How Bollywood furthers India’s Hindu nationalism

The Indian film industry has not only embraced Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nationalistic Hindu agenda, it has enabled the portrayal of Muslims as the ‘bad’ other.

In December, a Bollywood period drama became the centre of a diplomatic row between India and Afghanistan. After the trailer of epic flick Panipat was released, Afghans were left fuming over the portrayal of the country’s founding father, Ahmad Shah Abdali, as a cruel and savage king.

Directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, who is known for making period dramas, and starring prominent Bollywood actor Sanjay Dutt, who plays the Afghan emperor, Panipat aimed to showcase the complex politics around the Third Battle of Panipat, fought between the Indian Marathas and the Durrani Empire army in 1761.

Gowariker’s film followed the cliched Bollywood formula of canvasing a historical event in which “local” Hindu warriors battle the “foreign” invading Muslim “barbarians”, who seek to destroy the vibrant Hindu culture and its history. Its caricature of Afghans as barbaric, meat-eating warriors with ghastly faces and dressed all in black robes was similar to what was shown in period dramas released in the past, including Padmaavat (2018) and Kesari (2019). In 2007, Afghanistan banned Kabul Express after it was deemed offensive to the Shia Muslim Hazara ethnic minority.

After the trailer of Panipat was posted online, the Afghanistan Mission in Delhi wrote to India’s Ministry of External Affairs, expressing reservations about the historical distortions and adverse impact on the relations of the two nations. “Since the film is related to former Afghan emperor Ahmad Shah Abdali, any insensitive/distorted depiction of his character might provoke emotions in Afghans which could be unfairly exploited by others to adversely affect the trust and harmony that exists so well among the people of these two countries,” the letter said. The embassy had earlier written to the Indian government articulating apprehensions about the representation of Afghans in other Bollywood films.

In 2019, Bollywood flooded the Indian box office with jingoistic flicks that played on hypernationalistic fervour in a communally polarised country, including films such as Uri: The Surgical Strike, War, Bharat, India’s Most Wanted and Manikarnika: the Queen of Jhansi.

Bollywood and the Hindutva project

In Bollywood movies, Muslims are represented stereotypically as exhibiting grotesque sexual perversions and eccentricities. This, of course, contributes to Islamophobia. The latest example is Tanhaji (2020). For many, the depiction of Afghans or Mughal in Indian cinema is not devoid of the larger anti-Muslim politics playing out in the country but is increasingly part of the process of “othering” the Muslim minority amid growing Hindu cultural assertiveness.

Bollywood has played a central role in India’s nation-building project and has been a critical tool of “cultural diplomacy”, which has furthered India’s soft power image. Bollywood showcased the Nehruvian socialist dream of an industrialised nation in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and mirrored the aspirations of the emerging middle class in the 1990s, following the liberalisation of the economy. Now it is the linchpin for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nation-making project, which for so long has been the aspiration of Hindu nationalists.

Bollywood has been a major distributor of popular culture in India and has, over the years, produced movies that capitulate to conservative Hindu discourse. In this process, the Hindi cinema’s portrayal of Muslims has been carried out in a scornful style that stems from the strong grounding of its stories in a majority-Hindu setting and its active engagement with the politics of Hindu nationalism.

The film industry functions as a “techno-cultural transmitter” in the Hindutva project, in which Muslims are branded as villains who pose a major threat to the idea of Hindu rashtra or nation. The systemic misrepresentation of Muslims as infiltrators or invaders often portrays Islam as an inferior religion that is a threat to the core values of Hindu society.

Over the decades, there have been different templates for depicting a stereotypical Muslim. It changes, unsurprisingly, with the shift in political ideology in the country. Until the early 1980s, Muslim characters were usually depicted as veiled beauties like in Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1961), Tawaif (1985), Pakeezah (1971), Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978) or Umrao Jaan (1981); Nawabs (Muslim aristocracy) such as in Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960), Mere Mehboob (1963) or Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977); emperors as in Mughal-e-Azam (1960); or loyal sidekicks like in Zanjeer (1973).

Lately, they are shown to be gangsters as in Once Upon a Time in Mumbai (2010) or Agneepath (2012), or as terrorists like in Mission Kashmir (1998) or Fiza (2000), especially since the beginning of the early 1990s, in the wake of the Kashmir armed uprising and Mumbai blasts that followed the Babri Masjid demolition.

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A 2011 study of 50 Hindi movies found that an overwhelming number of them had an unfavourable representation of Muslims (65.2%), while 30.4% of the portrayals were neutral. An insignificant 4.4% of them were favourable. The analysis was conducted on parameters that included the dress, motivation, profession and patriotism of Muslim characters.

The easiest way through which Bollywood depicts a formulaic image of Muslims is generally the traditional Muslim attire, a colloquial way of speaking Urdu and overt displays of religious practices. This projection is in stark contrast to how Hindu characters are shown, with some variance in their appearance and behaviour. Their religiosity is never highlighted. Other regular onscreen images of Muslims are usually a ghettoised existence, and women are portrayed as seductive courtesans, hijab and burqa-clad, under duress from strong Muslim patriarchal norms.

Bollywood’s cultural war

Scholars have highlighted the role of Indian movies in fabricating the past by producing disjunctive images of Muslims and misrepresenting their actions as “anti-national”. This forms a vital element of what has been called a “history war”, cinema’s continued perpetuation of the cliché of an inherently arrogant Muslim and a supposedly tolerant Hindu.

In its cultural assertion, Bollywood uses female agency to highlight Islam’s “regressive” norms of gender, while at the same time attempting to assert the “liberating” value of Hindu culture. In this cinematic treatment, Muslim orthodoxy is depicted as reactionary, while Hinduness is more accommodating and liberal.

For instance, in Bombay (1995), when the Muslim female lead declares her wish to marry a Hindu, her father draws a knife on him. This action exhibits the supposed rigid orthodoxy of Islam. In contrast, when the two protagonists are married despite the opposition from the family, her husband allows her to continue her religious practices. This depiction places the Hinduness of the male protagonist as open and secular.

The other cinematic treatment indulges in projecting a good-versus-bad Muslim binary, in which the former must redeem his or her reputation with periodic acts of patriotism, like in Sarfarosh (1999) and Raazi (2018). In Raazi, a young spy marries into a Pakistani family to help Indian intelligence during the 1971 war.

The predominant feature now, though, is the portrayal of Muslims as terrorists. The Muslim terrorist often dons the traditional salwar kameez attire, sports a beard, carries a rifle, uses Palestinian scarves and applies kohl to his eyes. Through this portrayal, the Indian movies, just like their counterparts in Hollywood, ensure that the religious identity of the terrorist is in no doubt for the audience, and that the recurring image of the Muslim is that of a terrorist.

Such projection is facilitated through the process of framing the terrorist in a singularly religious idiom. Some movies, like New York (2009) and Kurbaan (2009), have also built a more complicated terror character. The Muslim terrorist is more suave, urban and highly educated, implying that Muslim terrorism has evolved. This malicious convergence of nationalist cinema and Hindutva ideology has effectively othered Indian Muslims.

The Kashmir syndrome

One way to understand India’s relationship with Kashmir is to look at the cinema that has emerged from Bollywood on the subject. Kashmir is also a central focus of Bollywood’s nationalistic project.

Before the advent of the armed insurgency, the valley’s picturesque locales were predominantly used for filming romantic dramas. Bollywood movies of the 1960s and 1970s focused on the scenic surroundings of Kashmir. In this cinematic production, the people of the valley were largely missing from the canvas with the focus firmly on green hills and lush meadows.

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In films like Kashmir Ki Kali (1964), Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965) and Noorie (1979), which had Kashmiri characters, the locals were presented as innocent, simple and nonreligious, the people disengaged from the politics of the region. They were shown as passive inhabitants living in a beautiful land. Predominantly, Kashmir was reduced to a visual backdrop for romantic song sequences, an “orient” for a postcolonial Indian nation.

Indian cinema’s fixation with Kashmir’s beauty ended when Roja (1992) was released. When, in the late 1980s, an armed rebellion broke out in Kashmir, Bollywood found it had to present India’s nationalistic narrative for its wide audience. Instilled with jingoistic zeal, movies such as Roja depicted the state’s discourse of “protecting” Kashmir’s beautiful lands, while denying any political exigencies or the mounting discontent of the Kashmiri people.

Many movies, such as Mission Kashmir (2000) and Fanaa (2006), sought to associate Kashmiris with terrorism and position Islam as a threat. The malicious role of Pakistan in “brainwashing” Kashmiri youth to pick up guns against the Indian state is a central theme of these flicks.

In one movie, a Hindu Indian hero rescues distressed Kashmiri people from a scheming Islamic Pakistan. In Maa Tujhe Salaam (2000), the main protagonist fiercely remarks at Pakistani characters: “Tum doodh mangogay hum kheer denge … Tum Kashmir mangogay hum cheer dengay (If you ask for milk, we will give you sweets … If you ask for Kashmir, we will tear you apart).”

Weeks after Delhi struck down Article 370, which gives special privileges to “permanent residents” of Kashmir, Bollywood producers registered nationalistic titles relating to Kashmir: Article 370 Abolished, Kashmir Mein Tiranga and Kashmir Hamara Hai.

Bollywood’s representation of Kashmir belies India’s anxiety about Pakistan and Muslims, which it perceives as antagonistic to the idea of a Hindu nation. In this context, linking Indian Muslims and Kashmiris to violence in cinematic expression is firmly by design.

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