Bollywood's complicated relationship with Islamophobia

Bollywood stars are revered in India. Ask David Letterman who in his Netflix show was left in disbelief about the popularity of Shahrukh Khan, one of the biggest Indian celebrities. The celebrities are usually vocal about political matters including the Pulwama attack which claimed the lives of at least 37 personnel. However, they have mostly remained silent except few celebrities surrounding the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the more recent acts of violence and riot in Delhi.

Read more: Citizenship Amendment Act of India, explained in 500 words

India, the largest democracy in the world is bleeding. This year, the Narendra Modi led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has revoked Article 370 from Kashmir stripping it’s only majority Muslim state of its autonomy and published the National Register of Citizens in Assam (NRC) which has led to police brutality towards illegal immigrants. In December, it passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a law that provides citizenship to only non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. This has led to protests in different parts of the country, Critics have been calling it out for being unconstitutional and another attack of the government on its Muslim population.

Read more: Kashmir, a paradise lost?

The silence from Bollywood might come as a surprise. But for a movie industry whose most bankable celebrities are three Muslim male superstars, it has a history of making movies which are Islamophobic and portrays Muslims as terrorists and Muslim countries as regressive and one-dimensional. In 1997, a war drama Border became an all-time blockbuster. It depicts a fictional narration of the period during the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971. The Indian soldiers are portrayed humanely with their families, the sacrifices they make for the country and their heroics. However, the Pakistani soldiers are shown as Muslim caricatures and the cause of destruction.

Bollywood is often criticised for its inaccurate representation of Islamic elements

In 2001, Gadar- Ek Prem Katha became another all-time blockbuster. The movie narrates the traumas which families experienced because of the partition of India and Pakistan. While it remains mostly a neutral narrative and shows the losses on both sides, it makes its Sikh hero the saviour from whom the Muslims ultimately learn. During the 2001-2010 period, films such as Indian (2001), 16 December (2002), The Hero: Love Story of a Spy (2003), Veer-Zaara (2004), Dus (2005), Mission Istaanbul (2008) and many others which showed Muslims as terrorists, barbaric and threats to society. To not offend its Muslim minority audience, sometimes moviemakers would add a “good” Muslim character in the team who would fight “bad” Muslims. They would also show Muslim families who are victims of the radical Islamic country they live in.

In the majority of these movies, Pakistan or Pakistani terrorists would be the main villains. This could be attributed to India’s difficult relationship with Pakistan over the years including the Partition in 1947, the Bangladesh Liberation War, the Kashmir conflict and other military conflicts over the years. This along with the global islamophobia after the 9/11 attacks provided the perfect villain to Bollywood filmmakers. They used the raw sentiments of the Indian population from the Kargil War to create good v/s evil narratives to sell the movies.

Ranbir Sing as a cunning Alauddin Khilji in 2018’s Padmavaat

However, in the last couple of years, Bollywood movies have started to include Muslim characters from history and different countries as villains. In 2018, a big-budget period fantasy piece Padmaavat by one of Indian’s biggest filmmakers turned Alauddin Khalji,  the most powerful Muslim emperor of the Khalji Dynasty and his entire clan into “murderous, manipulative, cheating barbarians.” The Hindu ruler and community in the movie are shown to embody nobility, valour and patriotism.

Another movie, Uri-the Surgical Strike, based on Indian soldiers’ surgical strike on terrorist locations in Pakistan glorified the Indian Army.  One of the characters ‘modelled on National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. Govind Sir forcefully declares that India is now a ‘Naya Hindustan’, ye ghar main ghusega bhi aur marega bhi’ (“New Hindustan”, which enters houses and also kills in it). When patriotism takes the disguise of nationalism and is blanketed in a well-made movie, it becomes an extremely powerful propaganda tool to attack minority communities.

Sanjay Dutt as a ruthless Ahmad Shah Abdali in the 2020 movie Panipat

A movie titled, War adds to the stereotypes of what constitutes a “good” Muslim and the factors which make “bad” Muslims. The good Muslim women cover their head and go to the dargah, the good Muslim men do not touch alcohol. The bad Muslims stone women, indulge in multiple sexual activities and ask Allah for luck before committing crimes.

Recently, Priyanka Chopra one of the biggest Bollywood transplants to Hollywood was called out for endorsing nuclear war. The endorsement of war in Bollywood movies and by celebrities have a huge impact on the nation where celebrities are literally worshipped. It creates “the other” which puts further pressure on Indian Muslim communities who are already facing the wrath of a Hindu Nationalist Government.

Bollywood celebrities need to speak up against the unconstitutional nature of the CAA. As the country continues to protest against the Muslim exclusionary law, millions of Bollywood fans around the world await on their beloved stars to take a stand in unity with the protestors.

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