Bombay Cinema Qawwali: In Search of a Definition

Yousuf Saeed

While qawwali and Sufi music have become trendy as all over the world, this humble song existed as everyone’s favourite throughout 20th century India, especially as a staple of the entertainment industry and popular cinema. Though Bombay cinema is often blamed for making the qawwali ghatiya or cheap, this project proposes that in reality Indian cinema not only helped popularize the qawwali but also transformed it from a sacred song to a mode of secular entertainment, keeping it flexible and inclusive enough to be used as a device of storytelling and emotional catharsis. How has the traditional qawwali been altered or affected by Bombay cinema to make it the unique cinema qawwali? Musically, the qawwali’s growth pattern was no different from the evolution of Bombay film music in general. For instance, as the technology of sound recording progressed in early twentieth century, film music started using larger orchestras and non-traditional instruments. To attract and impress their audiences, Indian film industry relies on excess of everything, just like other forms of popular culture. Thus, the humble harmonium, dholak, tablas, and bansuri gave way to violins, cellos, piano, drum-kit, and guitars in the film songs, including qawwali. The body language and costumes given to the qawwals in the movies (whether in a dargah or a secular space) are often what makes them the most typical ‘Muslim’ characters created by Bombay film industry – a shiny achkan (robe) and velvety crooked cap, lips red due to munching of paan (betelnut), a flowing handkerchief in a hand, and a wicked smile. This is how actor Pran acts in a qawwali ‘Jeena to hai usi ka’ from the film Adhikar (1971) where he introduces himself as Banne Khan Bhopali, a Muslim side-character on the lines of Soorma Bhopali of Sholay (1975). This stereotype of Muslim community is further exemplified in the movies through a qawwali performed at a Sufi shrine to provide catharsis to a protagonist who goes through rough times in the plot, often in movies informally known as the Muslim Socials that dealt with stories of Indian Muslim families. But then, many other situation types were also used as backdrop for a qawwali, not necessarily all associated with a Muslim identity or a mystical/sacred context. In many movies throughout 20th century, a cheerful qawwali was spontaneously launched by men or women just to enjoy a special moment like a festival, a picnic with friends or a mischievous dialogue between young men and women. And despite the cultural and sectarian politics arising in Bombay cinema in the recent decades, the qawwali and Sufi music continues to remain an integral part of the movies even today. This project hopes to enlist and analyze various examples of cinema qawwalis to see how they digress in form and content from the traditional mystical qawwali and how they affected the practice of the latter in turn, if at all.

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