Posts Tagged ‘Images’


Identity is performatively 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 the 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 an uninterrupted conduit for describing Muslims. The 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. The Reel Muslim has always been portrayed as intimidating, a carrier of primitivism, upsetting the pleasant modern world with strange habits and desires. When was the time that in a movie a Muslim was shown as a guy working 12 hours a day, coming home to a loving family, drinking coffee, listening to music, sharing jokes with friends? This repetition of images portraying Muslim as pessimistic value possessors has essentially led people to believe that it is always only Muslims who have a problem with Others – Jews, Christians, West, Hindus. It is often that when people talk about Muslims, they talk of what they have read in the newspapers or of images they have seen in the media 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 versions 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 the same subject but in a different way. Bollywood reflects India and has subsequently become an inseparable part of people’s imagination, lived experiences, customs and traditions. Bollywood and its engagement with the 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 the Muslim subject.

The historicization of Bollywood’s obsession with Muslim can be broadly and loosely classified into four different phases. In the movies of the fifties to the seventies like Mughl-e-Azam, Shah Jahan, Nikah, Bazaar etc, Muslims were characterized as a community which can be assimilated into the fold of Hindu India but always with suspicion. The second stage which started in the eighties with focus on Mumbai’s underworld mafia depicted Muslims as central characters dominating the underworld. Smugglers wearing Arab robes, puffing cigars, carrying briefcases were a common element in 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 a series of movies that revolved around this topic. In these films, it was the 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 the Indian masses by concealing the prevalent socio-political inequalities of Indian society behind images of nation and nationality. The fourth stage of Bollywood’s engagement with Muslims is the post 9/11 phenomenon. Here, it is not India that is fighting with the ‘other’ but a replacement in the form of the West. The Indian Self has been replaced by its Western counterpart while the enemy has remained the same. Films like New York and Kurbaan fall under this category.

In the films that were made in the fifties with the Muslim subject at the centre, an attempt was made to portray Muslims as a faintly differentiated section of Indian society. In films like Umrao Jaan, Mere Huzoor and Pakeezah, Muslims were revealed as an aristocratic class, delighting themselves watching mujrahs and splurging money on the girls performing mujrahs. The apparatus used in these movies was to depict the Muslim as a category madly in pursuit of pleasure and hungry for wealth. Some movies like Mughl-e-Azam scaled the graphs of fame with the Muslim as an essential character confirming what 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 the Arab heartland. Religious tolerance and the tendency among Indian Muslims to synthesize with local customs were distinctive features of these movies. In this genre, Muslim men were shown wearing Aligarh cut Sherwanis, chewing betel nut and reciting Iqbal’s or Ghalib’s poetry at the drop of a hat. The moment such caricatures appeared on the screen, the audience knew that it is time for a Qawwali, h or Ghazal. Qawwalis and Mujras became synonymous with Muslim culture.

Later Bollywood film makers with films like Elan and Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro took a slightly different 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 traditions in Muslim society. While Nikah represented Talaq (divorce) as a means of suppression and marginalization of Muslim women, Bazaar on the other hand depicted the cruelty of poverty stricken Muslim families in marrying their under aged daughters to elderly Arab men. These movies stand as a watershed in highlighting Muslims as negative quality bearers with ‘unsophisticated’ dreams. Finally, the connection was ‘instituted’ between Indian Muslim and Arab Muslim.

The third remarkable shift in the late seventies and eighties was the portrayal of Muslims as characters central 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 central ideology circulated through these movies. The Muslim as a bohemian character with unnatural desires for accumulating wealth remained the core theme in these movies. In this genre, people were made to believe in perceiving Muslims as a threat to institutional apparatus of the state. The minor connection between Indian Muslims and Arab Muslims instituted through movies of the early seventies was permeated profoundly through these images. In these images, the Indian Muslim’s underworld connections were shown as impossible without the support of Muslims carrying out the same activities at the international level.

The 1965 war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir and the 1975 war over Bangladesh facilitated Indian Bollywood to successfully and legitimately 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 the Indian state as sustaining and restraining the festering contradictions.

By constantly engaging people’s priorities vis-à-vis Kashmir and thereby 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 their core theme of presenting Kashmir as atoot ang (integral part) of India. In 1999, the Kargil War played a distinctive role in making Kashmir central to the definition of Indian national unity. The Kargil episode, for the first time inspired a Post Independence India which for the first time during and for a short while after the Kargil episode stood together, shoulder to shoulder – something which had never occurred before. Advertisement of national pride through films enabled for the first time in 52 years, an image of this nation truly united as one, cutting across all barriers of caste, class, creed and community.

In order to liberate Kashmir from Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, the Indian armed forces were portrayed as the male protagonists, battling for the cause of humanity. It thus became inescapable to make films on Kashmir, without incorporating the message of Kashmir as national project. In almost all these movies, Muslims were branded either as terrorists or fanatics whose desires were pre-modern, not fitting into the 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 the Kashmir problem was publicized on the 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 the visual pleasure of national spectator is at its peak and that audiences are most demonstrative during this scene of patriotic self sacrifice. In films like Dhokha and Chak De India, it was the loyalty of the Indian Muslim that was put to question. If Kabir Khan as the National hockey team Coach in Shahrukh Khan starred Chak De India raised doubts regarding the loyalty of the Indian Muslims towards the 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 that audiences are faced with. Mukesh Bhatt’s Muzammil Ibrahim starred ‘Dhokha’ or ‘Betrayal’ is a Bollywood offering that raises several questions about Muslims and their identity in India. Coming out of the rhetoric of his fluffy musicals for the first time, Mukesh Bhatt’s Dhokha tries to get to the bottom of the delicate question of Hindu-Muslim antagonism. On the night of a lethal bombing at the New Century Club in Mumbai, Zaid helps the horrified victims in the blast. Zaid offers to donate blood to one of the injured, believed to be a Hindu. The dilemma mounts when the father of the injured disdainfully refuses to receive any aid from Zaid saying he would rather see his daughter dead than let the blood of a Muslim, ‘a traitor, perfidious creature’ flow through his daughter’s veins. Though the film progressively engages itself with denouncing the people who spread terror in the name of religion and tries to find reasons for the root cause of terrorism, it fails to provide a solution to the Islamophobia that is deeply inculcated in the psyche of the general masses. With Dhokha which begins with the cataclysmic 9/11 attacks, a link is created between Bolloywood and the Muslim subject that has been borrowed by other film makers. This defines the entry of Bollywood’s rendezvous with the Muslim Subject into a new stage. Kurbaan and New York are the examples of this genre, where it is not India but the west that is fighting the same ‘Other’.

A plethora of movies have been made by Bollywood where actresses have played much more audacious acts prior to Kareena’s bare backed posture. It is a matter of concern why it was only Kareena Kapoor who was censured for her bare backed pose in the film. The film was released at a time when the theme of ‘love jihad’ was circulating rapidly in the media. Kurbaan which depicts Kareena Kapoor playing a Hindu girl falling in love with Muslim Saif Ali Khan raises a doubt as to whether it was the blaze of ‘Love Jihad’ that incited the Shiv Sena goons to object to Kareena’s bare back. After its rival MNS did its job of 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 followed this up by going around Mumbai covering her back with sarees on posters of Kurbaan. Karan Johar could have thought of an even better way than this to turn heads. Kurbaan, which deals with the post 9/11 Muslim identity, widens the gap in Muslim stereotypes. In the film, Muslim women are shown as feeble and submissive, as victims of a patriarchal and misogynistic religion. Muslim men are typified as creepy, scary looking creatures who physically abuse their wives. The next offering by the director of Kurbaan, Karan Johar is Shah Rukh Khan starred ‘My Name is Khan’, probably revolving around the Muslim identity yet again.

Bollywood’s obsession with Islam thus far has always created a clichéd image of Muslims without having done much research on the subject. People have succumbed to the images produced by Bollywood thereby losing a healthy understanding of Muslim society. Now ask a director or story writer whether it is ethical to perpetuate ethnic and racial stereotypes and in a majority of cases, you will hear a big “NO”. Then why is it that the very same individuals who don’t intentionally believe in stereotyping fall in the trap of stereotyping Muslims? The major reason is that what these filmmakers and writers read, hear and see originate from print, radio and television. Modern day media fundamentally is about one sided flow of information –from West to Rest. In the dominant discourse, it is the West, portrayed as a civilized, sophisticated and 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 ensnared in an invisible cage. The major obstacle is that these films are watched by less informed people and children having a rudimentary ability to differentiate between right and wrong. Not only children and the common masses, but even the relatively more well-informed cannot escape the power manifested in these images. Even though these films try sometimes to empathize with the Subject, they no longer help to reduce the bias but only make the categories Muslim and Hindu more stark. A child watching any of these films will for obvious reasons ask several questions regarding for example, the Hindu-Muslim dichotomy and the West-Muslim antipathy. What answer can the parent give? Will the answer be framed based on his/her prejudiced interpretation of Muslims in cinema or will it be one shaped by reality, which hardly anyone has access to?

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

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