Some French towns may have banned the burkini from their beaches, but veils have always appeared in Indian films in many avatars. Indian films perform gymnastics with them, incorporating veils into narratives in deliciously diverse ways.
Veils in their most obvious incarnation, the burqa, were central to the plots of classic Muslim socials. Although the name of the genre attracted considerable debate, these films generally focused upon the social upliftment of Muslims through education, while asserting the importance of tradition.
In Chaudhvin ka Chaand, Nawab Sahib falls in love with Jameela when he accidentally catches a glimpse of her. When his mother tries to convince him to marry a woman of her choosing, he requests his friend Aslam to marry her instead. Unknown to him, this woman is Jameela. Her burqa prevents Nawab Sahib from recognising Jameela as the woman he is in love with.
There are many parallels between Chaudhvin ka Chaand and Mere Mehboob. Several comic scenes are woven around the burqa in both films. In Mere Mehboob as well, Anwar falls in love with the veiled Husna. When he sings a ghazal composed for her to a large audience, Husna’s burqa causes an interesting shift in power – while she is aware he is singing for her, he doesn’t know the identity of the woman he is singing for.
When Anwar finally speaks to Husna from the opposite side of a purdah, he doesn’t know he is speaking to the woman he loves. The lies they tell each other lead Anwar to believe that he is in love with Husna’s friend.
The purdah plays an interestingly versatile role in Muslim socials. It allows characters to eavesdrop, even as it affords privacy. In Mughal-E-Azam, the jealous Bahar often hides behind veils to observe meetings between Salim and Anarkali. When Salim languidly and erotically strokes a feather across Anarkali’s face in the iconic lovemaking scene, the feather doubles up as a veil, allowing him to kiss her without being spied upon by Bahar.
Purdahs and burqas also subtly communicate the division between social classes. In films like Najma, Benazir, Bahu Begum, Chaudhvin ka Chaand, Zubeidaa and Jodhaa Akbar, socially privileged women (and never servants or courtsesans) are behind the purdah. In Mughal-E-Azam and Paakezah, the faces of Anarkali and Nargis, both courtesans, are covered by veils only after they are betrothed to a man of high social standing.
In Pakeezah, when Salim first asks Sahibjaan who she is, they are separated by the fabric of the tent. Sahibjaan, who is afraid of the censure Salim would heap on her if he knew of her past, says that she has no recollection of who she is. The untruth transforms her into an entirely different woman and she appears to Salim as a magnified silhouette on the surface of the tent, which almost functions as a screen. Conversely, a makeshift screen doubles up as a veil in the more recent Swades, when it separates people from different castes in the village.
Muzzafar Ali’s Umrao Jaan, another courtesan film, uses multiple veils in one scene. When Nawab Sultan’s father comes to see his wife, from whom he has separated, they sit on different sides of the purdah. While the purdah makes a visual statement about the relationship between the couple, Nawab Sultan, from behind yet another curtain, overhears their conversation.
Jodhaa Akbar, on the other hand, attaches multiple metaphors to the veil. In Akbar’s first interaction with Jodhaa, she makes her demands from behind a veil, which stands for the difference in their backgrounds and the disagreement brewing between them. When Akbar is asked to identify his ghoonghat-covered wife from a bevy of similarly clad women, it signifies a challenge. And it functions as a barrier when Jodhaa places curtains between them as she insists that Akbar has not yet captured her heart.
In most Indian films, the act of unveiling indicates a sense of familiarity as well as possession. While Jameela and Aslam are happily married in Chaudhvin ka Chaand, she appears before him without a veil. However, when he comes home after deciding to give up his wife for his friend, Aslam finds her with a veil covering her face.
The moments of unveiling in Indian films are also particularly instructive. In Chaudhvin ka Chaand, Aslam convinces Jameela to unveil herself with sweet friendliness. In Mere Mehboob, Anwar cajoles Husna into looking up at him with a couplet. And in Mughal-E-Azam, when Salim unveils Anarkali while believing her to be a statue, he eloquently praises her beauty. However, Nikaah (1982) features Wasim unveiling Nilofer himself with unabashedly erotic words.
In Nikaah, the lines of the famous ghazal 'Chupke Chupke Raat Din', “Khench lena woh tera parde ka kona dafwatan,” also picture Wasim unveiling Nilofer in many ways. The veil appears most conspicuously in the song 'Purdah hai Purdah' from Amar Akbar Anthony, in which Akbar cajoles, challenges and threatens Salma into unveiling herself. In 'Dekho Chaand Aaya' from Saawariya, Ranbir gushes over a veiled Sakina.
In the song 'Tu Hi Re' from Bombay, when Shaila breaks free of her inhibitions and runs to Shekhar, she sheds her burqa. It is a symbol of her entrapment in social constraints and family obligations- a metaphor that has invited considerable criticism. However, when Shekhar is disguised in a burqa, it is an indication of the depth of his love for Sheila.
Veils worn by men are different from the ones worn by women – they mostly make for effervescent, comic moments in Hindi films. However, Fiza offers a scene brimming with angst when the titular character recognises her brother Altaf in the eyes of a veiled terrorist. When she unveils him, only their eyes are focused upon – her transmitting disbelief and his full of anguish. The moment is a powerful subversion of the man-unveils-woman trope in Hindi cinema.
Veils frequently appear as comic devices in contemporary Hindi films. In Bobby Jasoos, for instance, Bobby appears disguised – quite transparently – in a burqa during a job interview. Burqas have also featured as handy disguises in films like Jolly LLB, Delhi Belly and Bajrangi Bhaijaan, often making for some wonderfully funny moments. In 3 Idiots, Raju disguises himself with the veil afforded by the traditional sehra and spirits Pia away from her wedding.
The significance of the veil may have shifted and diluted over the years, but it continues to appear in Indian films. As long as Indian cinema retains its penchant for revealing characters and plot twists with visually grand statements, its love affair with veils will endure.
This article originally appeared on Scroll.in and has been reproduced with permission.