The year was 1959, and acclaimed director Yash Chopra was just getting started. In his directorial debut Dhool Ka Phool (The Flower of Dust), lyrics to one classic song resonate: “Tu Hindu banega na Musalman banega, insaan ka aulad hai insaan banega” – You will not grow up as a Hindu or a Muslim, you will grow up as a human being.

Chopra did not fixate on religion in The Flower of Dust, but found an existential healing in being human, which was well-received by his audience. The song echoed a growing sentiment in post-partition India, following a historical event full of loss and based on religious divide.

The plot of the film revolves around a Muslim man named Abdul Rashid, who parented an abandoned Hindu child. It established a “good Muslim” narrative, painting them as loyal countrymen and well-meaning citizens onscreen.

The portrayal of Abdul Rashid as a humane, loving Muslim man was a reflection of a visibly thriving real-life Muslim community of India at the time. Their presence resonated with the ethos of a newly founded nation: secular, democratic, plural, while synergistically flowering a creative atmosphere that produced some great literature, poetry and a whole lot of social films like Anarkali (1953), Chaudavi Ki Chand (1960), Mughal –e-Azam (1960) and Pakeezah (1972), all of which portrayed Muslims as essentially good.

By the 1970s, the trope of Muslims as “good human beings” was integral to the spontaneous cinematic narrative, as depicted in Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), a blockbuster directed by Manmohan Desai about three brothers separated in childhood. Desai celebrated pluralism by showing the brothers adopted by families who followed three faiths – Hinduism, Islam and Christianity, uniting the trio at the end.

But Indian cinema has changed a lot since the ’70s.

In two decades time, friendly depictions of Muslims would begin to disappear. Newer sets of storylines loaded with anti-Muslim sentiments surfaced. The new scripts didn’t care for Abdul Rasids or Akbars, instead creating Abrar Haques (Animal 2023) through a complex journey rooted in India’s political and social reality.

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