Saif on religion and Rensil D’Silva’s ‘Jehad’

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BAD AGAIN: Actor Saif Ali Khan takes up a negative role in his latest film on extremism.

Mumbai: Actor Saif Ali Khan was born and brought up in a liberal atmosphere. He was not religious and didn’t bother much about politics. That changed when he started working in Rensil D’Silva’s tentatively titled movie Jehad.

The actor gets out of his zone to play an Islamic fundamentalist in the movie. “Yes, I play an Islamic fundamentalist while Vivek Oberoi plays the more moderate Muslim,” said Saif.

“The role has not only made me more politically aware, it has also made me more religious. I knew a lot of things about Islam. But I was always more spiritual than religious. Working in Rensil’s film has made me know more about the religion. I did a lot of reading on Islam during this film. I always believed in the higher power,” Saif told IANS.

“The one most decisive thing that I learnt had to do with Allah–we tend to presume that to be the Muslim god. But Allah is the Arab word for the same God, or the one true God. That, I thought, was a wonderful thing to learn while playing this character.

“All religions believe in the oneness of God. So what’s all the fighting about? Whether it’s Christianity, Islam or Judaism, many of the religions have fought a holy war at one time or another. It’s been a part of religious history,” said the actor.

Saif has played a bad guy before in Ek Hasina Thi and Omkara. But he admits playing a negative character in this film has changed his perception towards life and religion.

“It’s the most politically relevant character I’ve played. Though my Langda Tyagi in Omkara was a political creature, his politics was subverted. In Rensil’s film, I play the jehadi as a very real and suave gentleman, dressed in very dapper clothes like a college professor, and hence more frightening.”

Tell him that Irrfan Khan says being a Muslim he’d never play a terrorist and that he turned down Vivek’s role in Jehad, Saif replied: “Did he? To me, the whole point of being an actor is to become characters I can’t be in real life.

“My character is redeemed at the end. But even if he wasn’t, I’d still say yes to a role that explores my emotions that lie too deep for fears and tears. My character in Rensil’s film has become the way he has because of the way Americans have treated Afghanistan and other Islamic states.”

The Mumbai terror attacks in Mumbai has not affected the way he looks at his character in the film. “I don’t think 26/11 or earlier 9/11 are Islamic acts. No matter what people say, I don’t think any terrorist is a Muslim. Let’s make that distinction very clear. Of course, the population of Afghanistan may disagree with me. But I condemn 26/11 as a deed done by non-Muslims.”

Putting an end to the title dispute for the film once and for all, Saif said: “This film has to be called ‘Jehad’. There’s no other title for it. But I don’t think our producer has the (rights to the) title yet.”

34 Responses to “Saif on religion and Rensil D’Silva’s ‘Jehad’”

  1. LOL, so many Muslim characters in films all of a sudden. New York had just about everyone playing a Muslim. Here both leads seem to be Muslims. I am a student of masala. I like the old stuff where you had the one, lovable, token minority! The rest of the characters were secular Hindus! Give me those yesteryear films any day of the week where it was about families separated in a ‘mela’, parents lost to an evil villain, revenge served very very hot (!) after 20 or 25 years, and dancing girls in ‘dhabas’ throughout the arc of the story! Who needs films about 9/11 and so forth?! I am a fan of Akbar and Anthony and Iqbal! Again I am a creature of masala cinema. More than one minority per film and I get indigestion!

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  2. Walid Bin Saud Says:

    I though you were a student of serious cinema. Perhaps I was wrong. But let me ask, “Jo Humne Daastan Apni Sunayi Aaap Kyoun Roye?” Given the reality of the world today, the stories of today will not surprisingly have Muslim leads. So what is the problem ?

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    • This was a very wry comment on my part Walid. I don’t have a problem with all of this in any serious sense. However as the ultimate Amar Akbar Anthony ‘child’ I hearken back to that tradition in every sense. But the point I made wasn’t completely non-serious either. Much as more identities are being represented in today’s Hindi cinema than was the case earlier (reflecting changing political realities in India before all else) there is a certain ‘colonization’ that accompanies these. For example two major films about 9/11 but none about more ‘local’ issues. Because 9/11 is in a perverse sense ‘cool’. It is not to underestimate this tragedy to suggest that this ought not to be the only tragedy highlighted. But this tragedy of course becomes ‘hegemonic’ because it is tied to the heart of the ’empire’. There are a lot of ‘Muslim’ issues that could be focused on within India. And not just in a religious sense but also in terms of exploring issues of caste and the plight of farmers in various parts of the country and so on. Unfortunately the latter don’t make for a good multiplex sell whereas with the 9/11 deal you can continue the Yashraj fantasy, have the films set in the US and Europe, and pretend it’s serious stuff. In fairness the recent NY (film) was quite alright (even if politically correct in an absurd way). To get back to the masala point it seems to me that Akbar or Anthony haven’t been explored enough. That ‘populist’ element has disappeared from cinema (with rare exceptions.. Fanaa was about Akbar turned terrorist!). More identities are represented in some ways but also by being put into ‘boxes’ (this is to be honest always a danger with ‘multiculturalism’ or ‘political correctness’ in these matters..). So for example RGV had those ‘Mararthi’ types in his films. These hadn’t been represented before but these were also thoroughly stereotypical. In other words the ‘Marathi’ as he (gender is important here) would appear to ‘Northern’ (or in RGV’s case ‘Southern’.. even if he was probably relying on Northern tropes) eyes. So on and so forth. Similarly Muslims appears in contemporary Hindi cinema always with the sign of criminality (RGV) or else terrorism. This reflects a certain reality for sure and one that is all too cheaply available for commercial filmmakers to exploit. But this is not the only one. I always recall that completely normal Muslim doctor in Anil Kapoor’s Armaan who was ironically enough exceptional for that sort of representation. This is the entire context within which my wry (I reiterate this) comment unfolds. Yes I put it up there a bit provocatively. But then I wouldn’t have had a debut from you without it! I think the masala cinema of the 70s remains the best model of inclusion in these matters despite all its own stereotyping in other ways. I am certainly not blind to the faults of that model. I have just not seen a better one since. But thanks very much for your comment. Hope I have clarified things..

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    • Walid: the “problem” is that these are all stories pertaining to “the West”, when similar or perhaps even more such stories are occurring in the film industry’s backyard. Not that this should surprise us: the whole industry has for far too long become one NRI-oriented factory. Neither comedies nor love stories take place in India anymore, and apparently “serious commercial films” don’t either. [Only silver lining in recent years have been some “little” films that have tried to redress the balance.]

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      • Walid Bin Saud Says:

        Q

        A movie in Hollywood / Bollywood is a commercial proposition. Very few people have the courage/ability of Mel Gibson (Passion of Christ and Apocalypto). Generally insurmountable controversy is not courted. Generally the largest possible audience is addressed. A movie on 9/11 is a far better commercial decision than a movie based on 11/26.

        Then again one does not negate the significance of the other. My eating a cupcake at “Magnolia” does not diminish the fact that “Crumbs” too makes fantastic cupcakes.

        Yes movies on Indian centric issues should also be made but let us not give negative marks just because the subject is not so.

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        • But if you have them at Cupcake Cafe you might need to revise your opinion!

          I don’t think it’s a matter of giving “negative marks” for a film that decides to do something outside of a directly “Indian” event; if it’s a good film, it’s a good film. It’s just distressing that after years of overtaking mainstream landscapes with the more popcorn stuff, (which are by and large NOT good films) they’re now basically bringing their “Friends” or “Sex in the City” aesthetic to very serious political matters.

          And yes, mainstream cinema is a commercial enterprise and perhaps a movie set in New York would do better than one set in an Indian metro…but it’s fairly different when one is applying this idea to an SRK romantic comedy, vs., say, an actual historical event in which countless people lost their lives. They can make movies this way, and they might succeed, but that doesn’t make it any less bastardized.

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          • Walid Bin Saud Says:

            GF

            Yes New York was lame and timid. In a way it was in Greek but it was for the Greeks. But, I can assure you that New York was far more effective in communicating the issues to an average Indian/Pakistani than any of the white papers that have passed my desk.

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  3. Walid Bin Saud Says:

    Permit me a sidebar (so that I can explain this better).

    In the darkness of a night, by a camp fire, a group of hunters were going down their memory lane. Each took turns to regale others about their victories. Listening to these hunters talk about how many Lions they had killed, young Ahmed asked his father, “But what about my Uncle who was killed by a Lion?” The father replied, “When the Lion can read and write, he will will tell his story”

    Well it appears that today the LION can read and write. It appears that today the LION is telling his story. For years we heard the stories from the perspective of the HUNTERS, today it is the LION’s turn. What I am happy about is that India is showing its inherent tolerance and humanity by allowing the LION a platform (Bollywood). Enjoy the stories and celebrate India’s leadership on this issue. My Namesake meanwhile are busy, building palaces.

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    • I must admit I am intrigued by your ID!

      That is a great story! I am unsure however if the lion’s story is being told through these films a story ‘of’ the lion ‘pre-authorized’ by the hunter! This is my entire problem! In New York for example the entire story is one that belongs to a certain ‘Western liberal’ dispensation. Which is also that of the liberal secular Indian of Karan Johar’s class!

      The lion’s story is often not told because it is fraught with risk. We might not like that story. ‘We’ meaning ‘Muslims’ or ‘Christians’ or ‘Hindus’ or others. The lion’s story might not suit any of our ‘narratives’.

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      • Walid Bin Saud Says:

        Was Mehboob Khan telling “The Story” in Andaz (Dilip K, Nargis D & Raj K) or did he water it down ? Does not matter because it triggered a Butterfly flapping its wings type chain reaction. Whereas once it was a scandal because “Aap Ke Kumre Mein Koi Rehta Hai”, it later became OK to nourish a “Dostana”. The timid efforts of Mehboob Khan planted seeds which are being harvested today (50 years later).

        These stories that are now coming out may be compromised (I agree with you) but its legacy will be telling.

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  4. Other than Black Friday, there isn’t a single film made on terrorism that offers any insight. I find them simplistic and rather absurd.

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  5. Re: “The Mumbai terror attacks in Mumbai has not affected the way he looks at his character in the film. “I don’t think 26/11 or earlier 9/11 are Islamic acts. No matter what people say, I don’t think any terrorist is a Muslim. Let’s make that distinction very clear. Of course, the population of Afghanistan may disagree with me. But I condemn 26/11 as a deed done by non-Muslims.””

    This is a very common sentiment expressed by many celebs (including Aamir Khan; heck Advani said the same thing about the perpetrators of the Malegaon blasts, namely that terrorists have no religion), and it is juvenile, indicative of an ostrich mentality, and only serves to evade any kind of introspection or critical examination.

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    • LOL, true. This is the kind of defensiveness that serves no purpose at all. Why not accept that Muslims (yes MUSLIMS!) are responsible for so many atrocities around the globe and have the conversation begin there? There is nothing about the religion that makes it uniquely suited for such atrocities. After all what ‘religion’ unites the IRA, the Tamil Tigers, the Basque separatists, the cohorts of Bin Laden, the Hamas and so forth? The methods are common, the ends couldn’t be more different!

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  6. So true, Qalandar.

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  7. I’m in utter agreement with Qalandar and Satyam. I was also amused by Saif trying to excuse his terrorist character ways by saying his character became a fundamentalist Muslim or terrorist because of the way the Americans have been mistreating the poor Islamic states?! That just reeks of ignorance, oversimplification of the issues, and a cop out in my view.

    I’m also gobsmacked as all get out when I hear celebrities, politicians, business men, or anyone else try to palm off terrorists as having no religion. Its a load of muck. I find it to be honest a major cop out to have the view that terrorists or criminals who commit crimes and murder in the name of their religions are not Muslims, Jews, Christians, and so forth. The fact of the matter is that those terrorists are indeed apart of their religions its just that they are crazed loons who have used their religions to further hate, segregation, domination, inequality, crime, murder, to further financial gain, and a whole slew of other heinous things.

    It’s like trying to say that serial killers are not humans because of the heinous and dreadful crimes they have committed against their innocent victims. When in fact those serial killers are indeed human but that they have displayed the most evil, maniacal, atrocious, and depraved of human behaviour. Humans do commit heinous and evil crimes every day on earth. By the same token Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, etc do commit heinous and horrid crimes against humanity in the name of their religions, etc. It’s time to admit such things in order to have an open dialogue and try to change things for the better. There is nothing wrong with the religions. Religion at its base is good. Its the extremist, fundamentalist, maniacal, and crazed people of certain religions that use their religions to further their horrendous crimes and ideologies against humanity that is the trouble or crux of the problem that needs to be addressed. But people have got to stop burying their head in the sand, being defensive to truths, and making cop out excuses.

    I’m also in agreement with Satyam and Henry who are weary of seeing the current rush of 9/11 movies from Bollywood. None of them have been worthy or properly presented or enjoyable in my view. Suffice to say that I’m not bloody looking forward to Rensil D’Silva’s Jehad when it premieres. I’ve had my fill of these 9/11 movies

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  8. Is Jehad a 9/11 film? That’s funny. Even when the mainstream cinema (read: Yashraj) turns to more “serious, political” fare, it seems they’re more interested in an event that originates in the West (9/11)….now, that day certainly had a global impact but if mainstream Hindi cinema wanted to address such politics, it would seem there’s plenty of local fodder to engage with…but then, there wouldn’t be any Diesel jeans and Starbucks to make it all go down easy.

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    • I think the film is set in London though they didn’t get permission to shoot in the tubes. Not sure where they’ve shifted. It operates with that post-9/11 rubric though in this case it might be the London tube attacks they’re focusing on. Hey it’s different!

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      • I also recollect in some past articles that this movie was filmed in Philadelphia and New York. I also think YRF movie “New York” was also filmed in Philadelphia .

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        • yeah John said Philly looks like NY! And a lot of films were shot there. Incidentally this was the one misstep in Dark knight where they did it in Chicago and this was especially obvious in one scene and it didn’t look anything like the Gotham=NY deal.

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    • great comment!

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    • Excellent point GF: given that 2008 saw 5-7 serial blast attacks in India prior to the November 26 attacks, the fact that Bollywood focuses on how and to what extent the american policies are or are not radicalizing Muslims shows just how out of touch the filmmakers have become. Perhaps because 9/11 is seen as something that affects the well-heeled too. I don’t demand that films should be made on every topical issue, but India is one of the most affected countries in the world when it comes to terrorist attacks, bomb blasts (not to mention a Maoist insurgency) — yet no one except for offbeat filmmakers is tacking these issues, almost as if 9/11 and the July 2005 London bombings have greater reality for the industry than what’s happening in their own backyard (i.e. one is free to make whatever one wants, but when the trend is all one way questions are naturally raised)…No wonder the result is superficial and plastic films.

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  9. At one point D’Silva denied the film was titled ‘Jehad’. But I think this falls into the category of Rathnam denying Guru as the title and more recently Raavan.

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  10. On an unrelated note, I watched the making of Love Aaj Kal, and apparently, they shot one of the songs (Chor Bazaari) in the extremely busy Old Delhi. Saif was acting the ultra-cool guy as always and joked to someone in the unit that he will end up getting lung cancer from all the pollution and traffic.

    I found the joke rather off-putting and symptomatic of why Indian cinema has been stripped off its ‘rootedness’. The way Saif behaved was really no different from how a lot of actual foreigners behave in the ‘real’ India. To most of our stars, India is a ‘foreign’ country while they are more at home overseas, and this is reflected in the movies they make.

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  11. mksrooney Says:

    hey guys intresting discussion (specially lion hunter one!)..meanwhile I saw new york today & have a lot to say because it was really bad..cringeworthy…also saw harry potter but actually thought of it as a documentary…coz thers no climax nor some interesting action..very deperssing movie & should be watched only with some potter maniac who can guide u wats happening..

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  12. I don’t have much to add to the excellent comments already made by others, but I just want to reiterate that I, too, am entirely put off by this positioning of “Muslim” stories entirely in the context of terrorism, and that, too, in the light of an event that took place on the other side of the world from India. When I first heard about MNIK, my reaction was, but why not address the way Muslims are discriminated against in India? All these other movies only reinforce that reaction. The only good thing I can see in this spate of 9/11 centered movies is that the audience will get sick of them and then the makers will move on to something else.

    I really keep hoping for some film with leading Muslim characters that is not *about* their Muslim identity. I liken this to the way African Americans made their slow presence in American films and television. At first, in the 1960’s there were a few TV shows with lead AA characters (Julia, I Spy) where the character’s race was never an issue, but the character’s personality was the focus. Then, in the 1970’s, after all the various “rights” movements of the 60’s, there were shows which were primarily about the “racial experience”, whether it was about the poor (Good Times), or the rich (The Jeffersons, later The Bill Cosby Show). I think we are now slowly moving away from the racial identity to a somewhat “colorblind” casting — that is, if the script calls for “a doctor”, it is not automatically assumed to be a white male doctor. Now Muslim actors in India don’t have trouble finding acting jobs, the way African American ones did in the U.S., but they are not primarily playing Muslim characters. When they do, their religion becomes the focus. When we can have a Muslim character being just one more character in the story, such as the doctor in Armaan, then we will have achieved religious harmony on screen.

    Satyam, regarding your original “wry” comment, do you really think there were no non-token minority characters in older HIndi cinema? Was Chadavi ka Chand an aberration? I am not familiar with older HIndi cinema to know the answer.

    And also, in the same vein, let me say that there are no real Hindu characters in Hindi cinema, either, certainly not in the present day. In the older films, a Hindu identity may have been shown as the “default” identity, but I do not think it was very pronounced (beyond a few rituals shown), or threatening to the non-Hindu. But then, I am not the “lion” in that particular story, so I wouldn’t know. 🙂

    Finally, Saif’s comment about getting lung cancer from Delhi’s pollution is particularly idiotic, considering that he was a heavy smoker himself till fairly recently.

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    • Excellent comment SM: on Chuaidhvin ka Chand, let me say this was part of the whole “Muslim social” type of movie (“Mere Mehboob” is another; even as late as the 1980s we have “Nikaah” and “Tawaif”). In these films the characters’ “Muslimness” isn’t an issue per se — except that the movie takes place in some neverland that is a mix of Lucknow, 1879; and contemporary India; and just about every one in the film is Muslim (somewhat like the “black” american sitcoms (“Fresh Prince of Bel Air”). The milieu of the film is thus not a real place but an imaginary one. The Muslim, it seems, is a figure from India’s past, not from the present or future. This is why I always preferred the worlds of a Desai to the likes of Chaudhvin ka Chand — in the former, the Muslim character is part of the same universe as everyone else, and while the identities of Hindus, Christians, Muslims, etc. might be a little ghettoized, these worlds endlessly intersected. As you rightly observed, in the contemporary films, we often have a third configuration: the Muslim is now a political/ideological question, and it is rare to see him/her except in the context of terrorism, communal violence, etc. [On a brighter note, “unmarked” Muslims have made something of a comeback in Hindi films over the last 5 or so years; mostly in side roles, but nevertheless, definitely an improvement over the dog days of the 1990s].

      Other relevant threads, courtesy the Chapati Mystery blog (sadly, not everyone was as up to speed on Bollywood as they ought to have been; nor did everyone approach the subject with the same respect for the Hindi film art-form as they ought to have): One; Two

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    • Thanks for this fine set of thoughts SM. Qalandar has responded to the ‘Muslim’ question and I entirely agree. To be clear though when I refer to masala cinema I mean just that. The mass cinema of the 70s which survived to some extent in degraded form in the 80s. The films from the 50s or 60s are something else.

      On Hindu characters I’d disagree. If the argument is that there are no real characters this is true for the cinema in general inasmuch as it is a commercial escapist entertainment. In much the same way most of Hollywood doesn’t have characters, just types. But the ‘Hindu’ for obvious reasons is the normative presence in all these films. But the introduction of a minority gets highlighted in unique ways. Your Hollywood example with ‘blacks’ is exactly on the money. Eventually you might get to a stage where the minority might become normative as well though the second stage of this process also involves a stereotyping (it is this way with most black representations in ‘white’ films or else there are films made for a black audience!). A Muslim character can in any case be coded for ‘Muslimness’ throughout the history of Hindi cinema in ways that Hindu characters cannot be. This is not to suggest that there isn’t a sociology of the latter as well, just that it isn’t as conspicuous because it functions as ‘identity as such’. So the most ‘normal’ thing Muslim actors can do is play Hindu ones! You are right that Muslim actors never had a problem in the industry which has always been a Desai-esque enterprise before Desai! So the correspondence with African-Americans isn’t exact. One ‘difference’ is posited on racial distinctions, the other on religious ones. It is actually a bit of an irony that Muslims have been stereotyped so often in Hindi cinema (or for that matter Christians) given that whatever we might understand with a term like ‘Indo-Islam’ has always been represented in the industry in an intellectual and cultural sense. One could introduce Tamil cinema here where in many periods the industry has stereotyped Muslim/Christian minorities far less, not least because these identities are much more significant ones in a cultural sense over there. In Malayalam cinema it is even less stereotypical and often not at all. Again the demographic reasons are obvious. The true other of Bombay cinema though remains not the religious minority but the ‘Tamilian’.

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