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Islamicate Projections:A Reply

In response to the review of their book, Islamicate Cultures of Bombay Cinema (23 January 2010), the authors argue that the review misrepresented their arguments and distorted the politics which they were foregrounding.


Islamicate Projections: A Reply

Ira Bhaskar, Richard Allen

and complete” realisation of Islamicate i dioms we are debasing their signifi cance in other contexts, for example, in the “working class masala” fi lm, thereby privileging feudal and upper class contexts. However, the fact that our book explores and celebrates what we perceive

In response to the review of their book, Islamicate Cultures of Bombay Cinema (23 January 2010), the authors argue that the review misrepresented their arguments and distorted the politics which they were foregrounding.

Ira Bhaskar ( teaches cinema studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and Richard Allen ( teaches cinema studies at New York University, USA.

e write in response to the review of our book Islamicate Cultures of Bombay Cinema. In the book we explore the major idioms of what, after Marshall Hodgson and Mukul Kesavan, we term the “Islamicate”, as they are distilled within three “Islamicate” genres of Bombay Cinema: the Muslim s ocial, the Muslim historical, and the Muslim courtesan film, as well as in the films of the New Wave. The term is used to discriminate Islamic-derived idioms and forms of social life from the Islamic religion and to acknowledge that their infl uence is not reducible to purely Muslim contexts. The reviewer claims that by d oing so, we fatally collapse the idea of the Islamicate into only Islamic cultural contexts. This is a misrepresentation, for we make absolutely clear that “Islamicate” i dioms are not limited only to the three I slamicate genres that we have discussed in detail in the book but are pervasive in Bombay cinema. However, the analysis of Bombay cinema, as a whole, though a worthy project, was not the subject matter of our book.

We focused upon these genres not only in order to circumscribe our research, but also because, as we repeatedly demonstrate, they provide the “most distinct and complete realisation” of Islamicate idioms or the place where they are most “intensely realised.” Take Mirza Ghalib with its eight ghazals – this film forms a case study for understanding the expressive role of Urdu poetry and the performance idiom of the mushaira; where else in Bombay c inema is the culture of t ehzeeb more strongly articulated than in the Muslim social or the Muslim courtesan fi lm; and where else do we find a more potent articulation of the Islamicate architectural imaginary than in the Muslim historical or courtesan fi lms?

The reviewer seems to think that by seeing these genres as the “most distinct

Economic & Political Weekly

march 6, 2010 vol xlv no 10

as the representational and expressive richness of Islamicate idioms, within the frameworks of the Islamicate genres we d escribe, does not mean that such representational and expressive richness is absent elsewhere. It is vitally present in one further genre – the so-called “Oriental” – one we refer to, but do not discuss in detail due to the paucity of available fi lms from the early period. It also pervades Bombay cinema as a whole, but in a manner that is less concentrated and more sporadic. Why is this, then, such a controversial claim?

The reviewer seems to question the very idea of genre classifications on the grounds that they reify or straitjacket the phenomena under discussion, leading us to e xclude films that do not form a genre. He might concede the Muslim social, for that is an industry category, but why invent sub-genres, like the Muslim courtesan fi lm and the Muslim historical? Is there not a self-justifying and exclusionary circularity in the claim that Islamicate idioms fl ourish in genre forms that the authors themselves have constructed? The point is, of course, that critically constructed genres or sub-genres are not merely constructions, but are based on perceived generic patterns or traits that we identify in the book. To be sure, like any intellectual framework, our genre categories are exclusionary, but they are also enabling: they allow us to clarify the manner in which Islamicate idioms consolidate into recognisable patterns of narrative and i conography.

Having been accused of giving genres or genre categories undue importance, the reviewer then launches into a diatribe against the book for its “secular condescension”, in deriding the “nostalgic” idioms of the Muslim social. Here is what we actually write on nostalgia, the classic Muslim social and its critics:


…the question is how to read and interpret this nostalgia, for there may be another way of looking at it as well. At a point when Muslim identity was threatened in a Hindumajority India (the 1940s), and when this identity had been reduced to the status of a minority and hence lacked confi dence (1960s), the Muslim Social genre strongly asserted the value of the cultured and civilised way of life of the Muslim community, and its constitutive role in the formation of the wider culture and identity of the post-independence nation. The assertion and celebration of the cultural forms of the community had another function as well. The Islamicate poetic, musical and performative traditions as much as its social forms were relocated by the genre within their contexts and histories, rather than being appropriated without acknowledgement by the wider culture (pp 89-90).

Forgive the long quote, but one would have no idea from reading the review that this was our actual position, and it is substantiated by detailed and appreciative analyses of Muslim socials in both parts of the book for their form, their style, and their social signifi cance.

Furthermore, our criticisms of the g enre are quoted entirely out of context; they occur where we explain the negative reaction of new wave filmmakers to what the reviewer himself calls “the pervasive s tereotypes” of the genre. These fi lmmakers often saw the classic Muslim s ocial as far removed from the lived realities of ordinary working class Muslims and we think that there is some legitimacy in their criticism. However, a central and original argument of our book is that this criticism belies profound continuities b etween the classic Muslim social and new wave cinema. Moreover, the authors are deeply aware of the losses caused by the Partition, and argue that the fi lms of the new wave Muslim social highlighted all that remained unaddressed by mainstream cinema. Far from ignoring the critical role of nostalgia in Garm Hawa, as the reviewer claims that we do, this is what we actually say:

While the love story is individual and personal, the mise en scene charges individual loss and emptiness with intense spiritual significance and comes to stand for the threat of the tragic deracination of a whole culture. It was not just place, but an age-old cultural and spiritual heritage that was d enied and lost during the displacements of the Partition (p 289).

The Politics of It

It seems, then, that the reviewer has t aken the arguments of the book, produced them as his own, and then accused the authors of not doing what they have a ctually done.

The book is labelled as and critiqued for its unexamined “secular nationalism”, presumably because we should have grasped what it is that

enabled these films, across the genre divisions imposed by the authors, to offer a radical critique of and alternative to, both the Indian nation state and of the modern national subjects that the state was trying to construct.

We do not believe that the body of fi lms we examine as a whole sustain this critique, nor do we believe that that is how the films were perceived by a mass audience. However, we do show how the Muslim historical could play such a critical role, as when, writing of Mughal-e-Azam, we argue that

in the context of an emergent democracy, Salim’s love for Anarkali, lauded in the fi lm, defies class boundaries in a manner... that speaks to the unresolved issues of caste and class grievances within that democracy (152).

Elsewhere in the book, we clearly articulate the political project of the new wave.

At the end of the review, the author takes issue with our claim that the multifoil arch is Islamic. In the Indo-Islamic context the emergent multifoil arch can be discerned as a distinctive architectural form as early as the Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra built in Ajmer in the 12th century.1 But it is present much earlier elsewhere in the Muslim world. There are beautiful examples of the multifoil arch in the Aljaferiya Palace at Zaragoza (1046-81) built at the end of the Cordobon Caliphate and at the Great Mosque at Algiers (before 1096) during the Almoravid Dynasty.2 These are different contexts: both Islamic. Of course, one needs to emphasise that the Islamicate in the Indian context is Indo-Islamic. This is a position that we consistently take in the book. But the multifoil arch is an architectural feature that clearly derives from Islamic architectural tradition.

Books always have their flaws, and we should undoubtedly have taken more care with our presentation of the Urdu language. It is equally true that more research time would have yielded wider citations. A judicious review would have presented our arguments and evaluated them. But this is not a judicious review. In fact, it is a profoundly unfair review that seems to wilfully distort the objectives, arguments and even the politics of our book.


1 Bianca Maria Alfieri, Islamic Architecture of the I ndian Subcontinent (London: Laurence King Publishing), 2000, p 23.

2 John D Hoag, Islamic Architecture (New York: Abrams), 1977, pp 92-94.

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