Since the 1940s, the beginning of the Golden Age of Hindi cinema, the Sufi song form of qawwali has been a prominent feature in Bollywood film. Due to the rich sociocultural and religious history of qawwali in the subcontinent, it is easy, even for South Asians, to picture the qawwali as a solely Islamic sacred song and overlook the existence of its filmi counterpart. Like several religious practices, the qawwali too has seen an expansion beyond private sacred spaces to public secular ones. Qawwalis were initially used in films to complement Muslim narratives and themes, with their cinematic adaptation remaining largely faithful to the traditional practice. Over the decades, however, filmi qawwalis have undergone significant transformations in musicality, visualization, and context, so much so that today they often bear little resemblance to the original.
The qawwali is a style of devotional music practiced by adherents of Sufism (a form of Islamic mysticism) in South Asia. The genre is believed to have been initiated by the Sufi mystic Amir Khusrau in the late 1200s through his fusion of Hindustani music with South West Asian musical influences. Qawwalis are traditionally performed by a small group of singers and instrumentalists at khanaqahs (hermitages) and dargahs (shrines) of Sufi saints. They are based on religious poems with spiritual and romantic themes, and rely largely on Hindustani melodic modes or rāgs. Both performers and listeners of qawwali partake in a Sufi ritual known as sama, a spiritual listening done with the aim of reaching a transcendental state of union with the divine. Traditional qawwali sessions are strictly sacred affairs, requiring a clear code of conduct to be followed by all participants.
Bollywood has a widespread incorporation of Islamic influences in its music, qawwali included. Filmi qawwalis make up an interesting musical subgenre – they not only adapt the centuries-old Sufi tradition to the big screen, but also renegotiate and represent it in a distinctively modern, popular, and more secular light. Their versatility is what makes them ideal candidates for Bollywood film songs, as they can be maneuvered to fit a variety of themes and appeal to a broad audience. Ethnomusicologists have examined this changing identity of qawwali and attempted to evaluate the meaning and role of the filmi qawwali in relation to its precursor. As Natalie Sarrazin writes in Music, Culture and Identity in the Muslim World, unlike the traditional qawwali, the filmi version is considered to possess the twin effects of entertainment and religious evocation.
We see this in A. R. Rahman’s “Arziyan” from the 2009 film Delhi-6. “Arziyan” contains both authentic Sufi elements that would be present in a traditional qawwali, as well as the newer features characteristic of filmi qawwali.
While the text of the song is not explicitly based on a classical Sufi poem, it is thematically reminiscent of one. The lyrics are spiritual and express the singer’s love for the Lord. Repeated invocation and appeal to the divine is achieved through the repetition and emphasis on the word maula, which means Lord or master in Arabic. “Arziyan” is set to a Hindustani classical rāg and tāl, and includes Western instrumentation in addition to the traditional harmonium and tabla.
The song is short and pre-composed, and uses a sentimental vocal timbre very different from the deeper, rougher voice used in the traditional form. It is tuneful and has a catchy rhythm, making it accessible to listeners of all backgrounds. “Arziyan” has an accompanying cinematic picturization, shot in and around Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in New Delhi. Throughout the song’s music video, thousands of Muslims are shown united in prayer as well as expressing their feelings of brotherhood and love for one another. The lead actor of the film, Abhishek Bachchan, is seen sitting at and enjoying a qawwali session, in front of a traditional party comprising two lead male singers with harmoniums, a tabla player, and two chorus singers clapping.
“Arziyan” is part of a film that depicts the social diversity of an area of Delhi, and this theme maps itself effectively onto the song’s arrangement. Bachchan plays Roshan, a half Hindu-half Muslim man, and is shown among Hindus and Muslims alike. At the mosque, he uses both the South Asian Muslim and Hindu greetings of aadab and namaste.
Along with providing concrete Muslim representation, the visualization also includes considerable Hindu religious symbolism. The video shows Hindu ritual bells and oil lamps, a Hindu deity, as well as Hindus in collective celebration and prayer. Within the film, the song appears at two strategic points where a sense of community is established – first following the recovery of Roshan’s grandmother in the intimate presence of her neighbours; and second, when the inhabitants of Delhi-6 reunite after bitter communal violence to save the dying Roshan’s life.
Hence, “Arziyan,” though Sufi in style, celebrates the multiplicity of identities in Delhi – it primarily hails the harmonious coexistence of Hindus and Muslims in a single community. The song achieves this directly through its vivid cinematic picturizations, and indirectly through its melodious quality, which quickly endears it to its audience and prompts the listener to receive its content and theme.
“Arziyan” also exemplifies plurality as a film qawwali. A diverse team of artists lies behind its creation – the song is composed by A.R. Rahman, a South Indian Muslim, sung by Javed Ali and Kailash Kher, a North Indian Muslim and a Hindu respectively, and written by Prasoon Joshi, a Hindu. The cast of the film is similarly diverse, both geographically and religiously.
The video for the song has gotten 2.5 million views on YouTube. The comments section shows of the effect of the multicultural, pluralistic context of “Arziyan” on a large and diverse audience. Several viewers include their personal religious affiliation next to their praise of the song, in order to doubly assert the impact that (what they perceive to be) an Islamic devotional song has had on them. These comments show that a significant proportion of the audience is emotionally moved and mutually relates, on varying levels, with the peaceful spirit of the song. Thus, “Arziyan” functions, by virtue of its distinct status as a film qawwali, as a musical and visual signifier of the shared South Asian experience that ties together its historical origins, its creators, and its audience.
Another more recent example of a qawwali is “Piya Samaye” from the 2018 film Mulk. Like “Arziyan,” “Piya Samaye” is easily recognizable as a qawwali due to its strong Sufi foundations.
Through the lyrics, the singers address the divine as their beloved and repeatedly assert that the Lord is etched into their souls. The full version of the song has a clear traditional call-and-response pattern with a lead singer initiating musical phrases and the group responding to them in unison. However, here again, the voice is deliberately made to sound soft and smooth for cinematic effect. The musical background includes the conventional tabla, dholak, and clapping (but lacks the harmonium). In addition, modern string instruments and dramatic musical flourishes make the song interesting to the listener. Like “Arziyan”, this song fits well into the musical landscape of filmi qawwali.
Mulk revolves around Murad, a 65-year-old Muslim lawyer living with his family in Varanasi – a city boasting a Hindu-majority population and a major Hindu religious site. Murad and his family enjoy a peaceful living with their Hindu neighbours and friends, until Murad’s nephew unexpectedly commits an act of terrorism. Suspicion and legal accusations against the family inevitably ensue. The gripping storyline shows the close familial bond that develops between Murad and his Hindu daughter-in-law Aarti, who helps untangle him and the family from charges of terrorism.
The music video of “Piya Samaye” maximizes on this theme of interreligious solidarity both within and beyond Murad’s family. The song’s picturization shows a local mosque as well as the Muslim community actively participating in a traditional qawwali session. The video also presents a glimpse of Varanasi’s famed Ghats, the flights of steps lying along the banks of the Ganga river which serve as prominent locations for Hindu rituals. While Murad (played by Rishi Kapoor) is shown praying at the mosque, Aarti (played by Taapsee Pannu) is shown greeting the family with the Hindu namaste – a close parallel to Arziyan’s highlighting of varying hand gestures. Despite their differing religions, they wholeheartedly embrace in celebration of their familial ties.
“Piya Samaye” is well-placed right at the end of the film, following the court case in which Aarti skillfully exposes the inherent religious bias in Murad’s accusation. This arrangement within the film further cements the role played by the song’s music and visualization. The song’s message of religious plurality and harmony is especially resounding after the resolution of the legal conflict and the establishment of Murad’s innocence.
Like “Arziyan,” “Piya Samaye” is the brainchild of a diverse set of artists. The song was composed by Anurag Saikia, an Indian Hindu from Assam, and written by Shakeel Azmi, an Indian Muslim from Uttar Pradesh. It was sung by Shafqat Amanat Ali and Arshad Hussain, both Pakistani Muslim singers. The viewers’ YouTube comments not only underscore the poignant impact the song had on them but also reveal their longing for a society with no communal boundaries. Piya Samaye’s music video, despite being only a minute and a half in length, succeeds in pulling at the heartstrings of the audience and attaching them to the world inside it.
Looking at other film qawwalis from the 2000s and 2010s, the plurality of South Asian identities remains a common thread. “Kun Faya Kun” (Rockstar, 2011) shows an aspiring Hindu musician finding solace in the atmosphere of a dargah. “Bhar Do Jholi Meri” (Bajrangi Bhaijaan, 2015) features a devout Indian Hindu being moved to tears by a qawwali sung in Pakistan by a Pakistani Muslim. And “Khwaja Mere Khwaja” (Jodhaa Akbar, 2008) celebrates the marriage of the Muslim Mughal king Akbar with the Hindu Rajput princess Jodhaa. Each of these songs occupies and creates a unique multicultural context rather than depicting a single culture or religion in isolation.While the filmmakers for these movies included qawwalis in their productions to attract a large diasporic audience, they unintentionally used these songs to signify and recognize the diversity of that very audience.
Unfortunately, the solidarity depicted on screen rarely makes it into the real world. At best, reactions to films like these spark fleeting conversations about social reform. Worse, they do not linger at all. Even as viewers react fervently to these music videos, nationalistic, religious, and caste-based tensions are at their highest point in South Asia in decades. Media can no doubt be an effective tool for sociopolitical transformation, but real events have continually proven that art, music, and film are no match for them. The unrelenting rise in Hindutva sentiment since BJP, the 2019 border conflict between India and Pakistan, the enactment of the CAA and NRC, the deadly Hindu-Muslim riots in Delhi this year, and the ever-present violence against lower castes – each of these recent happenings tragically belies and upends the blissful tale conveyed by Bollywood’s qawwalis.
Perhaps then, in this age of increasing animosity between communities, we can best understand these qawwalis as exemplary depictions of South Asian society. They serve as an inspiring reminder of our collective potential to achieve a harmonious existence.