Tuesday, December 15, 2009


by Raoof Mir

Identity is informatively constituted by very expressions that are said to be its results- Judith Butler

There is a proverb in Arabic Al tikrar biallem il hmar (By repetition even the donkey learns). The depiction of Muslims by far and widely circulated media as ‘Cultural Other” has become a conventional and legitimized practice to engage with understanding Muslim world. With the repetition of images portraying Muslims as ‘Other”, masses are so caught up in the images, that access to reality has become impracticable. People’s knowledge and understanding of Muslims has been channelized in such a manner that the images have replaced reality, thus becoming uninterrupted conduit for describing Muslims. Reel Muslim has never been characterized as a guy that you would like to have as your next door neighbor, because he is also like you. Reel Muslim has always been portrayed as a carrier of primitivism intimidating to upset the pleasant modern world with strange habits and desires. When was the time that in a movie Muslim was shown as a guy working 12 hours a day, coming home to loving family, drinking coffee, listening music, cutting jokes. This repetition of images portraying Muslim as pessimistic value possessor has essentially led people to believe why it is always only Muslim has a problem with Others - Jews, Christians, West, Hindus. It is often that when people talk about Muslims they talk what they have seen in the images or read in newspapers, which always condition their thoughts to believe in a particular way.

One of the enthusiastic producers of these images is cinema. Cinema plays an important cohesive role, constructing a pan world identity. People relate to each other watching particular version of cinema. Jack G. Shaheen in his book Reel Bad Arabs documents and discusses virtually every feature that Hollywood has ever made-more than 900 films, the vast majority of which portray Arabs by distorting at every turn what most Arab men, women, and children are really like. According to Shaheen for more than a century Hollywood, has used repetition as a teaching tool, tutoring movie audiences by repeating over and over, in film after film, insidious images of the Muslim world. The trend was adapted by Bollywood (national film industry), which also started dealing with same subject but in a different way.

Bollywood reflects India, and has subsequently become an inseparable part of people’s imagination, lived experiences and traditions and customs. Bollywood and its engagement with Muslim as a subject has encountered an imperative shift over a period of time. From lethargic Nawabs, Badshahs and nobles, Muslims have been reduced to people having blind faith in Jihad. The historicization of Bollywood’s long Muslim obsession is thus an exploration of how this obsession fits into the relationship between Indian Bollywood and Muslim subject.

The historicization of Bollywood’s obsession with Muslim can be broadly and loosely classified into four different phases. In the movies of fiftees to seventies like Mughl-e-Azam, Shah Jahan, Nikah, Bazaar etc, Muslims were characterized as a community which can be assimilated in the fold of Hindu India but always with suspicion. The second stage which started in eighties with focus on Mumbai’s underworld mafia depicted Muslims as a central character dominating the underworld. Smugglers wearing Arab dressing gown puffing cigar, carrying briefcases was a common element to these films. The third phase started with Mani Ratnam’s flamboyant narrative of guns and roses – Roja. The Muslim as “other’ in the form of Pakistan through Kashmir was manifested in the series of movies that revolved around this topic. In these films it was Indian ‘Self’ investing all its energy to protect the motherland from the attack of the ‘other’, enemy number 1, Pakistan. These films largely helped to divert the attention of Indian masses and tried to conceal the prevalent socio-political inequalities of Indian society behind images of nation and nationality. The fourth stage of Bollywood’s engagement with Muslims is post 9/11 phenomenon. Here it is not India that is fighting with the ‘other’ but there is replacement in the form of West. The Indian Self has been replaced by Western counterpart while the enemy has remained the same. The films like New York, Kurbaan fall under this category.

In the films that were made in fifties with Muslim subject at the centre, attempt was to portray Muslims as faintly differentiated section of Indian society. In Films like Umaro Jaan Mere Huzoor, Pakeezah, the Muslims were revealed as aristocratic class delighting themselves watching mujrah’s and splurging money on the girls performing mujrah’s. The apparatus used in these movies was to depict the Muslim as a category madly in pursuit of pleasure and hunger for wealth. Some movies like Mughl-e-Azam scaled the graphs of fame with Muslim as an essential character confirming that the general masses accepted Muslims as creatures that can be assimilated as a part of Hindu Indian society. It was evident through these movies that there lies a regional blend that distinguishes Indian Muslims significantly from Muslims of Arab heartland. Religious tolerance and the tendency among Indian Muslims to synthesize with local customs was distinctive feature of these movies. In this genre, Muslim men were shown wearing Aligarh cut Sherwani, chewing betel nut and reciting Iqbal or Ghalib’s poetry at the drop of their cap. Such caricatures, the moment appeared on the screen, audience knew that it is time for a Qawwali, Mujra or Ghazal. Qawwalis and Mujra became synonymous with Muslim culture.

Later Bollywood film makers with the films like Elan, Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro took slight turn by disparaging the aimlessness of lower Middle Class Muslim Youth. Films like Bazaar and Nikah with their high dose of Muslim social melodrama tried to reveal the domestic customs and tradition in Muslim society. While Nikah represented Talaq (divorce) as a means to suppression and marginalization of Muslim women, on the other hand Bazaar depicted the cruelty of a poverty stricken Muslim families marrying their under aged daughters to the elderly Arab men. These movies stand as a watershed to differentiate Muslim as negative quality bearer with ‘unsophisticated’ dreams. Finally the connection was ‘instituted’ between Indian Muslim and Arab Muslim.

The third remarkable shift in late seventies and eighties was the portrayal of Muslims as central characters to Mumbai’s underworld. The Muslim characters since then also started becoming negative in Bollywood movies. Movies like Ghulam-e -Mustafa and Angar started this trend and became popular with the masses. The innate criminal instinct within the Muslim psyche was the forefront ideology circulated through these movies. The Muslim as a bohemian character with unnatural desires for accumulated wealth remained the central theme to these movies. In this genre people were made to believe in perceiving Muslim as a threat to institutional apparatus of the state. The minor connection between Indian Muslim and Arab Muslim instituted through movies of early seventies was permeated profoundly through these images. In these images, the Indian Muslim’s underworld connections were shown impossible without the support of Muslims carrying same activities at the international level.

The 1965 war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir and 1975 war over Bangladesh facilitated Indian Bollywood to successfully and with legitimization portray Muslim as ‘Other’ through Pakistan. The multi-ethnic, multi-national composition of India and absence of shared culture and symbols among Indian people made it necessary for Bollywood to construct images of India depicting Indian state sustaining restraining the festering contradictions. By constantly engaging peoples priorities vis-à-vis Kashmir and their of Pakistan, the aim was to define and solidify the nation state. For ordinary Indians possessing layers of identities, their identification with the Indian state operates in different contexts. An inclusive Indian gains pre-eminence when confronted with Muslim Pakistan. The unique thing about jingoistic films was there core centric theme of presenting Kashmir as atoot ang (integral part). In 1999, Kargil War played a distinctive role in making Kashmir central to the definition of Indian national unity. The Kargil episode inspired a first Post Independent India, which had never before stood together, shoulder to shoulder, than it did during and for a short while after the Kargil Episode. Advertisement of national pride through films enabled for the first time in 52 years, this nation truly united as one, cutting across all barriers of caste, class, creed, and community.

In order to liberate Kashmir from the terrorists, Islamic fundamentalists, Indian army were portrayed as male protagonists, combating for humanity cause. So it became inescapable to make films on Kashmir, without incorporating the message of Kashmir as national project.
Almost in most of these movies Muslim’s were either branded as terrorists or fanatics whose desires were pre-modern not fitting into western democratic liberal model. There was a flagrant significance in the titles of movies itself - Mission Kashmir, Fannah (Destruction)), Dhokha (Betrayal). It was with Mani Ratnam’s Roja that for first time Kashmir problem was publicized on big screen. According to Nicholas Dirks, there is one scene where Hero Rishi Kumar saves the flag, and rises, still on fire, to avenge the perpetrators of symbolic violence, with the soundtrack building in momentum to a song by Subramaniam Bharati that evokes the geographical unity and integrity of the Indian nation. The scene is framed in a manner that seems clearly to set Islam against the principles of Indian nationalism, by shots of the main terrorist calmly praying to Allah. Various reports from viewers around India suggest that audiences are most demonstrative during this scene of patriotic self sacrifice into the visual pleasure of national spectator.

In films like Dhokha and Chak De Indian, it was the loyalty of Indian Muslim that was put to question. If Kabir Khan as National Hockey team Coach in Shahrukh Khan starred Chak De India raised question regarding the loyalty of the Indian Muslims towards Indian nation, in Dhokha it is Zaid Ahmad Khan (ACP), a true, secular Muslim struggling to prove his credentials of being a loyal citizen of India. Mukesh Bhatt’s Muzammil Ibrahim starred ‘Dhokha’ or ‘Betrayal’ is the Bollywood’s offering that raises several questions about Muslims and their identity in India. Coming for the first time out the rhetoric of his fluffy musicals, Mukesh Bhatt’s Dhokha tries to get to the bottom of delicate question of Hindu-Muslim antagonism. On the night of a lethal bombing at the New Century Club, Mumbai, Zaid helps the horrified victims in the blast. Zaid affirms of donating blood to one of the injured believed to be a Hindu. The dilemma mounts when the father of the injured repudiates to receive any aid from Zaid as the father would like to see his daughter dead rather than letting the blood of a Muslim, ‘a traitor, perfidious creature’ to flow in his daughters veins. Though the film progressively engages itself in denouncing the people who spread terror in the name of religion and tries to find out reasons for the root cause of terrorism still it doesn’t provide the solution to Islamophobia that’s deeply inculcated into the psyche of general masses. From Dhokha which begins with 9/11 cataclysmic attacks, a link is essentially created and has been taken by film makers thereby entering new stage of Bollywood’s rendezvous with Muslim Subject. Kurbaan and New York are the examples of this genre, where it is not India but the west that is fighting the same ‘Other’.

In plethora of movies made by Bollywood, actresses have played much audacious acts before than Kareena’s bare back posture. It is a matter of concern why it was only Kareena Kapoor, censured of her bare back pose in the film. The film was released at a time when the theme of ‘love jihad’ was circulating rapidly in the media. Kurbaan where it is Kareena Kapoor playing Hindu girl falling in love for Muslim Saif Ali Khan raises a doubt whether it was the blaze of ‘Love Jihad’ which made Shiv Sena goons to go against Kareena’s bare back. After its rival MNS did its job by screwing Karan Johar’s happiness over Wake Up Sid, the Shiv Sena’s men marched to Kareena’s house to gift her a saree, and went around Mumbai covering her back on Kurbaan’s posters with sarees. Karan Johar could have even thought of a better way to catch eyes balls so easily than this. Kurbaan which deals with post 9/11 Muslim identity widens the gap in stereotyping Muslims. In the film Muslim women are shown as feeble, submissive as if the victims of patriarchal and misogynistic religion. The Muslim men are typified as creepy, scary looking creatures who physically abuse their wives. The story of Kurbaan is written by Karan Johar who will be directing the next Shah Rukh Khan starred ‘My Name is Khan’ probably revolving around the Muslim identity yet again.

The Bollwyood’s Muslim obsession so far always has created a clichéd image of Muslims without much research done on the subject. People have succumbed to the images produced by Bollywood thereby losing healthy understanding of Muslim society. Now ask a director or story writer whether it is ethical to perpetuate ethnic and racial stereotype, in majority cases you will hear big NO. Then why it is those same individuals who don’t intentionally believe in stereotyping fall in the trap of stereotyping Muslims? The major reason is what these filmmakers, writers read, hear and see originate from print, radio and television. Modern day media fundamentally is about one sided flow of information –West to Rest. In the dominant discourse it is west portrayed as civilized, sophisticated, modern civilization fighting ‘Just War’ against primitive, uncivilized Muslim aggression. The filmmakers in Bollywood also surrender to this west oriented magic bullet impact of the media and in this manner get encaged in invisible cage. The major obstacle is that these films are watched by less informed people, children having a lesser amount of ability to differentiate between right and wrong. Not only children and common masses, even the well-informed people cannot even escape the power manifested in these images. Even though these films try sometimes to empathize with the Subject, it no longer helps to reduce the bias but only makes the categories Muslim, Hindu more severe. A child watching any of these films will for obvious ask several questions regarding the Hindu-Muslim, West-Muslim antipathy. What answer can the parent give- will it be the answer framed on prejudiced interpretation of Muslim in cinema or will it be the answer framed on reality, which hardly anyone has access to.

There is no denying of the fact that there are no Muslim terrorists. There are terrorists and they are everywhere and can be from any religion. Why it is always that the term terrorist is always attributed to Muslims while not for others who commit much heinous crimes. Why it is that those committing these much severe crimes are characterized as people fighting ‘Just War’. If war can be just, how different it is from unjust war, as in both cases it is thousands and thousands of common people that are being massacred. What makes the prosecutors of Guatemala Bay and slaughterers of Gujarat different from those attacking twin towers? If there is difference then everyone can have a claim for fighting a Just war. If Bollywood successfully carries the messages of Muslims as Other, why there is lack of enthusiasm on the other way around. How many films have been made by Bollywood on America’s War on Iraq, how many films have touched the issue of Guatemala?

Raoof Mir is a writer based in Hyderabad, India. He blogs at http://raoofmir.wordpress.com/

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the ‘Wonders of Pakistan’. The contents of this article too are the sole responsibility of the author(s). WoP will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this post.


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