Mee Raqsam review: Dancing together, separately

The fault lines of India’s “shared culture” are at the core of Mee Raqsam, a film that promises to ignite a dialogue about fraternity through its portrayal of a Muslim girl’s desire to learn Bharatanatyam.

Published : Sep 19, 2020 07:00 IST

The poster   of “Mee Raqsam”.

The poster of “Mee Raqsam”.

For religious and ethnic minorities, the struggle to equally belong to the Indian nation state has never been made as acute as at the present moment. Not only has the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled Central government begun the process of regression towards an ethnic Hindu nationalist identity characterised by “narrow views” of citizenship (and hence, belonging), the resultant majoritarian othering of minorities like Muslims in the public sphere, including cinema, has also raised serious secular concerns.

The cultural studies scholar M. Madhava Prasad has termed the cinematic apparatus as a “microcosm of the future nation-state”. Cinematic production and consumption of cultural symbols communicate with and about the relationship of “belonging” shared by its subjects to the “imagined community” that a nation is. It is in this context that the message of films such as Mee Raqsam (Urdu for “I dance”) deserves serious public discourse. In this particularly sectarian moment, when hate-mongering and discriminatory propaganda against Muslims occupy a significant position in our popular narrative, this cinematic attempt by Baba Azmi and Shabana Azmi deserves appreciation. The film does the seemingly “brave” task of asserting Muslim claims on the shared and composite cultural legacy of India by foregrounding the agency of the Muslim woman character, Maryam.

At the heart of the film is the teenaged and pain-struck Maryam, and her desire to learn Bharatanatyam after the death of her mother, who, incidentally, passed away while teaching her the techniques of the dance. From dancing to mobile phone ringtones to observing the dance class from outside, Maryam ultimately finds herself learning Bharatanatyam at the Mizwan Dance Academy, only to be continuously threatened and reminded that the burden of “ qaum ki izzat ” ( honour of the community) is on her shoulders. Her father Salim is warned by several people, including her aunt and the powerful community elder Hashim Seth, against ruining the honour of both the family and the community by learning Bharatanatyam. Hashim Seth comments: “ Yeh log tumhari beti ko khule aam nachwayenge (These people will make your daughter dance in public)”.

Abstruse value judgments, such as music being un-Islamic, and complete social and economic boycott by the “ qaum ke log ” (people of the community) at Hashim Seth’s behest, represent the failure of not only community life to allow autonomous individual expression but also the state to robustly transform social norms. When juxtaposed with the vision of our Constitution, where Article 15(2) forbids private discrimination, this raises serious questions about the actualisation of our constitutional values.

It is worth noting that Dr B.R. Ambedkar, in his constitutional proposal, States and Minorities (1945), comprehensively outlawed social boycott and argued for constitutional personal agency at the Centre subverting the power of private actors or social forces to act tyrannically.

Thus, the readily available patriarchal tool of “honour” justifies controlling Maryam’s autonomy since she needs to be “protected” from attempts of defilement of “honour” by the other community. However, the father-daughter duo remain unfazed in their pursuit to claim their autonomy. The film beautifully renders their attempt to live life on their own terms, through Maryam’s gritty resolve to “ na jhukenge, na thakenge (we won’t surrender or get tired). Her father advises her, “ Yeh sawal zindagi apni sharton par jeene ka hai (this is a question of living life on your own terms)” , and Maryam decides that she will dance no matter what . Interestingly, Maryam’s father is part of a growing phenomenon of Bollywood’s supportive fathers who stand by their daughters, a trend that warrants a more detailed feminist scrutiny.

Complex framing of Muslim women

However, the film’s narrative leaves much to be desired when it comes to the portrayal of the agency of Muslim women. While the film locates the socio-economic identity of Maryam as a lower-middle class girl in Mizwan, a small town in Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh, the larger context of the film continues to be about her religious identity and the dictates of her community leaders. This feeds into the well-established stereotype of “regressive” religion and so-called “stone-cold” Maulanas being the “only and primary” issue when it comes to Muslim women. Such boxing of Muslim women not only denies the complex realities of their lives, but also does not recognise the scope of agency for Muslim women within or without Islam. Religious identity cannot be disconnected from other social positions such as class, regional identification, education and age. What would have been Maryam’s story if she had been in Delhi or Mumbai? What are the socio-economic reasons for her mother not being able to pursue her talent in dance? Those are issues for Maryam, too. This is not to say that Maryam’s religious identity does not matter, but that her life is more complex than that.

The narrative of the primacy of religion in the lives of Muslim women cements the stereotyping of Muslim women as “victims” of their men and their personal laws, a stereotype used by Hindu nationalists in their project of saving the “oppressed” Muslim women from their own men, a project which is proudly declared by Jay Prakash in the film: “ Main jab Azamgarh kahta hoon toh kya aata hai dimaag main? Garibi, gundagardi, hinsa, purdon mein chhupi hui, goonghi, gharon mein qaid, anpadh auratein. Humne wahin ke ek ladki ko manch diya (What comes to your mind when I mention Azamgarh? Poverty, gang wars, violence, women hidden in purdah, voiceless, caged in their homes, illiterate women. We have offered the stage to a woman from there).” Muslim women thus are reduced to tokens for Hindu men to “save” and boast about on stage.

The project of the Hindu right-wing attempting to “save” Muslim women is a long-established one. Hindu nationalist groups have argued in support of a Uniform Civil Code, citing the opposition to the Shah Bano case as evidence of Muslim "backwardness”. The Uniform Civil Code has been a long-standing election promise of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The current government sustained the narrative that, with the passing of the Triple Talaq Bill, “Muslim women were saved”. While one Minister of the current government commented that “women of India feel empowered” against the “hold of conservative and communal elements” on the passing of the law, another Minister claimed, a year later, that there has been an 82 per cent decline in the cases of triple talaq.

This echoes the British justification of their colonial project as one meant to civilise the “native” population and to save the “brown women of the native country” from “barbaric and uncivilised brown men”. This construction of Muslim women as "victims” simultaneously involves a construction of non-Muslim (mostly Hindu) women as “liberated” by their men, an idea that is largely visible in debate on personal laws of different communities. Despite large-scale opposition to the Hindu Code Bill and multiple sites of patriarchy existent in Hindu law, it is still believed to be a “modern, uniform, secular and gender just law”, a myth which feminist lawyer Flavia Agnes calls “popular fiction”.

Composite culture & conscientisation

This project of saving Muslim women continues while simultaneously othering the Muslim community, a phenomenon that operates both on and off screen in our times. Thus, Maryam is a fit subject for the character Jay Prakash (JP) to establish his community’s progressive credentials and at the same time establish that Bharatanatyam is a Hindu cultural practice which the “other” (the Muslim) is benevolently allowed to learn . Hamari parampara itni mahan hai ki agar koi paraya bhi ise seekhna chahe toh hum use mana nahin karte (Our tradition is so great that even “others” are allowed to learn it),” comments Jay Prakash on Maryam’s learning of Bharatanatyam. In another instance, Jay Prakash chides his own daughter for not learning Bharatanatyam whereas “a Mohammedan girl is learning Indian dance, but you are not”. However, Maryam and Salim reply through their assertion of right and pride over India’s shared culture. “ Ganga jamni tehzeeb mein hi desh ki shaan hai (The pride of the nation lies in its shared culture),” declares Maryam and claims her space in the “Indian” cultural practice of Bharatanatyam. In almost tributary fashion, Maryam performs Bharatanatyam to a sufi song. And here lies another discontent of the film’s narrative. The film seems burdened with an apologetic tone where for a Muslim, to claim equal belonging, a precondition is to prove his/her credentials of secularity.

This compulsive apologism is in response to the widespread Hindutva world view which presumes Muslims to be “separatist” and “anti-national”. The Muslim is thus burdened with continuously proving his/her nationalism by “assimilating” into Hindu nationalism and culture packaged in the form of “Indian nationalism” and “Indian culture”. It is in this world view that Bharatanatyam is “Indian” but Sufism isn’t. Jay Prakash in fact scolds his daughter for listening to Sufi music. This is juxtaposed with the film’s assumption of mirror-imaging majority communalism and minority communalism. In Salim’s assertion that Hashim Seth and Jay Prakash are the same lies the failure to realise, as Nehru said, that majority communalism is apt to be taken for nationalism and could therefore lead to fascism .

In the seemingly progressive and secular claim of the soul of art being free (“ kala ki rooh uski azadi hai) lies another epistemological and historical dishonesty, about caste exclusion, at the heart of Bharatanatyam. Hashim Seth’s attempt to shame Saleem by invoking devadasis is met with Saleem’s dismissive reply that the past is not relevant now and that the dance is part of the mulk kitehzeeb (the culture of the nation).

Whitewashing biases

Dalit Ambedkarite scholars like Sreebitha P.V. have questioned the socio-cultural violence in the world of “Indian” music and dance. The whitewashed cinematic representation of classical dance or music as neutral or natural cultural symbols deserves strident critique.

This phenomenon was recently visible in Bandish Bandits , an Amazon Prime series starring Naseeruddin Shah, where the Brahmanical diktats and ritualisation of classical music training were not critiqued or questioned by the cinematic narrative. In the case of Bharatanatyam, the entire community of devadasis was criminalised and labelled “immoral” on the basis of the Brahmanical gaze of female sexuality, while their art and skill in Bharatanatyam were simultaneously appropriated by the Brahmin elite in post-independence India. Consequently, the social reckoning about Brahmanical overtones raises serious questions regarding the unquestioning reclamation of national cultural legacy.

The musician T.M. Krishna’s latest book, Sebastian & Sons: A Brief History of Mrdangam Makers (2020) brings out how the configuration of the performance of our ancient culture is deeply rooted in social prejudice and stigma. As the reviewer Chintan Modi pointed out, while the performance of the “devotional piety” in Bharatanatyam explicates the purity of the dance form, “the mrdangam makers who select the animal and fashion the skin into an instrument bear the brunt of being called dirty, uncouth and dangerous”. Moreover, there is a need to acknowledge that the much-famed Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb has not resulted in creation of fellow feeling or spiritual sentiment to equally belong for all Indians, in the historical background of the systematic exclusion of Dalits and Bahujans. This is also the failure of the vision of a democratic society, which according to Ambedkar must assure a life of leisure and culture to each one of its citizens.

Ultimately, cinema and popular culture, as important nodes of our public sphere, must introspect the lack of conscientisation about the unjust historical-cultural legacies in its narratives. As the process of unpacking dominant and oppressive thought currently prevailing in the socio-political structure, leading to invisible oppression in all spheres of life, conscientisation, rather than compulsive claims for common heritage, can be a more just and realistic social transformation strategy.

Today, when the political credo of Hindutva presents “potentially the most threatening and subversive challenge” to Indian secularism, a film based in Kaifi Azmi’s hometown Mizwan, with a humane portrayal of the various fault lines of India’s “shared culture”, should ignite a dialogue about fraternity. This preambular value not only envisages a culture of associated living and social harmony but makes “dignity” the cornerstone of such social transactions. As Professor Aakash Rathore has explained in Ambedkar’s Preamble (2020) , Dr Ambedkar ensured that the Preamble was phrased in a manner that “assuring the dignity of the individual” was a necessary and purposive condition precedent for our national unity. It is this unflinching commitment to the preservation of individual dignity in a fraternal context that has a strong potential to transform a social landscape dominated by bigoted and tyrannical elites like Jay Prakash and Hashim Seth.

Prannv Dhawan and Surabhi Karwa are constitutional law and human rights researchers with an interest in cinema.

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