudos to Shashi Kapoor for playing such a complicated role in his first film (as an adult).

Watch On: Amazon Prime, YouTube


Year: 1994

Director: Shyam Benegal

Writer: Khalid Mohamed, Shama Zaidi, Javed Siddiqui

Starring: Farida Jalal, Surekha Sikri, Amit Phalke, Rajit Kapoor

The first film of the trilogy – ‘Directed by Shyam Benegal – Written by Khalid Mohamed –  Inspired by fiery women in Khalid’s lives’, Mammo is based on Khalid’s great-aunt, who was deported to Pakistan.

In most of his films, Muslim minoritarian identity struggles are at the core of the conflict and I remember Mammo as the first film, where I thought I was seen and heard through Rizoo’s character (a brilliant Amit Phalke). Mammo is the film that defines my childhood and there is so much of Rizwan and Mammo that still lives in me.

I can’t get through Vanraj Bhatia – Jagjit Singh – Gulzar’s ‘Ye faasle teri galiyon ke’ without letting my emotions take over.

Watch On: Mubi, Airtel XStream


Year: 1995

Director: Saeed Akhtar Mirza

Writer: Saeed Akhtar Mirza, Ashok Mishra

Starring: Kaifi Azmi, Mayuri Kango, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Surekha Sikri, Salim Shah, Kay Kay Menon

In a scene where a Muslim man is struggling to come to terms with the growing animosity against his community, and the lingering threat to their survival in the days leading to the Babri Masjid demolition, he questions his bedridden, dying father, “Abba, Why didn’t you go to Pakistan during the partition?” The father (Kaifi Azmi) calmly responds, “Do you remember the tree outside our house in Agra? Your mother and I loved that tree.”

All that I know and understand of patriotism is from this scene. The film uses the metaphor of a tree to express the pain of uprooting, identity alienation, and a lost sense of belonging, that most Indian Muslims struggle with.

Watch On: Mubi

Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro

Year: 1989

Director: Saeed Akhtar Mirza

Writer: Saeed Akhtar Mirza, Hriday Lani

Starring: Pawan Malhotra, Neelima Azim, Surekha Sikri, Vikram Gokhale, Makrand Deshpande, Ashutosh Gowariker

A separate article is needed to talk about the genius of Saeed Akhtar Mirza – there is no one quite like him. The strongest, most authentic, Muslim voice in Indian cinema history, his stories sharply looking at Muslim oppression and alienation as well as conservatism within the community.

Before Murad from Gully Boy made ‘Apna time aayega’ popular, Salim said, ‘Apna time bhi aayenga re’. Salim, the ‘angry young man,’ the confident tapori lives on the margins and society doesn’t fail to remind him of that. Mirza says lack of equal opportunities, education, jobs, poverty – breeds violence; he looks at such violence with sensitivity and empathy. There would be no Muslim narrative in India without the Salims and Naseems.

Watch On: Mubi


Year: 1978

Director: Shyam Benegal

Writer: Shyam Benegal, Ismat Chughtai, Satyadev Dubey (Adapted from Ruskin Bond’s novella, A Flight of Pigeons)

Starring: Shashi Kapoor, Nafisa Ali, Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Jennifer Kendal, Ismat Chugtai.

Shashi Kapoor’s Javed Khan is a Pathan soldier obsessively in love with a British girl, Ruth (Nafisa Ali). Set against the 1857 sepoy mutiny, Shyam Benegal’s masterpiece is a heart-wrenching love story, that shows the struggles of a flawed man, suffering in love, unable to let go of his obsession.

In a masterfully choreographed scene where the metaphorical pigeons of ‘peace’ are killed by Sarfaraz (Naseer), he screams, ‘Hum dilli haar gayein!’, and you feel every inch of the last nail in the coffin of Javed’s love. For me, Javed and Ruth still exist in some parallel world. Some characters don’t leave us. Ever.

Watch On: YouTube

Shatranj Ke Khiladi

Year: 1977

Director: Satyajit Ray

Writer: Satyajit Ray, Shama Zaidi, Javed Siddiqui (Adapted from Munshi Premchand’s novel of same name)

Starring: Sanjeev Kumar, Saeed Jaffrey, Amjad Khan, Shabana Azmi, Farida Jalal, Richard Attenborough.

Set in 1856, Ray’s first Urdu language film is a political satire about two noblemen, Mirza Sajjad Ali and Mir Roshan Ali (Sanjeev Kumar, Saeed Jaffrey), who are addicted to chess to a point of losing everything, at a time, when the British forces were proceeding to annex their kingdom (Awadh) and overthrow its ruler, Wajid Ali Shah (Amjad Khan). The conflict of the last few scenes shows the complexity and ugliness of human nature – a trait in Premchand’s story, masterfully choreographed by Ray.

The film questions if art is enough for human existence, and at the cost of political power and nobility. A favourite on the 9pm cable TV during my growing up years, I have lost count of the number of times I have watched the film.

Watch On: Amazon Prime, Hotstar, Mubi, JioCinema, Airtel XStream, YouTube


Year: 2003

Director: Vishal Bhardwaj

Writer: Vishal Bhardwaj, Abbas Tyrewala (Adapted from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth)

Starring: Irfan Khan, Tabu, Pankaj Kapur

Adapted from Macbeth, the first film in the Shakespeare trilogy brought in the next generation of alternate cinema – a cusp between arthouse and mainstream cinema. Since then, Bhardwaj has successfully managed to create a genre of his own.

An ingenious Pankaj Kapoor, a ferocious Tabu, and a flawless Irrfan Khan – Maqbool gave us a legend – someone who got his first lead role in a big film, fifteen years after his debut. Abbaji’s menacing dialogue, “Gilauri khaya karo gulfaam…. zabaan kabu mein rehti hai!” has a separate fan base.

Watch On: Amazon Prime, Hotstar, MX Player, YouTube


Year: 1998

Director: Mahesh Bhatt

Writer: Mahesh Bhatt, Tanuja Chandra, Girish Dhamija

Starring: Pooja Bhatt, Ajay Devgan, Kunal Khemu, Nagarjuna

Zakhm was based on Mahesh Bhatt’s childhood years of being raised by a Muslim mother, who was in a complicated relationship with a Brahmin man.

Bhatt got critical and commercial success with the film and it won the Nargis Dutt National award for best film on national integration. Set during the ’92 riots in Bombay, like Dharmputra, Zakhm too, has a Hindu nationalist character, who discovers that his mother is a Muslim. Zakhm’s music was hugely popular, particularly the lyrical, ‘Gali mein aaj chand nikla

Watch On: YouTube


Year: 1995

Director: Mani Ratnam

Writer: Mani Ratnam, Umesh Sharma

Starring: Manisha Koirala, Arvind Swami, Nassar

The second in Ratnam’s trilogy of films that show struggle in human relationships against a background of violence; the other two were Roja and Dil Se. For Bombayites, who lived through the trauma of the ‘92 riots, the film was an emotional purge. I remember watching it in a single-screen theatre with my family and the entire theatre was sniffling during Arvind Swamy’s climactic monologue and the tear-jerking reunion with the kids. I didn’t know films could make you feel this way.

AR Rahman’s haunting music made it the best-selling album at the time – Kehna hi kya, Bombay Theme, Humma Humma – played everywhere.

Watch On: Amazon Prime, Mubi, Voot, YouTube

Black Friday

Year: 2004

Director: Anurag Kashyap

Writer: Anurag Kashyap

Starring: Pawan Malhotra, Kay Kay Menon, Aditya Srivastav, Zakir Hussain

Kashyap’s controversial film, adapted from Hussain Zaidi’s Black Friday: The True Story of the Bombay Bomb Blasts was banned for two years. The critically acclaimed film enjoys cult status now and started the independent wave in Indian cinema, making Kashyap the auteur that he is known as. It inspired a bunch of new filmmakers to make low-budget, content-driven films, while mainstream Bollywood was just starting with the 100-crore-club game.

Black Friday will find a place in every list of contemporary Indian cinema.

Watch On: Netflix, Hotstar


Year: 2008

Director: Nandita Das

Writer: Nandita Das, Shuchi Kothari

Starring: Deepti Naval, Naseeruddin Shah, Tisca Chopra, Sanjay Suri, Paresh Rawal, Inaamulhaq, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Shahana Goswami

Nandita Das’ sensitive and scathing debut film based on the 2002 Gujarat riots traumatized me; one of the two films on this list that I will not watch again. The normalcy with which Das showed how regular people – your neighbour, your friends can turn into predators, had a chilling effect in every scene of the film.

Highly recommended for anyone who has voted for the current government. 

Watch On: Amazon Prime, Zee5, Mubi, JioCinema, YouTube


Year: 2014

Director: Vishal Bhardwaj

Writer: Vishal Bhardwaj, Basharat Peer (Adapted from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet)

Starring: Shahid Kapoor, Tabu, Kay Kay Menon, Shraddha Kapoor, Narendra Jha

The last film in Bhardwaj’s trilogy, adapted from Shakespeare’s Hamlet is also his best work. A mainstream Indian film that showed courage, unlike any other contemporary film by making its protagonist, a Kashmiri separatist. The film calls out atrocities committed by the Indian State but through a humane lens, and shows the struggle on both sides. I am in awe of Bhardwaj’s vision, voice and chutzpah. And the soul-stirring songs!

Fortunately, it was released at a time when India had just started shifting from being a democracy to an autocracy. There is no way a Haider can be made or get a release in theatres now.

Watch On: Netflix, Zee5


Year: 2012

Director: Hansal Mehta

Writer: Hansal Mehta, Apurva Asrani, Sameer Gautam Singh

Starring: Rajkummar Rao, Mohammed Zeeshan

Based on the life and murder of Shahid Azmi, a human rights activist and lawyer, who fought for the rights of marginalized men framed in terror cases. Hansal Mehta did such a fine job of telling such a complicated story with so much sensitivity and empathy.

And it gave us Rajkumar Rao!

Watch On: SonyLiv

Sardari Begum

Year: 1996

Director: Shyam Benegal

Writer: Khalid Mohamed, Shama Zaidi

Starring: Kirron Kher, Amrish Puri, Smriti Mishra, Surekha Sikri, Rajit Kapoor

Through Sardari’s character, a thumri singer, who is obsessed with music, the film tackles the oppressive nature of families and how parents selfishly burden their children with their wants and leftover dreams, at the cost of young people’s agency and freedom.

Almost, every scene in Sardari begum screams female rebellion. The second film in the trilogy, Khalid based Sardari’s character on his aunt.

Watch On: Amazon Prime, YouTube


Year: 2001

Director: Shyam Benegal

Writer: Khalid Mohamed, Javed Siddiqui

Starring: Karishma Kapoor, Manoj Bajpayee, Rekha, Rajit Kapoor, Surekha Sikri, Rahul Singh

The fourth film in this list that is directed by master filmmaker Shyam Benegal and the third film in the trilogy, inspired by Zubeida’s life (writer’s mother), who was married to King Hanwant Singh of Jodhpur. Khalid was reluctant to pen down his mother’s story, but Benegal convinced him to do so. At a time, when women had no agency, Zubeida was about a fierce woman, who fought her way to be her own person, even though people close to her kept failing her. 

Props to Shyam Benegal for telling so many Muslim stories and not falling prey to stereotyping the community, not even in his most mainstream film. Having an inside voice as a writer is the first and most important step to ensure that.

Watch On: YouTube

1947: Earth

Year: 1999

Director: Deepa Mehta

Writer: Deepa Mehta

Starring: Nandita Das, Aamir Khan, Rahul Khanna

Adapted from Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel, Cracking India, it’s the second film in Mehta’s ‘Fire-Earth-Water’ trilogy. Set in Lahore, in the days leading to the partition, Shanta (Nandita Das) is a nanny, who is caught between the attentions of two Muslim men (Amir khan, Rahul Khanna). Mehta doesn’t waste time in romanticizing the ‘idea of India’ and questions humans at their most complex, ugliest self.

Last year, I read Yashpal’s This is Not that Dawn – a feminist masterpiece, set around pre and post-partition days, and it kept reminding me of moments and visuals from Earth. I didn’t know that the film had such an impression on my worldview and politics and was quite triggering at the same time.


Year: 1960

Director: K. Asif

Writer: K. Asif, Kamal Amrohi, Ehsan Rizvi, Wajahat Mirza, Aman

Starring: Madhubala, Dilip Kumar, Prithviraj Kapoor

A tragic love story, K. Asif’s monumental cult was sixteen years in the making. The fourth film adaptation of ‘Anarkali’, a play set in Lahore, was written by Imtiyaz Ali ‘Taj’ in 1930. The most expensive film in Indian Cinema (till Bhansali’s Devdas) made its director bankrupt and put him in huge debts. He was called a madman, who didn’t know what he was doing and was deserted by producers, finances and distributors. Eventually, when the film released, it was the biggest hit and made records that lasted for the next fifteen years.

“Mughal-e-Azam is a tribute to the imagination, hard work and grandeur of its maker,” Filmfare wrote in its review. The song, ‘Pyaar kiya toh darna kya’ was re-written more than a hundred times and the set cost 10 lakhs. With permission from the Indian defense ministry, animals and soldiers from the Indian Army were used for war scenes. Days before the film released, people started gathering outside the Maratha mandir and roughly a lakh people created a riot-like situation and cops had to be called on the premiere day. The film is full of such awe-striking trivia.

K. Asif had said no film would break Mughal-e-Azam’s record for the next hundred years; sixty years down, the man was absolutely right.

Watch On: Hotstar, Airtel XStream, YouTube

Chak De! India

Year: 2007

Director: Shimit Amin

Writer: Jaideep Sahani

Starring: Shah Rukh Khan, Vidya Malvade, Sagarika Ghatage

Tackles so many biases, so many different layers of discrimination – right from parents and partners at home to the State. Apart from a hundred other reason, what I love about the film is that a Muslim man didn’t have to be overtly patriotic to redeem himself. The subtlety with which the love of the land finds its way – the slow flutter of the Indian flag in the last game is so beautifully done – better than all the flag close-ups in the jingoistic films these days.

And Shah Rukh Khan as Kabir Khan. ‘Maula mere le le meri jaan…

Watch On: YouTube


Year: 2005

Director: Nagesh Kukunoor

Writer: Nagesh Kukunoor, Vipul K. Rawal

Starring: Shreyas Talpade, Naseeruddin Shah, Shweta Basu Prasad, Girish Karnad

Love love love this namesake film! A deaf and mute boy who wants to bowl for the Indian Cricket team; his younger sister, who is his ‘voice’; an ex-cricketer-turned-coach who is consumed by alcohol; a father who hates cricket, gave us a compelling and inspiring story of how persistence wins against all odds.

“Kuch aisa kar ke dikha, khud khush ho jaaye khuda…”

Aashayein’ became the theme song for so many of us, who wanted to do something in life, but unlike Iqbal, had no idea.

Watch On: Zee5

Special Mentions:

Abhishek Chaubey’s Ishqiya, Fareeda Mehta’s Kali Salwaar, Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy, Khalid Mohamed’s Fiza, Abhishek Kapoor’s Kedarnath.

Shazia Iqbal is an award-winning filmmaker who has recently won accolades for her powerful short film, Bebaak. She has also been working as a production designer for over a decade in the Indian film and television industry.

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