In 2010, Yash Raj Films produced a limited episode series called Powder to elevate TV entertainment both thematically and aesthetically. Depicting the story of the Narcotic Control Bureau’s efforts to catch the baron of a drug smuggling ring in Mumbai, Powder is perhaps best described as a show that was years ahead of its time in terms of its content, writing and style. However, it’s Powder’s treatment of its Muslim characters that really makes this show stand out.
Between the 1980s and 1990s, Hindi cinema’s investment in the gangster action film genre produced a range of films which explored Mumbai’s criminal underbelly and exposed the urban poverty behind it. By presenting multiple characters (both real and fictional) who were caught in the web of organised crime, the genre blurred the conventional line that separated the archetypal hero and villain in mainstream Hindi films. Some of the cult classics of the genre (Parinda, Satya, Vaastav) owe their iconic status largely to the moral ambiguity of their complicated and human anti-heroes.
As the decade wore on, it became obvious that Muslim characters were the most visible in the crime genre. The 2000s saw the socio-political climate become even more communal, and this was reflected in film-making with movies linking Muslim-ness with criminality.
The height of Indo-Pakistan tension during the Kargil conflict made its way into narratives about the urgent need to combat terrorism, cropping up in films like Sarfarosh. The Mumbai train bombings of 2006 and the 2008 attacks only added to this mounting anxiety – and inspired a spate of films like Aamir, Kurbaan and New York, which were premised on, and in turn, justified treating all Muslims with suspicion in the name of national security.
This cemented the ‘Bad Muslim’ trope, which was also bolstered by the US media’s loud Islamophobic rhetoric. Moreover, any discrimination faced by Muslims post 9/11 – whether in India or abroad – was deemed justifiable and Muslim lives lost in the process of the ‘war on terror’ were simply unfortunate collateral damage. My Name is Khan closed the decade with an overwhelmingly apologetic refrain where the ‘Good Muslim’ protagonist pleaded to the world at large, and to the US in particular, that he was not a terrorist.
Considering this was the era in which Powder released, it seems almost bizarre that the show managed to keep its antagonist’s Muslim identity separate from and largely incidental to his criminality. This is also quite pertinent to the contemporary popular culture milieu in which the show has resurfaced, with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s magnum opus Padmaavat reinvigorating the worst elements of the ‘Bad Muslim’ fixation with its insistence on locating Alauddin Khilji and his ilk’s Muslim-ness at the core of their despicable actions.
Some have chosen to read Khilji’s evident sexual impishness and fluidity in Padmaavat as a clever and ‘progressive’ subversion of the Islamic fundamentalism trope. However, this reading generously overlooks the presentation of Khilji’s sexual fluidity as yet another aspect of repulsive perversion indulged in by an ‘exotic Muslim beast’. It is a trope that simultaneously sexualises and demonises Muslim masculinity, erasing any and all nuance.
Such examples make it seem almost unthinkably progressive that Powder never resorts to the vilification of the Muslim-ness of its antagonist, not even as a convenient way to amplify dramatic tension. Instead, Ansari remains a formidable antagonist because he’s a drug smuggler, not because he is a Muslim. He is a shrewd and ruthless businessman who sits at the apex of an empire, a well-oiled machine with people from varying class and religious identities.
Additionally, the protagonist at the heart of Powder’s narrative – Usmaan Ali Malik – is also Muslim. Hindi popular culture narratives tend to include ‘Good Muslims’ as token paragons of goodness, who are either evangelical or carry a massive chip on their shoulders. Powder, however, refreshingly allows Malik the chance to wear his religious identity as lightly and nonchalantly as he wears his signature crisp shirts, without feeling the need to underline or obscure it.
Making the choice to rather self-consciously pit two Muslims against each other on opposite sides of the law, the show treads a fine line with finesse. The battle between the characters is one of wits and not based on competing versions of Muslim-ness. In contrast, the show finds its emotional core in the enduring connection of a shared personal history between the characters, which is marked by a betrayal of trust and a pervading sense of loss and injustice.
Watching Powder is a painful reminder of how rare it is to see characters in popular culture who simply happen to be Muslims (women being particularly scarce) – and who’s Muslim-ness isn’t perceived as un-Indian and depicted as inherently nefarious or something they must constantly apologise for. Eight years since its debut, Powder is still a delight to watch, and after being granted a second innings on a new platform, one hopes it can find the fresh audience it most certainly deserves.
Aamaal Akhtar is a research scholar in Modern History at Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, with an abiding interest in narratives of, by, and about Muslims.