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The Habit of ‘Othering’ of Muslims in the Indian Cinema

In recent times, the debate around nationalism and the question “Who is an anti-national?” has taken a centre-stage and the edifice of secularism is increasingly under strain from the extreme right. Therefore the debate is more firmly entrenched in popular cultural practices and cinema is one of them. Incidentally, the debate around nationalism and the present political atmosphere of the country has made Indian cinema develop an absurd and never-ending love affair with Islamophobia. Indian cinema, through ‘Sooryavanshi’, has achieved new heights of their love affair with Islamophobia.

Sooryavanshi is yet another Bollywood masala movie and is the latest in a long line of movies (Sarfarosh, Roja, Mission Kashmir) creating a narrative around ‘good Muslim’ and ‘bad Muslim’. It has a cliched storyline with a glorified Hindu police officer against a visibly ‘Muslim terrorist’. The movie also has a token Muslim police officer who is often a mute spectator and is used as an example of ‘good Muslim’ by Akshay Kumar’s protagonist. The movie has a collection of overused Islamic symbols on screen: the skull cap, the Azaan, the mosque and so on. There is a constant narrative of Muslims being appealed to and pleaded with to ‘not fall prey to religious discourse’ and ‘think rationally for the country’s good’ because, of course, they will side with religion and in extension with ‘terrorism’ unless a patriotic police officer doesn’t come and appeal to them.

The film also incorporates the dangerous “love jihad” conspiracy, which paints Muslim men as con-men who seduce or kidnap Hindu women or girls and convert them to Islam and later kill them in the name of ‘jihad’. Just when you think it couldn’t be more nauseating, a dialogue in the movie goes, “Jitni nafrat Kasab ke liye utni izzat Kalam ke liye” thus further emphasizing on the ‘good Muslim – bad Muslim’ narrative.

But it doesn’t end here, very much like the present scenarios where Muslim organizations are being hounded by the government, the film also goes on to show a Muslim scholar and priest who runs an organization as the mastermind of a terrorist network that receives funding from Pakistan. Despite such cliched storyline the movie has proved to be a blockbuster at the box-office and rightly so, because that’s what sells in today’s India. What is interesting to note is, Rohit Shetty’s unapologetic statement about the portrayal of Muslims. He is aware of what sells and is more into pleasing his audience than being honest.

The filmmakers of ‘Sooryavanshi’ don’t care about the implications of such nationalist hyperbole in popular cinema. They conveniently ignore that such portrayals lead to unabashed association of Muslims with violence and terror. It also indicates a collective suggestion of the community as a willing accomplice in terror and anti-national activities. It further places the Muslim community as either good or bad and aids in the vilification of a religion instead of terrorist acts.

However, the entire credit of increasing Islamophobia cannot be given to ‘Sooryavanshi’. Bollywood is often used as a tool to dehumanize religious minorities so as to prevent them from the offense of being public with their faith. Indian cinema is therefore often involved in stereotyping the minorities.

Muslims are shown as kohl-eyed, bearded and with skull-caps who are often terrorists and traitors. Or are portrayed as vicious rulers, invaders, and bigots with beast-like personalities who don’t know how to eat (read Ranveer Singh as Allauddin Khilji in Padmavat). Muslim women on the other hand are seen as a tawaif (Mughal-e-Azam, Umrao Jaan and many other ’70s films) or a “damsel in distress” who is often oppressed and waiting to be rescued (Veer-Zaara, Fiza or the most recent ones like Ranjhana). Christian woman are portrayed invariably as non-virgins (Julie and Bobby, Rosie in Guide, Deepika Padukone’s Veronica in Cocktail), drunkards (Julie, Bobby, Amar Akbar Anthony, David) and as smoky, weird-accented vicious villains (Robert, Peter, and various bosses of the ’70s films). The Parsis are eccentrics and speakers of absurdly-accented Hindi.

The connection between politics and cinema has been implicit yet intimate. Films have often served as a tool of propaganda given their unique appeal to the masses. Creating such imperfect narratives around characters belonging to a minority has far-reaching implications on the Indian society. Therefore, the Indian cinema has portrayed an image of a ‘Muslim Other’ for decades. Bollywood has been working on the psychological aspect of the masses through its conscious and unconscious biases by portraying Muslims as terrorists, invaders and villains that are killed by heroes in the end.

Unlike other art forms, cinema possesses a sense of immediacy and is capable of creating the illusion of reality while having the power to shape people’s perception of reality. They also possess the power of knowledge generation when it comes to depicting unknown cultures, places or histories. However, Indian cinema hardly accommodates Muslim narrative with honesty and proper research in place. With the entrenchment of Islamophobia in Indian society, Bollywood seems to work towards constantly dehumanizing and othering Muslims. It perpetuates prejudices, stigma, and myths supported by the masses. Their attachment to culture, history, and politics is not portrayed by the mainstream cinema but instead, it focuses on crowd-pleasing content that appeases the contemporary majority.

Sadaf Jawed is a PhD scholar pursuing Modern Indian History from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Farzan Ghani

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Written by Sadaf Jawed

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