From Amitabh Bachchan to Om Puri, these five actors have played Muslim characters exceedingly well, despite not being from the same religion
By Omair Alavi Created: 1 March 2020
Ask anyone in India to name one factor that kept the country take giant steps and 8 out of 10 people will credit interfaith harmony for the progress. And the biggest supporter of that has been Bollywood, which has produced films like Amar Akbar Anthony and Desh Premee to preach Aapas Mein Prem Karo Desh Premiyon. At a time when Muslims in India are being subjected to torture at the hands of Hindu extremists, we would like to direct your attention towards those film actors who could be poster boys for inter-faith harmony. These five actors have played Muslim characters exceedingly well, despite not being from the same religion. If they can do it and be praised for doing it right, why can’t the millions of non-Muslims who follow them like crazy, appreciate the existence of their Muslim countrymen and live in harmony in India.
The late thespian Om Puri has so far been the only actor to have worked in multiple films in Hollywood, Bollywood, and Pakistan, playing characters from all religions. Be it playing David Brown in Disco Dancer or ACP Joe D’Souza in Ghayal and its sequel, Om Puri excelled in every character, no matter which faith it followed. With his distinct facial cut and features, he could adjust to any religion, and maybe that’s why he fitted the Muslim characters very well. In fact, he claimed to have played a Pakistani in more films (both Indian and International) than any Indian, and if that’s not impressive, I don’t know what is. Ever since becoming a force to reckon with in Bollywood’s mainstream cinema, Om Puri played a Muslim character on more than two dozen occasions, which must be a record. He played General Zia ul Haq in Charlie Wilson’s War, Moulvi in Shoot On Sight, and Abdullah in The Ghost and the Darkness, impressing on each occasion with his dedication, without letting the audience know that he wasn’t a Muslim in reality.
In Bollywood, from being Parvez Hussain in Ankuram (1992) and Ghulam Rasul in Kartavya (1995), to Inspector Khan in Pyaar To Hona Hi Tha (1998), and Colonel Hussein in Pukar (2000), he portrayed each and every character according to its merit. No one could have delivered the anti-Hindu dialogues better than he did as Amanullah Khan in Rang De Basanti (2006), or given the right idea to the protagonist as Hanif Bhai in OMG: Oh My God (2012) or the same to Salman Khan’s Bajrangi as Moulana Sahab in Bajrangi Bhaijan (2015). In all these films, his character was minor yet pivotal to the plot. In fact, when he was playing George Khan in East is East and West Is West, he improvised in the scene where his character is talking to the Imam; Off-camera, he asked the other actor to call him Zaheer before the scene was shot because referring to him as George would have seemed awkward. He played Fahad Mustafa’s father in two Pakistani films – Actor In Law (2016) and Load Wedding (2018) – and although his picture was used as Samina Ahmed’s husband in the latter, the film was dedicated to his memory as it was released one year after his untimely death.
Did you know that Amitabh Bachchan’s first role in a Bollywood film was that of Anwar Ali Anwar in Saat Hindustani (1969), a Muslim poet who leads a gang of freedom fighters who attempt to liberate Goa from the Portuguese colonial rule? Amitabh Bachchan then went onto play a Muslim character in nearly a dozen films, most of which did well at the box office. He was Ahmed Raza in Immaan Dharam (1977) who lies for a living; the film was Salim – Javed’s only flop, but Big B came back strongly as Sikandar in Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978) where he excelled a lover, friend, brother, and savior at the same time. In his cameo as Jan Nissar Akhtar Khan in Andha Kanoon (1983), he performed well as the Angry Old Man who lost his family, whereas in Coolie (also 1983), he played Iqbal with a Shaheen (wow!) with conviction.
It was during this film’s shoot that Big B got injured so badly that everyone in India prayed for his recovery. Be it Temples, Mosques, Churches or Gurdwaras, every place of worship, every platform was used by his fans and followers to pray for his recovery. And when he did recover, a happy ending was inserted into the film because the director Manmohan Desai believed that if God let him live, how he could kill the character. Iqbal was supposed to die at the climax, but he recited the kalma on screen and got saved by a chaadar from a dargaah, and the Muslims and Non-Muslims all applauded in cinema houses. The last two films where Amitabh Bachchan played a Muslim character were Ajooba (1991) where his Ali and Ajooba were like Clark Kent and Superman; and later in Thugs of Hindostan where as Khudabakhsh Azad, he made the life of British Army Officers hell. And yes, even in this role he returned from the dead, played savior and had a pet falcon that accompanied him wherever he went.
Born to Raj Kapoor who was born in Peshawar, Rishi Kapoor looked as much a Hindu as a Muslim. How else could he have fitted in the roles of Majnu in Laila Majnu (1976), Akbar Ilahbadi in Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) and Javed Ali Khan in Deedar-E-Yaar (1982) where he was at the top of his game! Add to that his roles in films like Yeh Ishq Nahin Aasaan (1984), Tawaif (1985) and Ajooba (1991), and anybody new to Bollywood would have been convinced that he was a Muslim actor playing a character of the same faith. After he matured to character roles, Chintu continued to play a Muslim with exemplary performances as Zulfikar in Fanaa (2006), Ali Beg in Delhi-6 (2006) and Iqbal Seth in D-Day (2013). His last film where he played a person belonging to the religion Islam was Mulk where he shocked every person with his look, way of talking, and expressions, and looked more Murad Ali Mohammed than Rishi Kapoor!
He may not have condemned his fellow countrymen for the massacre in Delhi last week, but when it comes to playing Muslim characters, Ajay Devgn is right there at the top. His first foray into Hindu Muslim territory was in 1998, when he played the son of a Muslim woman, in Mahesh Bhatt’s Zakhm. The film earned him the prestigious National Award for Best Actor and Ajay R Desai remains his best work to date. He then went onto play a double role in his father Veeru Devgn’s directorial debut Hindustan Ki Kasam (1999); one brother was a Pakistani Muslim named Tauheed, the other was an Indian national named Ajay. In Kachchay Dhaage he was Aftab, the stepbrother of Saif Ali Khan, and the film also had a Pakistan connection, besides Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan who composed the soundtrack.
Ajay Devgn went onto play Mohammad Ali in Tango Charlie (2005) in the war flick that also featured the who’s who of Bollywood; he was also the superstar Sameer Khan (formerly Ashfaq) in Halla Bol (2008) that was based on many real-life incidents. Despite these powerful performances, Ajay’s best Muslim portrayal was yet to come. In Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai (2010), he played Sultan Mirza that was based on the notorious gangster turned politician Haji Mastan, and what a mind-blowing performance it was. He didn’t let Emraan Hashmi’s Shoaib Khan steal the spotlight until the scene where his character was finally gunned down. In an upcoming film Maidaan, Ajay will play Syed Abdur Raheem who was not just a legendary football coach but under his leadership, India won the Asian Games twice in 1951 and 1962.
And then there was Hrithik Roshan, who played two Muslim characters in his first three films – Amaan Ikramullah in Fiza and Altaaf Khan in Mission Kashmir (both 2000). Had aliens descended on Earth at that time, they would have agreed to bet that the youngster was more of Hrithik Khan than Hrithik Roshan, so convincing was his performance in both the films. He played a Muslim youngster who got separated from his family during Bombay Riots in 1993, only to return later a changed man; whereas in the latter, he plays a Muslim Kashmiri who wants to avenge his family’s death and also complete Mission Kashmir. Eight years later, Hrithik played the iconic Mughal emperor Jalaluddin Mohammad Akbar in Jodhaa Akbar (2008) and even won the Filmfare Award for Best Actor for his stellar performance. There was another role that he played in Luck by Chance but it was just a cameo; however his fans would love to see him play another Muslim character, something that might unite both the Muslims and Non-Muslims on India, who are on the verge of a battle due to religious reasons.