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Indian Muslims, Bollywood, and Neo-Nationalism

By Nadira Khatun 

In the postcolonial nation-state, cinema has become an important tool for propagating the idea of nationalism. Here, let me first explain the term ‘neo-nationalism’, which is different from the concept of nationalism. ‘Neo-nationalism’ denotes the contemporary manifestation of nationalism as Hindu nationalism – opposed to the older idea of love for one’s nation. In contemporary times, Bollywood imagines India as a Hindu rashtra, thereby making the minorities, especially Muslims, express their constant allegiance to the nation. The divisions in Indian society, whether sexual, religious, or based on ethnic identity, have been more apparent in recent years. But, ignoring this fact, Hindi cinema continues to prioritize a monolithic image of the nation. In this essay, I argue that if Indian nationalism is to be represented as Hindu nationalism and Indian culture as Hindu culture, it logically follows that this majoritarian construction needs the minority other to reinforce this notion of nationalism and culture. To make my point, I shall critically look at the representation of Muslims in contemporary Bollywood films. The representation of Muslims in Bollywood films could be divided into three broad segments: representation of terrorists, portrayal of patriotic Muslims, and the effect of love jihad on Bollywood.

Muslims are stereotyped not just in Bollywood cinema; rather Muslims and Islam are negatively depicted in Hollywood cinema, too. Using the theoretical framework of Orientalist discourse, in his book, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (2001), Jack Shaheen opines that the lack of representation of a ‘regular guy’, coupled with the negative portrayal of Muslims, reinforces already exiting stereotypes about Arab Muslims in Hollywood films. He argues that the films represent Muslims as the cultural other. Seen through Hollywood’s distorted lenses, the Arabs are represented as different and threatening. Shaheen’s theoretical framework helps me, thus, to formulate my perspective on Hindi films as I theorize on the representations of Muslims.

In the last two decades, deep-seated prejudices about Muslims have been utilized by the Hindutva movement to unite the majority population. The strategy of polarising people was nothing new as it has its past history since the time of Independence and the Partition (1947) of the country. The Hindutva forces inject a deep paranoia about Muslims and their ‘otherness’ by frequent references to medieval Muslim plunderers such as Mahmud, the Sultan of Ghazni, who looted northern India every year. The Hindu nationalists invoked this past history in such a way as if the crisis occurred recently. In his empirical study, Prakash Louis (2000) discusses the attempts of the RSS to ‘re-write’ history textbooks in Maharashtra, in an effort to inject communal consciousness in the young. This current political scenario has indirect impact on Hindi film industry, too. Sensing the audience’s demand, the filmmakers have sought to capitalize on the right-wing agendas. Following the rhetoric of ultra-nationalism, these filmmakers have made films at a time when the political situation is volatile. They have thrived on these sentiments to make films that are lapped up by the audience. A number of films – such as Roja (1992), Mission Kashmir (2000), Khakee (2004), Fanaa (2006), Black Friday (2006), Dhokha (2007), Chak De! India (2007), Black and White (2008), A Wednesday (2008), Mumbai Meri Jaan (2008), Amir (2008) Sikandar (2009), Lamhaa (2010), My Name is Khan (2010), Haider (2014), and Holiday: A Soldier Is Never Off Duty (2014) – characterize Muslims as others, who are out to harm the nation. In these films, the majority community is often represented as the norm and the ‘victims’, whose values are threatened by Muslims.

Because Muslims disrupt the supposed norm of Indian society, Hindi cinema invests the ‘enemy images’ with specific ‘political signs’. In earlier Hindi films, the image of the villain was larger than life, where the villains were entertaining and dramatic figures such as that of Pran (as Sher Khan in Zanzeer ), Amrish Puri (as Mogambo in Mr. India), and Amjad Khan (as Gabbar Singh in Sholay ), who plot to take revenge on the hero or his associates. During the early 1990s and thereafter, these villains were replaced by terrorists, overwhelmingly Muslim. Such representations became a trend after the beginning of insurgency in Kashmir in the late 1980s. The Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) led the first wave of anti-India violence in 1988-89.  They were followed by many other ‘terrorist’ organizations, which worked to the cessation of Kashmir from India. The Kashmir conflict provided the Hindi filmmakers an early impetus to make films in which Muslims were represented as terrorists. Films like Roja (1992), Sarfarosh (1999), Mission Kashmir (2000), Fiza (2000), and Sikandar (2009) articulate a debate about Muslim identity and their allegiance to the Indian nation. Acts of terrorism became one of the important sources of disruption to the nation and the representation of terrorism became a cinematic desire[1].

By representing ‘terrorists’ as Pakistani imports into India, these films also draw on the nationalistic fervor of the audience. Starting with Roja (1992), there developed a symbiotic relationship between Kashmir, Pakistan, and Muslims. Indian Muslims were conflated with Pakistan and Kashmiri separatism because the terrorists operating to free Kashmir were either supposedly located in or supported by Pakistan. Numerous films such as Roja (1992), Mission Kashmir (2000), Fanaa (2006), Sikandar (2009), Lamhaa (2010), and Haider (2014) represent the statist position of claiming Kashmir as an integral part of India. The villain, as a terrorist, is shown to be engaging in terrorist activities sponsored and supported by Pakistan, mouthing slogans against India, and fighting for the cause of Kashmir. Unfortunately, these films on Kashmir and Kashmiri militants ignore the sensitive and complex nuances of the Kashmir issue. These films propagate the agenda of nationalism by creating binary characters: the terrorists are portrayed as the enemy of the nation, whereas the heroes from the majority community are projected as the true patriots, who protect the nation from the terrorists.

The demolition of the Babri Masjid (1992) and the consequent communal violence throughout India fuelled many other terrorist attacks in different parts of the country. The riots and the terrorist attacks that followed were represented in many memorable films like Khakee (2004), Black Friday (2006), Dhokha (2007), Black and White (2008), A Wednesday (2008), Mumbai Meri Jaan (2008), and Holiday: A Soldier Is Never Off Duty (2014). These films posit a concern for security or a threat in the consciousness of the majority community. The Muslim protagonists in these films are represented as menacing Islamist terrorists, who intimidate the ordinary citizens. These films avoid a nuanced representation of Muslims, who either prove their allegiance to the nation constantly or protest against their oppression by engaging in terrorism. Most importantly, these films adopt the state’s stance to counter terrorism. In A Wednesday, Naseeruddin Shah as an embodiment of ‘The Common Man’ encourages taking law into one’s hand on the logic that when the terrorists, like insects, enter the house, they must be killed like insects, too. One need not go to the police or appeal to the judiciary for such a ‘heroic’ act. A film, which denies the legitimacy of law and order, became one of the most popular films of the time because the protagonist takes it upon himself to the destroy the terrorist, the enemy of the nation.

In some recent films on terrorism, such representations even out with the incorporation of ‘patriotic’ Muslims, who shed their blood to prove their allegiance to the country. These films are hinged on a dichotomy between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims. Cultural theorist, Mahmood Mamdani, has theorised this dichotomy and argues that the ‘good Muslim’ is co-opted by the state and the ‘bad Muslim’ challenges the status quo. In Fiza and Fanaa, while Fiza and Zooni defend the state and prove their patriotism and nationalistic zeal, Amaan (Fiza’s brother in Fiza) and Rehan (Zooni’s husband in Fanaa) – the ‘bad’ Muslims – challenge the Indian nation-state. Moreover, in My Name is Khan, Chak De! India, and Amir, where Muslims play the role of central protagonists, they are bound to prove their allegiance to the nation as nationalists. In My Name is Khan, Rizwan Khan bears the burden to prove that he is a good human being and that he does not run a terrorist cell. Moreover, Rizwan Khan proves himself a loyal and responsible citizen, by providing the FBI information on a terrorist, Dr. Faisal Rehman. Similarly, in Aamir, Aamir sacrifices his own life to save the people of his nation. In Chak De! India, Kabir Khan returns after seven years to prove his patriotism and loyalty to the country by coaching the Indian Women’s Hockey Team.

The hegemony of Hindu nationalist discourse lays emphasis on women as the symbol of the nation. In recent times, one of the most controversial components of Hindu nationalism has been the hate campaign against what is termed as ‘love jihad’, which is deployed as a weapon to mobilize, polarize, and communalise citizens. The notion of ‘love jihad’ claims that Hindu women are being lured to convert to Islam through false expressions of love by Muslim men. ‘Love Jihad’ is also an effort to exert patriarchal control over women, who are invested with the values of the Hindu community. Recently, some Bollywood filmmakers have been accused of encouraging the practice of ‘love jihad’ through their films. Ashutosh Gavarikar’s Jodha Akbar (2008) is cited as one such example of giving encouragement to ‘love jihad’. The most recent film claiming to promote ‘love jihad’ is Kabir Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015). In the film, Kareena Kapoor as Rasika, a Hindu Brahmin girl, plays the role of Salman Khan’s fiancé. Salman Khan’s character, who is wrongly assumed to be a Muslim man, is also represented as a Hindu Bramhin man, whose name is Pawan Kumar Chaturvedi/Bajrangi. The film faced multiple controversies before its release. In Gujarat before the festival of garba, the VHP leaders started circulating an audiotape, which warned Hindus that Bajrangi Bhaijaan was encouraging ‘love jihad’. They even claimed that the director, Kabir Khan, received funds from the Arab countries to promote the ideology of ‘love jihad’. These films are violently opposed by the right wing groups, which believe that these representations subvert the norms and values of Indian culture.

During its formative era, Hindi cinema was primarily a tool of propaganda in the hands of the nation-builders. Although the medium itself could not mobilize the nation, it gave the nation a new direction. Indian Hindi cinema establishes certain behaviours and values associated with certain dominant groups as the norm, while marginalizing others. The films portraying terrorism in different contexts such as Kashmir infiltration and the scattered terrorist attacks across India suggest that the constant repetition of these stereotypical images in multiple films signifies Muslims as ‘the enemy within’. The central protagonists in My Name is Khan, Chak De! India, and Amir are absolved of this guilt when they prove that they are not terrorists but determined nationalists. The controversy over ‘love jihad’ imagines a purer form of Indian nation, which is not defiled by contact with the Muslim ‘other’. Bollywood, thus, forms an excellent domain to examine the complex interplay between culture and politics, patriotism and nationalism, as disseminated through cinematic narratives.

[1] A desire for the things that we see in and through cinema.

Nadira Khatun
obtained her PhD in 2016 from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, India. Her research interests include Muslim identity, Indian cinema and media representation.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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