Zaira Wasim row: 'Problem' isn't Dangal actor's decision to quit Bollywood, but her refusal to refuse her religion

Kartik Maini

Jul 06, 2019 10:17:19 IST

It is rarely difficult to divide a divided house. Earlier this week, Zaira Wasim, the now 18-year-old actor who has been part of projects like Dangal, Secret Superstar, and the forthcoming The Sky is Pink, announced, by the medium of an elaborate collation on Instagram, her decision to ‘dissociate’ herself from Bollywood and thus place an unforeseen end to her passage in the industry. In her powerfully articulated declaration, Wasim, a practising Muslim from Kashmir, said that her line of work in Bollywood — as also its associated life-ways — had unmoored her from her ‘imaan’ (faith, rectitude) and deprived her of spiritual ‘barakah/t’ (blessing, plenitude, and by her translation, stability), making complete dissociation from the depredations of the industry essential for “peace and the light of (her) imaan”. Although it was widely conjectured, albeit never confirmed by Wasim herself, that the actor had received considerable scorn for her ‘un-Islamic’ engagement in the arts, the decision to quit, narrativised by Wasim herself in painstaking detail, was evident in the difference of its impulse. Disenchanted and disillusioned by an industry that is, by all accounts, scarcely hospitable and only difficultly habitable, the teenaged actor decided to choose a life more amenable to her spiritual conduct. Wasim clarified both that she was the author of her note and that she was declaring her dissociation publicly “not to paint a holier picture (of herself),” but to “start afresh.”

 Zaira Wasim row: Problem isnt Dangal actors decision to quit Bollywood, but her refusal to refuse her religion

Zaira Wasim. File Photo

Yet, within hours of the note’s virality, Wasim’s statement drew sharp, if not hotly contested, reactions from Bollywood and concerned members of the civil and political society. The first kind of reaction held that Wasim’s decision had followed the patriarchal policing that she had faced from her community and in Kashmir, negating, as Barkha Dutt put it, the possibility of any tangible choice for women. Since the connexion between patriarchal scorn and Wasim’s decision to quit, without denying the reality of the former, is at best tenuous, the repeated framing of the actor’s statement as the defeated surrender of a frightened female teenager belies an imagination of Wasim, a Muslim woman, as irrevocably subordinated — a familiar, if not problematic, script often employed to represent Muslim women. Such is the onerous burden of this monolithic story that we ignore, often at our own peril, that frightened women also exist within Bollywood whose gendered record has been, to put it mildly, deeply worrying. The public testimonies of sexual harassment that many women of the industry had aired only months ago have all but receded, leaving #MeToo as one of Bollywood’s many spectacles. Inscribed in legend by one impressionistic film after another, Bollywood is an industry where sexual harassment is ubiquitous, where onerous demands on the bodies and lives of female actors are made as they are sorted by age and never paid as much, and where marriage, motherhood, and domesticity — a plunge that many female actors take to celebration and never pity — end, by depleting the chastity endemic at its heart, many memorable heroines.

Wasim’s religion, then, appears to be the chief interpretive lens of the pervasive scorn and ridicule that her resignation has aroused. Different tweets from Raveena Tandon and Vivek Agnihotri have foregrounded this motif. In a since deleted tweet, Tandon wrote that ungrateful actors like Wasim should “exit gracefully and keep their regressive views to themselves.” Vivek Agnihotri, a director, lamented that “in the age of artificial intelligence, we must question the book that orders an individual to quit ‘ARTS’ to make peace with Allah.” Islam is thus consigned to repressive orthodoxy and the question and reality of spiritual practice as such suppressed, as if there is nothing else to Wasim, a Muslim actor, besides being oppressed by her religion.

Perhaps the problem, then, is not that Zaira Wasim chose to dissociate herself from an alienating industry that made her into a person she did not want to be and untethered her from a conduct she wanted for herself in the process. The problem is precisely as Tandon and Agnihotri diagnose it — Wasim’s religion, and her refusal to dissociate herself from it to become acceptable, palatable to ‘secular’ publics of fallacious integrity. As the actor’s earlier exchange with then Sports Minister Vijay Goel illustrates, the line between burqa-clad and emancipated Muslim women runs perilously thin, conditional forever on how divorced from their religion they can be. So stands castigated Zaira Wasim — 18, Muslim, Kashmiri, actor — by her refusal to refuse her religion.

Updated Date: Jul 06, 2019 10:17:19 IST