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Ghazals and gunrunning

Is there a false note somewhere in Sarfarosh, wonders KAVITA SRINIVAS

Move over Mogambo, here comes a new baddie. Minus cracking whip and cheap gaalis, this 'enemy of India' is suave and savvy. Even classy, if you prefer. Patched army fatigues are replaced by designer kurta-pyjamas and the crass mushaira has given way to the sophisticated mehfil.

Director John Mathew Matthan's Sarfarosh has given the Hindi film industry a new villain. Gulfam Hassan, the soft-spoken Pakistani ghazal singer who makes gory plans to blow up people on this side of the border. A curious mix of artiste and terrorist. And a dramatic device with dangerous implications.

Bollywood's limited imagination had never given me sleepless nights. Never done with playing cops and robbers, the hero and the villain blended seamlessly into a hackneyed plot. In the black and white era, most bad guys were greedy zamindars. Lecherous landgrabbers who schemed and plotted against the earnest hero. Then, came the grossly overweight, safari suit-wearing smuggler. Remember 'loin' Ajit? With ring-studded fingers and a leer, he could order the ruin of a nation. Dacoits followed in hot pursuit. Amjad Khan, Pran, Prem Chopra and even Vinod Khanna have been through the galloping routine.

And when the guns in Chambal stopped booming, research laboratories and the evil scientist were born. The Dr Dangs who bought and sold nuclear weapons and A K 47s like we buy vegetables in the market! They smoked Havana cigars and wore horn-rimmed glasses while threatning to press the button and blow the world to smithereens. We took them all in our stride. And every Kallu, Charles or Chota Rajan was a variation of this theme.

Until.... Ghulfam Hassan came along and shook us out of our stupor. Yes, the Paki bashing in Sarfarosh is blatant. Diplomats and the ISI are ferreted out and accused. But, the big surprise is the genteel ghazal singer whose mask is ripped off to reveal a shocking face.

This was the twist in the tale. A singer, an artiste, a man of deep sensibilities (Naseruddin Shah, please take a bow for a heartwarming performance), who was forced into the 'baddie' mould in a bid to make the b.o. sing. His screen name was loaded: Gulfam (Ghulam Ali) and Hassan (Mehdi Hassan) merged to create the lethal Mohajir's name. Bringing back memories of the Shiv Sainiks going all out to keep Ghulam Ali out of the country. They tried the same smear campaign with the Pakistani cricket team and almost succeded before they were firmly rapped on the knuckles by a sensible public.

The verdict was unanimous. Sport has no geographical boundaries. So please lay your hands off, they were firmly told. Will viewers now support the Pakistani musicians? I'm not so sure. After all, the subject (Indo-Pak relations) is volatile and Kargil is simmering.

The film's crew refuses to be drawn into controversy. They have gone on record to say that there is 'nothing deliberate' about the portryal of the villain. The name, the profession is just one of those coincidences, they claim.

We won't attribute motives when they don't exist, but the film could well open another chapter to the hate stories in Hindi cinema. And this time, artistes, a hitherto respected lot, will be dragged into the morass of distrust. The only community to transcend boundaries of land, language and religion, they will now have to defend themselves from such attacks. How does the industry react to this?

Naseeruddin Shah himself sees no cause for concern. "It's just a film and it has no deeper connotations," he says dismissively. Mahesh Bhatt is not so sure; he agrees films influence people. Mathan has tried to balance Gulfam's character with the portrayal of Inspector Salim. But the success of Sarfarosh could spawn many more Gulfam Hassans. That is a disturbing thought.

Click here for Sarfarosh tape review

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