India's Muslim Film Stars Bridge Religious Divide

India's biggest movie stars often come from its Muslim minority community. Though religious fault lines can sometimes rupture into violence and discord in India, the success of Muslim actors in its massive film industry stands in contrast to those divisions. NPR's Bilal Qureshi recently met one of the country's most respected Muslim stars, Naseeruddin Shah.

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Now, the attack on Mumbai came against a majority Hindu nation, but many of the victims themselves were Muslim. India has around 150 million Muslims. That's a minority that's around half the population of the United States. Hindus and Muslims have had many periods of tension over the decades, but one place in Indian life hardly seems divided at all. It is the movie screen, where millions of Indians of all faiths watch the giant images of stars who are often Muslim. That includes the actor who spoke with NPR's Bilal Qureshi.

BILAL QURESHI: Naseeruddin Shah is not a pin-up icon of the Bollywood variety. American audiences know him best as the overwhelmed father of the bride in "Monsoon Wedding."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "MONSOON WEDDING")

M: (As Lalit Verma) You found out what time the flight is coming?

M: (As Hemant Rai) Yeah, about 9:00.

M: (As Lalit Verma) Okay, so make sure you are there on time and take this car only, okay?

M: (As Hemant Rai) Okay.

M: (As Lalit Verma) And don't run the A/C when you're going to Recita.

M: (As Hemant Rai) Okay.

M: (As Lalit Verma) Only put it on when you're at Recita. And park this car somewhere else.

M: (As Hemant Rai) Chill.

M: (As Lalit Verma) And take off that stupid toppie.

QURESHI: Shah has appeared in more than 150 films over the past three decades. He's a consummate actor and widely considered the face of independent Indian cinema. Film critic Aseem Chhabra...

M: The top lead Bollywood actors Shahrukh Khan, Salman Khan, Aamir Khan, Saif Ali Khan, they're all Muslims and they're Indians, you know, and I don't think on a daily basis people think in terms of what is their religion.

QURESHI: Naseeruddin Shah was born in 1950, just three years after British India was carved into two separate countries: Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India.

M: I had a very orthodox upbringing. My parents were both very devout, did their namaz five times a day, read the Quran every morning.

QURESHI: Shah says he became disillusioned with that orthodox upbringing. He eventually made his way to the film studios of Mumbai and he says he was never discriminated against by directors because of his faith or ever typecast in Muslim roles.

M: I'm quite relieved, actually, that I'm not identified as a Muslim actor but as an Indian actor.

QURESHI: But that wasn't always the case. In previous generations, Muslim actors would take Hindu names out of fear of discrimination. And to this day there are still stark divisions between the two communities. In many parts of the country, Muslims tend to have lower incomes, live in poorer districts, and religious groups often use those fault lines to spur violence. In recent years, Shah has been taking on films that address those religious divisions.

M: I am not against entertainment cinema. I've done my share of it, and I'm not averse to doing it even now, but I think that time is kind of running out and it's important that I participate in projects which survive the test of time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)

M: (As character) (Foreign language spoken)

QURESHI: In this 2005 Pakistani film, he played a religious cleric who preaches a more tolerant mystical interpretation of Islam. It's an interpretation that Shah believes in personally as well. He points to last year's attacks in Mumbai. Even though the perpetrators were Muslim, Shah says there was no backlash against the larger Muslim community.

M: Without knowing it, those murderous people have done us a favor because they killed as many Muslims as Hindus, and suddenly everyone woke up to the fact that, hey, this is not a question of religion.

QURESHI: And for Shah, it's not simply a question of religion or politics. It's a view of the world reflected in his own family.

M: As it happens now, I'm married to a Hindu. She's Hindu, I'm Muslim. We celebrate Eid. We also celebrate Diwali. We also celebrate Christmas. Our children have had no religious education.

QURESHI: Naseeruddin Shah says he wants his children to forge their own relationship with religion and maintain the spirit of independence that has defined his career, both on and off screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

QURESHI: Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.

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