The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #6 November / December 2013
At the Cinema
by Erik Zidowecki
November / December 2013 | 

The 1995 Bollywood movie Bombay is of interest in this review not because of its language or linguistic importance but because of its historical, cultural and religious connections. In some ways, it is a rather typical Indian movie, with a love story that is forbidden, song and dance numbers, and a long film length (a typical Bollywood movie usually runs for around three hours). What makes it different is its focus on major real world events.

In December 1992, riots broke out in parts of Bombay after the Muslim Babri Masjid mosque was destroyed. This pitted Hindus and Muslims extremist against each other, yet many innocent people were caught up in the violence and killed. The police intervened, at times having to open fire, which made both sides angrier, claiming the police were backing the other side.

Violence broke out again in January 1993 due to the continuing tensions as well as the stabbing of a some Hindu citizens. Houses were burned to the ground while people were stabbed, shot, and even in a few cases, set on fire. It is estimated that 900 people died as a result.

The movie starts out a few years before these events. Shekhar, a Hindu journalism student living and studying in Bombay, visits his family in their village. While there, he sees a Muslim schoolgirl, Shaila Bano, and instantly falls in love with her. Shaila is very shy and avoids Shekhar, who is aggressively following her around everywhere. Eventually, however, she falls in love with him.

The fathers threatening each other over news of their children's romance

Both fathers are violently opposed to the relationship, forbidding the couple to be together while also threatening to kill each other. They also accuse their children of trying to bring shame upon them. Shekhar's father, Narayan, tells him he may marry Shaila when he is dead, and Shekhar responds by telling him that he can't wait until he is dead. Shekhar then announces that he will return to Bombay and never come back to the village.

Shaila is devastated by Shekhar leaving, but soon starts receiving letters from him, along with a ticket to Bombay, which she keeps hidden. Eventually, however, her father, Basheer, finds out and declares that she will be married to a Muslim man within ten days. Shaila packs and flees to Bombay before that can happen.

When Shekhar tells them that their violence is killing others and asks when the fighting will stop, neither leader can answer him.

As soon as Shaila arrives, she and Shekhar get married and begin building their lives together. Before long, Shaila become pregnant and gives birth to twin sons, Kabir Narayan and Kamal Basheer, their names being a mix of both Hindu and Muslim, matching the way they are being raise in both religions.

The religious hostility they experienced in their village is echoed on a larger scale in Bombay, and over the years gets worse. When the boys are six, the first riots break out. The boys become separated from their parents and are caught by a group of rioters who demand to know if the brothers are Muslim or Hindu. When they refuse to answer, they are doused in kerosene and are almost set on fire. It is only with intervention by Shekhar and the police that they are saved.

Shaila, watching a peaceful Hindu protest procession

While the family recovers from this, reports of the riots reaches their home village, and soon Shekhar's father arrives in Bombay, out of concern for his son and grandchildren. Soon after, Shaila's parents also arrive, and the fathers begin arguing again. It seems that the threat of actual violence as well as their shared grandsons has taken a bit of the hostility out of them.

Acting as the reporter he has been promoted to, Shekhar interviews first the police then the religious leaders of both the Hindu and Muslim groups. Both leaders claim that it is the other side causing the violence and that their own people are being persecuted. When Shekhar tells them that their violence is killing others and asks when the fighting will stop, neither leader can answer him.

Meanwhile, the hostilities are rising again. One night, while Narayan is out with one of the twins, a group of armed Muslims approach him, asking him where he came from and what his name is. Basheer with the other twin comes running up, telling the group that Narayan is "one of us", and they leave. Narayan is shocked at being threatened and asks Basheer what he told them. Basheer replies that he told them he was his brother, which greatly touches Narayan.

Basheer, preventing a group of Muslims from killing Narayan

A few days later, the riots begin again, and a the family's apartment is set on fire. Unable to get out through the front door, Shekhar and Shaila escape with the twins through the kitchen window. Basheer is involved with prayers at the time and doesn't seem to notice anything is going on until Narayan rushes in and alerts him. He pushes Basheer toward the kitchen, but Basheer refuses to leave without his prayer rug and Qur'an, which Narayan then returns for. Even in the kitchen, however, Basheer still will not leave without the items, despite his wife shoving him. All three are caught up in the blast as fire engulfs a fuel tank, causing it to explode.

Unaware that their parents are now dead, Shekhar and Shaila continue to flee with the boys, but the twins become separated from them.

The parents search the streets, then failing to find them there, search among the wounded in the hospital and the dead in the mortuary. They return to what is left of their apartment eventually and find the remains of what their own parents were wearing, so they know they were killed in the fire.

Meanwhile, the children roam the streets, dodging both rioters and policemen, become separated themselves for a time before finding each other again and eventually their parents. The riots end as everyone becomes shocked at what they have done, drop their weapons, and join hands.

Shekhar and Shaila, after escaping their burning apartment, searching for their children

The movie isn't entirely factual regarding the riots, especially with that last scene, but the director was attempting to provide us with a somewhat happy ending, despite the losses and scars the family has suffered. The director also uses all the characters to emphasize the brutality as well as the seeming insanity behind the riots.

After Shaila has searched among the wounded, she is horrified at the number of children that were hurt. "What fire of hatred is this that has.. they didn't spare even the innocent little children!" she cries to the man helping her search.

When Shekhar comes across two of his friends that are engaging in the violence, one of them Muslim, the other a Hindu, he asks them "Why must we perish in the destruction madmen like you wreak?" The men are ashamed, but try to make him take a side, pointing out that he is Hindu and his children are half Muslim. He declares "We don't belong to either community! We're only Indians!"

One of the twins, when taken in by a stranger after being separated from his brother, asks "Why are Hindus and Muslims fighting each other?", the man admits he doesn't understand. The boy asks "Who is a Muslim? And what does Hindu mean?" to which the man answers "Religion... is the means to reach God. The Hindus and the Muslims have their own ways.. of reaching God." The boy then asks "Then why must they fight each other?"

Shaila Bano, happy in her new life and marriage

Both grandfathers give us hope. They show that they can put aside religious differences when it comes to family. They also show us the danger to ourselves in clinging to much to the articles of a religion when they are killed trying to save some holy items rather than escaping. Some might see this as a conviction of their faith, that they were willing to die for those, but I don't believe that was the intended message of the director.

It is both a tragedy and an irony that while the grandfathers were beginning to find common ground between them, they are killed by the very violence they were so ready to inflict upon others at the beginning.

I do have a problem with the movie which might at first seem trivial, but still bothered me while watching it. While I understand that the story needed Shekhar and Shaila to fall in love, I never believed it with the way it was done. Shekhar essentially is stalking her, even at one point boarding a boat she is on with other women, disguised as one of them. She seems to be terrified by this, but he tells her "I could give up everything for you. Would you do that for me?". Then he tells her to meet him at an old fort later, if she loves him. She does, of course, and they find each other there (after a musical number). We have only seen him chasing her, with them not even truly talking to each other, and suddenly, they have this incredibly strong love.

The streets of Bombay, as people drop their weapons and start joining hands

This causes a problem for me in the first part of the film because this isn't just "love at first sight". This is "love-and-betray-my-religion-and-forsake-my-family at first sight". I had a hard time believing that they would be so willing to give up everything for someone they barely know. The movie could have easily made this more believable if we saw a few scenes of them actually spending time together, getting to know each other. The director already does something like this twice in the movie, showing montages of scenes of the couple as they adapt to life in Bombay and how their babies grow into young boys. I just wish this "undying love" was given the same treatment.

This is a very powerful, and sometimes difficult, movie to watch, especially given that it was based around true events. Once can not help but draw parallels to other historical religious conflicts as well as even more recent acts of violence. It can perhaps be summed up best by a single man in the middle of the destruction, lamenting "We've had enough! Allah would never approve of this!".

At The Cinema - Bombay
Writer: Erik Zidowecki
• "Bombay" Internet Movie Database <>
• "Bombay (film)" From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia <>
• "Bombay Riots" From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia <>
All images are copyright Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited (A.B.C.L.), Jhamu Sughand Productions, Madras Talkies

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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