Coolie: Kader Khan’s Dialogues Remind Us of a Time When Secularism Wasn’t a Bad Word


Coolie: Kader Khan’s Dialogues Remind Us of a Time When Secularism Wasn’t a Bad Word

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Once upon a time, Durga Puja pandals played, “Madine wale se mera salaam kehna,” because playing hit Hindi film songs was a standard thing to do. In those days, we didn’t have to worry about someone congratulating us for being so secular, or someone condemning us for Islamicising a Hindu festival. We didn’t consciously think of turning everyday actions into political statements. We were naïve. We took secularism for granted, even though history had repeatedly showed us we were wrong; we believed in harmony and the kind of India Manmohan Desai idealised for us.

Coolie is a film that tells us that chaos will eventually be restored, that truth and justice will prevail over falsehood and avarice. It is also a story about finding your roots and reconnecting with your family and loved ones. However, for most of us, Coolie is the film that almost killed Amitabh Bachchan.

The superstar, who plays the eponymous coolie, Iqbal, was seriously injured in an accident while shooting an action scene with Puneet Issar. He suffered an internal hemorrhage that required a number of blood transfusions. While recovering from the surgery, it was discovered that Bachchan had contracted Hepatitis B from an infected donor’s blood – it changed his life forever. It also showed us how India was not ready to live without her favourite hero. We prayed in temples, mosques, churches, gurudwaras, synagogues; we were desperate. My mother tells me that our domestic help fasted every Monday and prayed to Shiva for his life. Of course, he recovered, completed the film, and it turned out to be a huge box-office success.

The initial attraction of the film was to witness the scene that had injured him so severely. The scene was in slow motion and captions in English, Hindi, and Urdu told us of the accident. Desai’s original ending had Iqbal dying but the script was changed because of what happened to Bachchan. The last few minutes of the film blend with reality. The whole nation prays for his life and then, after magically recovering, he says, “I was gone. It is your love that brought me back.”

Happy 35th Coolie. You remind us of simpler times when loving our heroes and our cinema was easy.

Fortunately, Coolie was also a very wholesome and entertaining film – I’d argue that it was, in fact, path-breaking. Iqbal is a blue-collar, Muslim protagonist, a rarity in a Bollywood masala entertainer. After all, Muslim protagonists were largely restricted to Muslim socials. But in Coolie, Iqbal’s Islamic identity was treated as normative, not a political statement as we later saw in films like Chak De India and My Name is Khan. Iqbal’s love interest was a Christian girl named Julie (played by Rati Agnihotri) and his best friend was a Hindu journalist (Rishi Kapoor). Desai was definitely conscious of the religious identities of his characters, but at the same time, he tried to free them from stereotypes and created his distinct blend of secularism – the epitome of this was, of course, Amar Akbar Anthony.

As all of Desai’s OTT creations, Coolie also gave us an extremely interesting and twisted antagonist named Jafer (Kader Khan), the very personification of greed, lust, and treachery. Jafer may be born Muslim but he openly admits that he is an atheist. Iqbal’s mother Salma (Waheeda Rehman) is engaged to Jafer, who can’t marry her because he is jailed for fraud and other misdemeanours. Salma marries Aslam (played by Satyen Kappu) and she is living happily with their eight-year-old Iqbal, when Jafer is released from jail and demands that Salma leave her husband to marry him. Jafer first murders Salma’s father who refuses to arrange for his daughter’s divorce, and then unleashes one diabolical act after another, eventually abducting Salma. Jafer is ruthless. He is consumed so deeply by greed and power that to protect his business, he attempts to murder his adopted son, Sunny. Until the end, Jafer remains cruel and unapologetic.

My own love for Coolie is connected to Allah Rakkha, the wonderful falcon who plays Iqbal’s guide and sidekick. No one used falcons better than Manmohan Desai: In Dharam Veer, a falcon named Sheru played Pran’s sidekick and then became a major character in the film. Allah Rakkha had a larger role and gets more action than Sheru. He wears a golden chain around his neck that bears his name. In fact, his character is a clear allusion to Garuda: When Jafer is abducting Salma in the helicopter, Allah Rakkha tries to save her. He even manages to scratch out an eye of Goga, Jafer’s assistant (Goga Kapoor) who has to wear an eye patch for the rest of his life. However, unlike Garuda, Allah Rakkha lives and manages to witness the death of Jafer. I liked him so much that I even named my toy parrot Allah Rakkha.

Happy 35th Coolie. You remind us of simpler times when loving our heroes and our cinema was easy. We didn’t have to worry about someone mocking our tastes on Twitter, or judging our taste in music. We believed that values like truth and justice mattered, we believed in a better India and, above all, we believed in miracles. Amitabh Bachchan cheated death and came back, to deliver another hit.

Coolie reminds me that we were once innocent, believing deeply in a united India. We believed in our nation. That ended shortly after, in the following year – 1984.