Zoya Akhtar’s protagonists in Gully Boy hail from the slums of Mumbai. They are struggling Muslims who dream of breaking out of their tragic realities. Both Ranveer Singh’s Murad and Alia Bhatt’s Safeena live in the ghettos and want to make it big in the big bad world out there.
But that’s nothing new. What is new is how Akhtar has inadvertently shined the spotlight on the lives of the general Muslim public of India through her characters. And Safeena, in particular, is a character to be reckoned with.
An aspiring doctor, Safeena walks and talks with purpose and rocks her hijab like a star. It must be mentioned here that this is the first time a mainstream Bollywood heroine has donned the garment for a film. Could this mean that the industry is finally realising that its portrayal of Muslims as topi and kajal-wearing gangsters is outdated and inaccurate? Is Bollywood finally normalising the hijab? Bhatt doesn’t agree. For her, agreeing with that notion would require relegating Indian Muslims to a troubled minority.
Talking about her character in Gully Boy, the 26-year-old told BBC Asian Network, “My character Safeena was written to the tee. She’s a normal girl. She goes to college and wears a hijab. She wears it because it is her culture. So, no, I don’t find it odd or surprising.”
Safeena, however, is not the first Muslim character Bhatt has played. In last year’s Raazi, she portrayed an Indian spy named Sehmat who married into the family of a Pakistani army official to report on him. As part of her job, Bhatt had to don the burka a number of times.
“We’ve had Muslim characters and people wearing burkas onscreen,” she said, before being cut off by the interviewer Haroon Rashid. “Yes but not like this,” he argued. “In Lipstick Under My Burka, there was a woman wearing burkha on the poster but this is different.”
To this, Bhatt replied, “Well, maybe this doesn’t stand out to me because in my head, Muslims are not a minority. But that’s Safeena’s character. I find it difficult to look at it any other way. There’s another poster where I’m not wearing a hijab because she does take it off whenever she wants to. Otherwise, it doesn’t stand out to me. She’s just a girl.”
Rashid then remarked how diversity and equal representation is much talked about in Hollywood but in Bollywood, minority groups have always been second thoughts. He confessed that it wasn’t until he saw Diljit Dosanjh in Udta Punjab that he saw a turban-wearing man not being made fun of.
Similarly, it took Raazi, Lipstick Under My Burka and now, Gully Boyfor Bollywood to realise that maybe it is alright for a lead character to wear a hijab onscreen. Could this be a sign of progression in Hollywood?
“I hope so,” commented Bhatt. “The Indian film industry is very diverse. The fact that we are not caricature-ish and are recognising it is the need of the hour. What I hope is that people are taking all these progressive changes in a positive way. That for me is most important.”