Photo: Shailendra Pandey
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

I USED TO HAVE an animus against Pakistani films for many years. There were reasons for this, many of them subliminal, snaking back to my childhood. Looking back as an adult, I realize there were many actors in my family — grandparents, uncles — who never became actors. There was one maternal cousin, however, who stepped away. Faltering in Bombay, unable to make a start, he went to Pakistan to make a career in films and was moderately successful. Pakistani films at the time were, by and large, C-grade affairs, the technical equivalent of Bhojpuri cinema, and based on crass and broad stories copied from Bollywood. I didn’t think very highly of them.

My animus was compounded by a little episode. My parents and I had been at odds through much of my growing up. During a period of particular despair over me — their useless son who would amount to nothing — my mother wrote to her cousin in Pakistan asking him to help me find my feet. He didn’t reply. When I found out, I was mortified. I had seen some of his films — they were horrible. Her letter, his silence, all of it rankled terribly.

All of this lay unresolved in me, I suppose, so when Shoaib Mansoor called asking me to play a role in Khuda Ke Liye, I refused categorically. He urged me to read a couple of pages of the script. Finally I relented. And just those two pages had me hooked.

We were not fanatics, but I had been brought up in a very orthodox home. My mother’s only solace and source of pleasure was prayer. As children, we were all taught to read the Quran but not to understand it. I remember even then that as the maulvi interpreted the holy text, I thought it ridiculous. His interpretations were full of fire and brimstone and talk of kafirsdoomed for hell. I had many Hindu and Christian friends, who I knew to be very good fellows, and I wondered why they must suffer while we Muslims, no matter what we did, would only suffer a mild purgatorial period before we were all accepted into a sylvan heaven. According to him, everything was haraam: music, watching films, wearing western clothes, shaving, drinking, growing hair above the lips.

All of this bothered me intensely. What is the azaan but music; what is the recitation of the Quran but music? Did our holy book really condemn our women to look like penguins, deformed and shapeless in uniform black? The maulvi had 13 children: how were they to be reared? That is what should have been worrying him instead of all his talk of the afterlife.

Those two pages I read of Khuda ke Liye hooked me. They expressed everything I felt about my religion and culture. It was neither devout nor dismissive. It was an argument for what I believed in. I said yes immediately.

The maulvi’s role that I play is a very small part of the film. It is centred on his long speech in the courtroom. But delivering that was the great satisfaction of my life. Through that role, I was able to voice all that I feel about Islam. This was amplified and strengthened by the fact that the maulvi quotes chapter and verse from the Quran to back his liberal and humane vision and so it completely repudiates the warped priorities and bigoted vision of the average spokesmen of the Koran.

Khuda Ke Liye is a courageous film. I was safe doing it — I do not live in Pakistan, I could deliver my speech and return home. Also, my assertions in the film are backed by chapter and verse from the Quran, so they could not be faulted. But the rest of the cast was not as immune. A young man, who was originally meant to play Sahmad, the younger brother, quit the film after he watched my scene being shot. That’s an index of the courage it took the others to see the film through.

My father had staunchly dismissed the idea of an Islamic nation, so though we had cousins in Pakistan, we never visited. For all of these reasons, in a myriad different ways, this film has been an opening of doors for me. Today I feel Khuda Ke Liye is the most important film I have made in my career. I am immensely proud of it. It is not technically perfect; it is not flawless, but if I had not made another film in my entire life, this would have been enough. It is my most honest work.

As told to Shoma Chaudhury