Anita's classmate at the Delhi School of Social Work, Manoj Jha is now a Reader there. He sent me this article he has co-authored with Shalini Sharma. Unfortunately in the cutting and pasting, I have lost a lot of italicization and bold face that the authors use. Here is the bland text, which I am reproducing below:
Representing Muslims as intimidating others
By Dr. Manoj K. Jha and Ms. Shalini Sharma •
jab kashti saabit-o-salim thi, saahil ki tamanna kisko thi
ab aisi shikashta kasti par sahil ki tamanna kaun kare2
Sketches, stories and images developed and/or manufactured by cinema has an appeal and impact par excellence on the lives of the ordinary people. Of all the media genres, cinema as a matter of fact has far more invasive presence than ever before, thanks to the highly competitive presence of electronic media which has added new dimension to the medium invented by August and Louis Lumiere. The purpose of the present venture is not to critically look at the role of all media in contemporary times in a comprehensive manner, which undeniably merits a serious research covering a range of issues. We shall however confine here to cinema and there too our observations shall primarily restrict itself to Hindi cinema. It goes without saying that cinema in general with the kind of advances it has made in technology and spread has proved to be one of the most powerful agencies of socialization, making a significant dent in the influence domain of family, school system and peer association- important agencies of socialisation in the formative years. The magic of cinema is so profound that the first reference to it presents multihued and highly entrancing images of self and society. The images produced, transmitted and subsequently received by diverse constituencies almost naturally make inroads into the psyche of individuals. Such cognitive colonisation occurs many a time without the conscious awareness and admission on the part of the recipient. It shall indeed be interesting to note and record the way Hindi cinema has influenced our vocabulary and social-political thesaurus cutting across region and class divide. Several Indian languages and the popular idioms owe a great deal to what is popularly referred to as Bollywood. One of the most fundamental attributes and subsequently the bearing of Hindi Cinema could be seen in the manner in which it has augmented the identity aspect of individuals and communities. There is no denial that developing a sense of self is essential part of every individual’s evolutionary pattern and each person's self-conception is a distinctive combination of several identifications and affiliations; identifications based on gender, class, sect or religion etc. In their best-perceived sense, identities are collective and they stretch beyond boarders created by any agency. In many situations likewise the identity-markers used by the individual or the groups are not exclusively their choice and herein lies what we refer to as cinematic influence to hegemonic superimpositions of identity stereotypes. Films have the natural tendency to construct character-stereotypes twisting the normal value-free identities for the individuals and the groups. Cinematic communication also thrives on the one-way hegemonic transmission from sender to receiver through a highly sophisticated transmitter (Melkote:2001). On account of the pervasive impact of these constructed identities people feel (or are made to feel!) injured when other persons sharing their identity are injured or killed-and any amount of physical distance does not in any way minimise the sense of injury and wound suffered by the carriers of these identity markers. For the large, inter-group conflict and struggles, collective identities are indispensable after fairly proximate tryst with it and subsequently people who share the collective identity perceive themselves as having a common interest and a common fate and also common political goals and aspirations((Tajfel, 1978).
The scripts, the cast and other forms carefully crafted by the films and the filmmakers aim at developing a stronger sense of in/out group for the diverse audience. Ironically, while the in-group chooses to consolidate its identity and brings home large number of members who did not have substantial reasons so far to join in, the same endeavour prepares the collective view for the others. In this project of identity construction-history, geography as well as issues likes the social and economic factors and forces have contributions to make and this goes on almost simultaneously on both sides i.e. for us as well as those who are exterior to us. Viewership studies and audience surveys are of the view that in the dark auditorium where the films are screened are nearly faultless, immensely contributes to such boundary constructions-as there is one way skewed communication between the characters, themes and the audience.
Incontrovertibly, an incredible interaction has always been going on between the cinematic screen and the individual and collective viewership, resulting in the content and contour building of individual and collective emotions, possessing the tendencies to move on to become obsession for delineating the boundaries between us and they. Firoze Rangoon walla(1995) says, ‘Cinema by its nature is a manipulator. Apart from visual and aural wonders it can create, its existence depends on exploiting emotions, relationships, traditions, religion, sex and most of the virtues and vices which relate to human senses and sensibilities. In a good film this is done artistically, aesthetically, purposefully and in a bad film it is managed by market rules.’ As a medium, none of us can deny the power of films as the unique audio-visual medium. It shall be imperative here to recall the all India success of Roja, which unmistakably hyped the right-wing perception on one of the most important social-political concerns of the times, we are living with.
Glancing through cinematic reels
In term of quantitative output – with more than 800 films a year, the Indian cinema industry is the largest in the world. A major contribution to the total quantity of films constitute ‘popular/commercial’ cinema. However, the use of the expression commercial or popular should not be taken in any disparaging manner as it basically refers to a particular set of films which are evaluated at the box office. No one can dispute the fact in a country which is pitted against host of problems ranging from pressing livelihood issues to issues of exclusion and marginalisation in different parts and amongst diverse population segments; cinema remains one of the main entertainers for the Indian masses since the 1930s. It has created archetypes, myths, icons that have dominated the Indian consciousness - and the so-called Indian way of life in so many ways. As the largest producer of films in the world, Indian cinema is both a major industry and a distinctive art form that permeates daily life in the lanes and by-lanes of this huge nation and consequently shapes emerging socio-cultural patterns and interaction systems practically everywhere. The sheer volume of Indian cinematic production, and the relentless diffusion of its imagery and melodies, fills a large part of Indian socio-cultural space. It shall not be naïve to argue that over the years, Indian cinema has been able to permeate the cognitive structures of different generation though with a varied impact. Masud(2006) writes that there is another important aspect of Indian cinema, where it caters to the needs of a population dazzlingly diverse in language, religion and culture. Today what is called the ‘regional’ cinema is as important as Hindi cinema. But Hindi cinema was the primary source of themes and styles at least till the late 70s. It was in the domain of popular cinema that the diverse cultures of India met and negotiated their differences. They did not merge as was the argument for melting pot, but worked in harmony and tried presenting the Nehruvian ideal of a democratic society concomitant with a democratic polity for the larger audience, in easy to grasp texts through camera, celluloid and cinematograph. Pitted against the odds of the times and in view of the forces threatening to rip apart the fibre of plural living, Indian movies in the 50s and 60s stood as strong social-cultural tower overseeing the political script against darkest of the clouds. It is in this context that writers like Masud spoke very high of the instrumental value of Indian cinema in translating unity in diversity for the ordinary masses that were far from the convoluted theoretical articulation of the same idea. The cinema’s concern with social problems faced in the modern era continued to be overtly expressed from the thirties to the sixties and to an extent to seventies as well. Some of the notable films were-Mehboob’s ‘Aurat” and ‘Mother India’, KA Abbas’s ‘ Dharti Ke Lal’, a number of Bimal Roy films including ‘Do Bigha Zamin’ and ‘Sujata’. Desite being high on elements of fantasy, Raj Kapoor’s films highlighted the clashes of interests between the rich and the poor and so was the case with Dilip Kumar’s ‘Ganga Jamuna’ and Sunil Dutt’s ‘Mujhe Jeene Do’ underlining the socio-economic and political texts of poverty and powerlessness.
However, seen in the context of expressions of the Indian cinema in recent times, it is obvious to for anyone that the illustrious images of Indian cinema of yesteryears appear fading. Ironically, today’s cinema cares little for the noteworthy premises of nation-building on the basis of plural ethos. On the contrary, mainstream Hindi films have been more than instrumental in causing ruptures between communities by deliberately representing communities in most outlandish stereotypical manner. Before we move on to scanning the diverse images through which mainstream Indian cinema has nurtured a tendency to conflate Muslims as monolithic entity with intentions in contrast to the aims and objectives of the nation and its dominant community. The cinematic images we encounter and experience recently, literally depicts a nation under siege; where deliberately crafted images of Islamophobia are made to appear as natural. However, the said trend is largely captured during the last two decades, otherwise Indian cinematic productions; particularly the popular version of it was instrumental in making beautiful films giving insight about Muslim culture. Outer and inner corridors of the lives of nawabs imbued with qawwalis and ghazals presented multi-coloured images of Muslim life to the wider audience. Among the notable films in this category were Chaudhvin ka Chand, Barsat ki Raat, Chhote Nawab, Mere Mehboob, Palki, Bahu Begum and Mere Huzoor.
According to renowned film critic Iqbal Masud(2006), Muslim ethos was a mix of elements of Arabian, Turkish and Persian cultures. He said, "an essential element was the elegance of speech and surroundings which became a marked feature of a Muslim ‘social’—meaning films dealing with Muslim families and social problems."
Another element was the depiction of Hindu-Muslim ties and harmony; however that unity again was depicted through the courts of the kings and the nawabs. For instance, Jehangir’s Prime Minister is a Rajput who fiercely guards his independence in Pukar. This harmony from above rarely extended to the grassroots in films like Dhool ka Phool, which had a mixed Muslim-Hindu social scenario. Dhool ka Phool also made use of some inspiring lyric by Sahir Ludhianvi—‘Tu Hindu banega na Musalman banega, insan ki aulad hai insan banega’. It certainly was in tune with the Nehruvian dream of secularisation project and summarized the ultimate inter-community relations through Indian cinema. However, the major weaknesses of these films as highlighted above were the highly myopic lens through which they presented Muslims. Narrating the lives of a Zamindar, a nawab or a kothwali, these film makers were blissfully oblivious of the everyday concerns of huge majority of Muslims spread across the length and breadth of this country.
Come 1970s and one experiences another category of cinema featuring Muslims, which rather than revelling in the lost grandeur brought home the ground reality. The turning point came with the release of M.S. Sathyu’s Garam Hawa (1973), based on a short story by Ismat Chugtai. The film narrated the story of a Muslim family that chooses to stay on in India after the Partition. The protagonist of the film, Mirza Salim, a shoe-factory owner of Agra, has to pay a heavy price for this choice as history and circumstance play havoc with human lives. Interestingly, the Censor Board was quick to ban the film on the pretext that it might incite communal fights. However, there were concerted protests against the ban and consequently it was lifted. The film went onto win a National Award for highlighting the theme of national integration.
In the year 1971, Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah was released, which had taken several years to complete and indeed proved to be Meena Kumari’s swan song. Pakeezah highlighted the less spoken side of the feudal culture of northern India. Following her death after the release, the film went onto be a blockbuster. The photography and the music of Pakeezah are still remembered by the movie lovers and it is counted as one of the last films classified as Muslim ‘socials.’
We would like to place on record that courtesans were a favourite theme in cinema of the Muslim ethos because as professional performing artistes they had contributed immensely to dance music and etiquette. It also provided the films with dance and song sequences loved by the Indian movie goers. Such theme made a superb comeback in a far more remarkable film a decade later with Umrao Jaan (1981), Muzaffar Ali’s adaptation of the first great modern Urdu novel, Umrao Jan Ada based on a novel by Mirza Hadi Ruswa (1905). It also brought back the lost elegance as well as expressed the tragedy of a woman’s existence. In the sequel of such films, one cannot forget Sagar Sarhadi’s Bazaar (I980), an important film that dealt with forced marriages of poor Hyderabadi girls with those from the Gulf. And then we move to the cinema of Saeed Akhtar Mirza. He focussed on the problems faced by the Muslim community in Saleem Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989). The film locating the centrality of criminalisation of youth in the slums raised powerful questions pertaining to governance, development and participation of Muslims in the issues affecting their life and times. At a general level, Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro was a desperate and chilling cry for enhancing the width of secular living as also a genuine distress call regarding the plight of Muslims in all spheres of life-much before Sacchar Committee3 acknowledged the same in its voluminous report recently.
One does not require sophisticated analytical tools and interpretative framework to conclude that despite a sizeable presence of the films in this genre, there was no serious attempt to portray the common struggle of the Hindu and Muslim masses. They also failed to describe the brutal experiences of powerlessness and enhanced marginalisation in everyday life situation of the Muslim community. Living up to its image of a cinema indifferent to the political dimension, preferring to situate films in a continuous tradition of Indian myth-making and autonomous folk culture that did not have any real connection to the day to day life of the people or the state, popular Indian cinema traditionally did not depict anything of Partition, Pakistan, Kashmir. It also did not represent any other imperative concern important to India's past, present and future as well. In reality, it was not until 1973 that MS Sathyu traversed this uncharted territory with a Hindi production (Garm Hawa) centring on the experiences of a Muslim family from Agra in the aftermath of partition. But Garm Hawa (Hot Winds) was for a long time the only film made on such subject and proved too hot a subject to be broached upon soon by others.
Mainstream Hindi Cinema in recent times
It is in the context presented above, that we place our central argument regarding the depiction of Muslim persona by the mainstream Hindi cinema particularly in last two decades. For the ordinary and even extraordinary moviegoers of mainstream Hindi cinema, expressions of anti-minority in general and anti-Muslim images scarcely come as a shocking surprise. It shall certainly be no exaggeration to underline that such constructed images of Muslims as we come across through the cinematic productions, have acquired a natural space in the cognitive structures of a large mass of people (even before the arrival of the terrorist or the street rowdy on the scene one can very well make a bold guess of his religion and which is generally true). Over the years, we have also come to expect that media treatment of Islam, its clergy and its faithful followers shall be anything but positive or even neutral. Most of the time the theme, the cast, the frames and the technology moves in tandem to create a fictional reality, which is highly offensive and demonising to the Muslim persona. While such portrayal goes on, no critique tries to confront the worst manifestations of prejudice and stereotypes being sold through the dream corridors of mainstream Hindi Cinema. Even the official body –the Censor Board of India does not have any qualms about the stereotypical portrayal of a significant section of its citizens, particularly when the social-political reality in the non-cinematic domain is threatening the fragile tapestry of plural living. At times, if there are controversies, which indeed are scarce, the defenders of such movies persistently invoke freedom of speech and expressions argument. Going further they underline that these cinematic productions are work of fictions and should in no way be construed as offending to any particular community and the community (in question) should learn not to be hypersensitive.
To relocate the central concern again, let it be reaffirmed that the issue here is not to make a claim whether film X or Y were deliberately determined to affront Muslims and Islam, but going further one should rather enquire whether analogous expressions and images would be allowed if they caused offence to any other social and cultural group. Whether the same argument of freedom of speech, expressions and art shall govern if it affronts the numerically dominant community is yet to be seen. We however are aware of the moral policing by extra-constitutional agencies vis-à-vis films like Water, but that is a different issue altogether. It is rather easy to illustrate the lack of public sensitivity to images or displays that affect the minority in general and Muslims in particular. Particularly in the last decade the mainstream Hindi cinema has literally gone berserk in manufacturing and subsequently usurping the minds of the people-many a time obliterating the crucial divide of the private and the public domain as also between freedom of expression and absolute contempt for others.
It is in fact imperative at this stage to borrow a portrayal from Hollywood-film The Siege (1998) offering a clairvoyant view of New York City under assault by Arab terrorists. The terrorist’s Arab and consequently Islamic linkages were over-represented in such a manner that it only added to the already dominant stereotypes amongst the other communities’ vis-à-vis Islam and Muslims. An Arab (Islamic and Muslim) terrorist meticulously laying waste to Manhattan was reinforcing historically damaging stereotypes, and one must remember it was prior to the gory images of 9/11.
Yet no fears are expressed for the scores of movies, which are released almost every two months depicting and labelling the Muslims and Islam in manner, which is vulgarly offensive to millions of Muslim citizens of India. Through this write up on contemporary Indian popular cinema we indeed aim to peep through the political understanding of the cinematic production and also try locating the project of demonisation of others. We shall also try and see how the political project of Hindutava-a Pan-Indian homogenous Hindu identity is carried in a meticulous manner by the ideologues of modern and mainstream Indian cinema. In other words, we shall also intend locating the political vocabulary of Hindutava through suave on-screen portrayal of images, dialogue and in particular the theme.
It is not difficult to capture the way films like Maqbool or Yahaan intentionally malign Muslims and Islam and these are just few of scores of Bollywood production that annoys and offends Muslims in particular and minorities in general. Our purpose is to humbly put forth a contention that why the moviemakers cannot treat the subject of community/communities in a manner whereby a plural society and a secular democracy does get its tapestry repaired and ultimately strengthened. If it is done Mainstream Hindi films might be much more interesting, in addition to demonstrating a new consistency and care for the secular democratic framework underlining the complex makeup of Indian society.
Muslims are a demonised community
A serious glance over the films particularly since the 1990s explicitly show that Muslims visible on screen even when they are in the background (extras in a film or with guest/character appearance), their religious symbols and images are highlighted in manner which is distasteful at best and vulgar at worst. Muslim casts depicted as nice and good human beings (and patriot as well!) carry a catch that they are good despite being Muslims (For instance, Saleem of Sarfarosh, Aslam of Rang de Basanti etc). On the other hand for the dramatis personae of villains- their felony is presented as emanating from the person as well as his faith they belonged to. These visible Muslims are indeed shown on films with such heavy load of images (over representation of religious symbols) and background work that viewers rarely see them as nasty aberration. The emphasized texts of most of these movies revolve around a manufactured Islamophobia, where one only comes across combative Islam uncomfortable with plural living. It is not without reason that the screening of patriotic film-Gadar leads to violence between communities on the streets in Gujarat-a laboratory for Hindutava. Even though faith and its attendant rituals are important and they must be portrayed, but representation in this context follows the murkiest of the political motives where a particular faith is only portrayed as demonized exclusive.
The Pakistan Connection
Critical survey of the mainstream Hindi cinema also unfolds before us the important corridors of images of Pakistan and the latent association of Muslims with it. The only efforts towards a national address were restricted to strapping up memories of partition and expressing populist sentiments against Pakistan. We recall one of our friends saying in lighter vein, that ‘God forbid! If by any calamity Pakistan ceases to exist, Indian film industry shall be the biggest losers apart from politicians like Bal Thakre and Narendra Modi’. A historically powerful fact that a huge majority of Muslims (much larger than the ones who migrated to Pakistan in 1947) choose to remain in India, is not authoritative enough to work upon and highlight against the Pakistan connection of Indian Muslims. Films like Border, Sarfarosh, Roja all celebrated the valiant Indian solider - or a man who fights for his motherland against the evil designs of Pakistan or Pakistan-sponsored terrorists. For the producers and directors of mainstream Hindi cinema nation and citizenship are skewed concepts and Islam and Muslims living in India are shown at the farthest end in the zone of suspicious nationality. And Pakistan is one of the most commanding and frequently appearing metaphors in the mainstream Hindi cinema, where it is out to sabotage India and wreck its achievements and this it intends doing in collaboration with some of the Muslim-Indian citizens. The murky side of representation of Pakistan started towards the mid 1990s, when Indo-Pak relations (the shabby side of it) became a favourite theme. Incidentally, the said trend was coterminous with the first ever-extended rule of any non-Congress government i.e. the NDA with BJP as the dominant player. Border, released in 1997, marked the breakthrough, as this film was based on the India Pakistan war of 1971 and introduced the idea of Pakistan as an adversary-a threatening and menacing other, and was released just two months before the fiftieth anniversary of independence celebrations. Since the BJP was in power, its sister organisations such as Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh as well as Shiv Sena were very prominent and active in bringing forward the idea of a more aggressive, Hindutava version of nationalism that, needless to say, viewed Pakistan as a menace- a creeping and filthy creature. The jingoism propagated by the religio-politcal organisations and their not so naive friends in the Bollywood film industry fail to recognise that such policies which begin by aiming at the demonisation and ruination of ones’ neighbour, also paves the way for the final curse on all. Films like Gadar, Indian and Mission Kashmir create an extra-large canvas of fictional reality glorifying patriarchy and celebrating open and violent hostility towards others. Violence towards them-be it the other community or a nation is made to appear obsessively desirable and natural in the interest of mother India as she has suffered silently for more than thousand of years. The bandwagon effects of these films are seen in the carnival of hatred towards villains from the other community and before anyone realizes the spotlight is on the community, the villains were born into. Commenting on these genres of films Bidwai(2002) says, ‘Pakistan is credited with virtually mystical powers to subvert and destabilise India and create havoc. As in the classical Savarkar formulation, Pakistan is the external manifestation of the eternal “internal” threat embodied by Muslims- just as Indian Muslims represent Pakistan's Fifth Column4.’
Thus, there were now scores of Hindi films made on the subject of India Pakistan relations. While some were made on the partition issue, most of them have concentrated on militancy in Kashmir or on the border disputes. The civil and political unrest in Kashmir, which undeniably is an outcome of complex historical-political decisions, is ironically reduced to the level of deeds of foreign mercenaries. Through a few frames and scenes, films like Sarfarosh (1999) portrayed the more human and complicated aspects of Indo-Pak relations, others just cashed on anti-Pakistani sentiments through the average genre techniques of an action or war film. Such films made much profit as there are significant others to promote and propagate a mindsets who have been selling the evil designs of Pakistan for all domestic problems and concerns. Gadar (2001), based on the partition riots, turned out to be one of the most successful films of the Hindi film industry and its main male protagonist Sunny Deol (the lead actor) became an icon of the 'anti Pakistani' rhetoric. He in effect repeated, more or less the same roles in other movies as well during the period.
Thus, very much like a trickle that becomes a full-blown stream, India's travails with its neighbour seem to have become a genre of Hindi cinema. The story of Henna, which commenced as a one-off experiment, has now become a standard template for the Hindi films to excel on the box office. Since 1997, at least 20 films have been made, that dealt with the issue of Indo-Pak relations and Gadar epitomises the murkiest representation of Pakistan.
Gaston Roberge writes, 'History of whatever type is always a vision that bears on the present…Cinema is the great interpreter of the past and constantly programmes the memory of its audience’. This is particularly true of present relations between India and Pakistan, because they share a common history, especially the history of conflict marked by partition, which in turn not only marked the birth of two separate nations, but also of the hostilities between the two. Thus, the way partition is remembered in Indian cinema certainly bears upon present attitudes towards Pakistan and in addition towards Kashmir, which is depicted as geo-political football between India and Pakistan.
Nationalism and patriotism
Indian Popular cinema has functioned as a site for the production and exploration of national identities and ideologies in the popular imagination. The patriotism of Indian Muslims and other minorities such as Christians is always inferior and suspect, for with their holy lands in Arabia and Palestine, they simply cannot identify with the pitrabhumi i.e. Bharata (fatherland-remember it was Hitler and Mussolini who toyed and tossed the idea of a fatherland) uniquely with punyabhumi (Holy land). The insinuating protagonists of Hindutava in mainstream Indian cinema carefully choose and develop themes of continuous engagement with Hindu solidarity. A patriarchal value frame with subterranean political hindutava defines the huge success of some of the biggest hits in the 1990s (Hum Aapke hai Kaun, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham,). Moviegoers come back home with the unmistakable messages about the bharatvarsha or Akhand Bharta.
The emergence of the domestic drama as a highly popular genre in the recent times has been instrumental in the construction of disturbing new Indian identities. This new construction is one that significantly narrows the diversity, plural-secular constructions of Indian identities in previous decades. (For instance, some of the most successful films of the 1990s -Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Pardes, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, etc.). Domestic Hindi film dramas post-1990 displays a remarkably steady pattern in producing a monolithic Indian identity that is Hindu, wealthy and patriarchal in nature with huge bungalows and a big business empire-the congested lanes of the city and the huge rural landscape are conspicuous by their absence. This trend in Hindi cinema post-1990 reflects the significant socio-political (rise of the Hindutva movement) and economic changes (liberalisation) that have taken place in India during this time. Films like Krantiveer, Sarfarosh, Pukar, Mission Kashmir and Gadar represent the more successful examples of this ultra-nationalistic genre in the era of globalisation, where one should be careful about turncoats in our vicinity.
Hindutva seeks to homogenise India's multi-religious society into its neo-fascist image, targeting the plurality and diversity of Indian society and culture. Scores of films and filmmakers in recent times have worked towards imposing a semitised version of hindutava as India's answer to the perceived threat from militant Islam as well as western cultural hegemony. Interestingly all such cinematic representation of pervasive hindutava ideology chooses to deliberately close its eyes to pressing concerns emanating out of class, caste and gender as well as relations of power and property. This aggressive cultural nationalism found endorsement in phenomenally popular family sagas through the 90s, (Maine Pyar Kiya, Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Dilwale Dulhaniya Lejayenge, Raja Hindustani, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Hum Saath Saath Hain, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham etc). People came home contended endorsing the ideology displayed by these movies that the worldly concerns do not matter much and life is just clouds, beautiful women and lots of money. Paradoxically, Bollywood is often cited as mini India, an ideal-typical space, where Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Sikhs all apparently work together in harmony. But that does not get represented through the celluloid images. Muslim social and political presence in India and their contribution to the society is one aspect which remains elusive awaiting those producers and directors who can swim against the current- they can only be found in offbeat cinema and not in what is referred to as commercials.
Besides, post 90s when the impact of globalisation could be seen and perceived in practically all the towns, cities and villages, it is interesting to note that small Indian towns and streets are conspicuous by their absence in large number of films (Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Dil to Pagal Hai, Dilwale Dulhaniya Lejaynege, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, etc). The films generally locate themselves in the west and occasionally the more prosperous parts of the metropolitan India are also depicted. These films, while appropriating “Western lifestyle” never fail to insist on what are considered “Indian values.” These Indian values largely reflect the sentiments, ethos, and culture of the majority community that too with over-emphasis on northern India. Holi, Diwali, Rakshabandhan are some of the popular festivals shown in Hindi films (both in narrative as well as songs) as the ones binding human emotions. In certain films one does find a reference to Eid, but is often too brief and scanty to leave any mark on memory and does not even cater to symbolic ritualism.
We also find that the range of who gets included in the relevant ‘Indian’ has also shifted considerably. In almost all the Hindi movies the Indian Diaspora community is largely Hindu while Muslim contribution as the patriotic Non-resident Indians is not acknowledged at all, as if the Indian Muslims living abroad have no contribution to make. Consequently, minority religious communities like Muslims find themselves excluded and increasingly erased from this terrain. This cultural conflation (of Indian with Hindu and wealthy), the product of particular socio-political and economic trends (Hindutva, global capital flows and regressive gender politics), further marginalizes and often mitigates the experiences of religious minorities and the poor who do not fit this constructed pattern; indicative of the inhibiting the national imagery. The hegemonic superimposition of the hindutava identity also flows in rhythm with the regressive political articulation on nation, citizenship and community by some of the organisations as discussed above.
Muslims and gender stereotypes
Most films tie the iconic body of Muslim women and the female subject to tradition, culture and religion of Islam, with virtually no mobility at all. The representation through the films do not also take into account the multiplicity, fluidity, contextualised and contested qualities of identities that studies of gender have highlighted have undermined any notion of a single all embracing primary identity to which all others must be subordinated at all times and at all costs (Eley and Suny:1996).
It is conspicuous to see in Hindi films representations of women have supported and contested patriarchy in numerous and subtle ways. Even if patriarchy is shown in the context of Hinduism it is always benevolent patriarchy, which seems to be exercised because of care, custody, and protective attitude while in Islam the drudgery of women is over emphasised. We do not wish to deny that there is exploitation of women in Islam and there are hundred ways of blocking and checking the mobility of women emanating out of the most conservative interpretation of Islam and Islamic jurisprudence. It in fact goes without contest that the unhindered mobility of the agency of women is abhorred by all religions. What is however most distasteful is the offensive representation of women’s exploitation and subjugation in Muslim community. For instance system of purdah is rarely mentioned as restricting the mobility and freedom of women, while burqa or hizab is repeatedly shown to be symbolic of the imprisoned life of Muslim women. Triple talaq has become one of the most known and detested aspects about Islam through cinematic representations. Besides this, lack of freedom, restriction on mobility, denied opportunities of education, numerous childbirths are the aspects, frequently and intensely highlighted juxtaposing the majoritarian progressive-liberal outlook. These two constructed frames, whether shown together or presented at different situations, ultimately go on to delineate the boundaries between the liberal us and the conservative they. While dealing with the patriarchal cruel systems of the majoritarian religion, local symbols are romanticised, for instance the whole ritual of Karvachauth is made very romantic; with an aim to project the virtuous wife, since duty of a wife is highly valued. Thanks to the cinematic versions, a limited north Indian ritual- Karvachauth has been made to appear the festival of women; liberal-modern and conservative alike. Also Hindu women are shown participating very happily and willingly in such rituals(whose texts underline the subordinate status of women), while on the other hand Muslim women are projected as subjects who are never given freedom of choice or consent even in vital matters involving their life and livelihood.
Interestingly, there have been movies based on marriages as main themes but all of them are north Indian Hindu marriages (Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Dil Waale Dulhaniya Lejayenge, Gadar, etc). Ironically, these marriages are shown through all the pomp and show on the screen to pass as THE Indian marriages. Other marriage types and particularly the Muslim marriages are completely overlooked. One movie that people still remember with elaborate Muslim marriage ceremonies is Nikah but it again reiterates the subjugation of women in Muslim society with a punch line of ‘talaq talaq talaq’. The most popular snapshot that popularly flits across the Hindi movies is ‘kubul hai’…and it only adds to the already existing common belief pertaining to the submissive state of women in Muslim society. Even ‘haq meher’ is not really shown as the right of the women or security for future (as has been the case originally in the religion) but as the compensation given for her marital relationship (for instance in Sanam Bewafa).
It is noteworthy that when put in the broader context of Hindi films; the cine-patriotism plays on some of the recurring themes of gender, sexuality and femininity common to Indian cinema. Cine-patriotic Hindi films narrow this representational range in some ways, and extend it in others. The normative woman appears to be that good Hindu or Muslim woman who offers to the wayward Muslim a secure mooring to the nation, the family, to romance, and idealized memory. One aspect of this representation is that women as modern citizens of the nation serve as a foil for the Islamic terrorist. (For instance, Sufi Pervez, in Mission Kashmir, Fiza in Fiza, Adaa in Yahaan, Zara and Samiya in Veer Zara). They represent the modern, liberal educated Kashmiri/ Pakistani Muslim woman who functions as a temporary halt for extremists and terrorists. In some of these frames, the terrorist is waiting to be tamed by the benign love of a woman(Sufi thwarting Hilal’s plans for Altaaf in Mission Kashmir) Representation of women in many of these films go for unconcealed objectification of women constituting them as surveyed awaiting the male heterosexual gaze (Chandni Bar, Maqbool). Women provide the heroes of these films only with the possibility and opportunity for sexual fulfilment, consequently securing reproductive heterosexuality and, by extension the family (For example, Seema in Sarfarosh). These films also intermittently come up with modern Muslim woman (which is so unusual to find and depict) and through her the intimidating community is tutored for the reintegration into the folds of the loyal citizens (Fiza for Amaan, Samiya in Veer Zara, Adaa in Yahaan).
The Hindutva insistence on Muslim submission (together with evaporation of distinct identity markers) as the condition for accommodating/tolerating their being in India finds expression in cinematic politics of gender as well. The equation of the Hindu with Man and that of the Muslim with woman has been portrayed in films like Bombay, Gadar, Yahaan, Veer Zara. Here too, the man, whose superiority is always assumed, is a Hindu, and the woman, who is not only inferior, but also somebody to be aspired for and possessed is a Muslim. Indeed, there is absolute dearth of mainstream Hindi films in which a Hindu girl falls in love with or gets married to a Muslim although there are instances galore of such marriages in the real life of the communities across India. For many film makers this is too thorny a risk to be taken in view of the possible backlash by the popular sentiment.
Muslims are very rarely shown as equal and ordinary members of Indian society
The lustful, traitor and terrorist images of Muslims which has literally gone berserk through cinematic depictions, hardly finds a different treatment with their portrayal as ordinary members of Indian society with more or less similar dreams and aspirations as any other community. Muslims, unfortunately, were never shown in a progressive light even in the supposedly golden era of films which tried packaging the message of national integration with apparently some seriousness. More often than not, Muslims would be living in ghettoes, stuck to the centuries old living style. They are and can probably never be cosmopolitan, modern, scientific or rational. Not to deny that some of the producers and directors indeed have taken care to contest the dominant representation by showing the commonality of images and representations. Yet it is also equally true that rarely they have qualified as part of the central rostrum of mainstream Hindi cinema, although they have travelled abroad to showcase the highlights of the Indian cinema and have won acclaim. The life-size actuality that Muslims in general are integrated in Indian social reality does not get expressed through its cinematographic images. The distinctness of their prayer, their origins, their dress (as if all Muslims all over India wear the same dress-and cannot do without the Namazi Cap), their vocation (remember the stereotyped butcher shops and garage mechanics in the movies) are systematically indicated-the purpose is to help build the threatening others image, which also emerge out of the propaganda of some of the political organisations in different parts of India. As stated above, it is very rare to see them in a movie shown as bona fide Indian melted into the citizen mass of India. The Muslim community, because of their difference (which for many is mostly outwardly and that too not a general phenomenon) seem to be considered as eternal pieces of suspicion and mistrust.
All such representation, it should be highlighted yet again, go on to provide fresh lease of life to stereotypes which are generalizations or assumptions that people and communities make about the characteristics of all members of a group, based on an image (often erroneous) about what people in that group are like. In conflicts involving communities, people tend to develop overly negative images of the other community. The opponent community, in this context Muslims are expected to be aggressive, self-serving, and deceitful, while Hindus view themselves in completely positive ways. These stereotypes which appear frequently through the corridors of political parties as well tend to be self-perpetuating. As the dominant community assumes the other side as deceitful and aggressive, they tend to respond in a similar way and may be worse. The level and degree of interaction between the communities in recent times, tell us immensely about the hardened perception of communities against each other. In fact, on account of the break down of dialogue and communication, escalation in misunderstanding heightens emotions and tension, as has been the case in different parts of India in recent times.
Historically speaking, it is believed that the Holocaust was the destruction of European Jewry by the Nazis through an officially sanctioned, government-ordered, systematic plan of mass annihilation. As many as six million Jews died, almost two-thirds of the Jews of Europe. Although the Holocaust took place during World War II, the war was not the cause of the Holocaust. The war played a role in presenting a façade to the genocide of the Jewish people. This was possible seen through the layers of violence of this magnitude can evolve out of prejudice based on ignorance, fear, and misunderstanding about minority groups and other groups who are different from us and the centrality of the role here is of media. The films made during the Nazi era in Germany contributed immensely to the agenda set forth by Hitler by demonising the others- isn’t mainstream Hindi movies showing us our future more or less similar to the Germany of 1930s and 40s!
The purpose of the present venture on the part of the researchers was not to draw a cynical and gloomy picture of wide cracks in the community relations on account of flawed and coloured understanding of each other, but to share and remind that millions of moviegoers are literally being manufactured by enhanced reach and appeal of mainstream Hindi cinema. This supposedly Indian cinema uses all possible instruments to further augment the toughening of stereotypes, for these films fall much short of obtaining rational information required to make fair judgments about others. In the absence of the availability of whole picture, stereotypes in many cases allow people and community to fill in the blanks with the colours and expressions provided by the cinematic productions. Thanks to the recurring images portrayed by the media (and particularly mainstream Hindi cinema), we often create and disseminate stereotypes, which normally lead to unfair discrimination and persecution particularly when the stereotype provides hostile and adverse image of others.
Muslims are Muslims that’s all
There are evidences available that, each minority group (Muslims or Christians in our context) is always considered as a homogeneous entity in which each member is identical and of the same temperament and vocation. Taking the premise further, it is believed that political behaviour of the minorities is always similar irrespective of their regional and social location. It is this perception, which is more fiction than fact, appears to be of obsessive concern to the leaders and organisations thriving on burning bridges between the communities. The demagogues in the social-political arena receive unflinching support from films, depicting minorities with identical features, often very stereotyped ones. For example, mainstream Hindi cinema reduces Muslims as one and the same, the obvious differences of caste, class, regional background, education etc. does not find any mention and in the logic of the genre, there are no heterogeneity amongst the Muslims they are always one and the same with similar features and disposition(against the national interests!). The end product of such orchestrated image construction is a partial, stereotyped, rough image of Muslims and finds expression in the underworld activities of Mumbai or in joining the foreign mercenaries in Kashmir.
As illustrated above, mainstream Hindi cinema often characterises Muslims as disruptive components in an otherwise peace loving society and nation. Film is that form of the media, which take an important space in our life because it is part of our social, cultural and domestic environment. At a time, when political rhetoric seems to have lost a rational sense of direction and is busy drawing a distinction between Good Muslims Vs. Bad Muslims5, Hindi cinema has been wilful partner to this language of social and political exclusion of Muslims. Considering that Muslims must be feeling poorly represented by the above referred portrayal, it is likely that films reinforce a kind of sentiment of omission and non-belongingness amongst the Muslims across India.
Muslims as Actors, Writers, Poets, Directors
Whether it is actors (for instance, Sardar Akhtar, Nargis, Dilip Kumar, Suraiya, Madhubala, Waheeda Rehman, Meena Kumari, Johni Walker, Mehmood, Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan), directors (Kamal Amrohi, Saeed Mirza,), writers (KA Abbas, Zia Sarhadi, Abrar Alvi, Salim-Javed) or poets (Kaifi Azmi, Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Javed Akhtar and many others), the role played by Muslims has been substantial. But it is incongruous that in the film industry where Muslim contribution to its art cannot be ignored, the very issue of Muslim persona and their representation is not even part of the general debate.
It is noticeable that despite the presence of such large number of Muslims working together in filmmaking, the number of films made on Muslim subjects is almost negligible, not to deny that Bollywood is an industry that thrives on profit making and hence the numbers and the numerically dominant sentiment matters the most. In such context, where turnover is the watchword, everything else is reduced to a commodity, hence no wonder that even religion gets commodified-and a hierarchy is in order- good commodity over bad commodity. Thus a religion that does not have a market, is not to be shown, a particular religious community that has no say in socio-political affairs is marginalized even in cinematic realms. And if the global trend is to draw an uncalled for distinction between good Muslims and bad Muslims, our cinema is quick to grab the opportunity in going ten miles extra.
Conclusively we can say that film is one of the greatest sources of revelation about our world and there are very few who can withstand and challenge the magnetic grip of the medium. The overall result of this is that the mass media acts as a mirror of society itself, reflecting back to its audience the values and ideologies which they prompted it to create. It reveals what we value most as human beings, while asking our deepest questions, expressing our mightiest rage, and reflecting our most basic dreams. However, there is an endless circle in which society influences the cinema, while at the same time the cinema influences society. "So many diverse meanings are established beneath the surface of the image that it presents only an enigmatic face” (Foucault, 1965) Foucault in the context described above was speaking of painting, but the it is uniformly true of the cinema, not only of their images but also of their signs, their representations, their references and their language; how they go on to build the grammar of contemporary cinema.
Thus it is important that we scrutinize film in their specific context. Only through such an analysis can we grasp the contextual strategies of resistance available through and beyond their mode of address. Perhaps it is in representing the specific kinds of discrimination used against Muslims at so many levels in India that all these movies seem to be at their most disruptive and effective. But at the same time we feel that Cinema is a much more complex and a far greater agent for positive social change than is commonly acknowledged by those who claim to represent the high culture of India. We therefore cannot negate the fact that film is not only responding to the contemporary questions of society but also at the same time providing a forum in which to explore for answers or seeks to obliterate them. A piece of art- like cinema draws upon the life and times of the people and communities where they emerge. It draws images and the images have a very powerful pull factor for the society. It builds and exhibits a piece of art of people, whom it had itself created not in a distant past. “Imagine someone ... who abolishes within himself all barriers, all classes, all exclusions, not by syncretism but by simple discard of that old spectre: logical contradiction; who mixes every language, even those said to be incompatible; who silently accepts every charge of illogicality, of incongruity; who remains passive in the face of Socratic irony (leading the interlocutor to the supreme disgrace: self-contradiction) and legal terrorism (how much penal evidence is based on a psychology of consistency!). Such a man would be the mockery of our society: court, school, asylum, polite conversation would cast him out: who endures contradiction without shame? Now this anti-hero exists: he is the reader of the text at the moment he takes his pleasure.” (Barthes: 1975)
Contrary to the early perception that the spread of the television shall pose a threat to cinema has been proved erroneous. On the other hand, with the increase in the television-density, several lesser-known aspects of the making of the cinema have come to occupy the primetime slots on television, thus providing new enthralling experiences to the audience, making them prepared in advance for the movie once it is released and channelling their reaction to the wider audience once the films are viewed by the masses. Thus apart from the promos, the song sequence, the making of the films (remember! making of Lagaan, Gadar and Rang De Basanti etc.) have also become important items which are excitedly awaited by the masses. In reality, the new sets of rituals attached to films have added to multiple layers to the shared experience of watching a movie.
In such a scenario, especially in the context of the recent flurry of films that have been released in India over the past few years, the question that becomes most vital is to implore whether cinema also permeates the way people think of fundamental issues so critical to their being, for instance-the way inter-community relations are deliberated and conducted in our society. We are in a way motivated to come with a more focussed poser i.e. is Indian cinema writing or replicating the text of majority-minority relations particularly with respect to Hindus and Muslims played in the wider arena of public space. Through the present essay, we wished to critique sampled Hindi movies in order to search for some answers to the questions, which are urgent and intimidating, intimidating because the signals available even to the run of the mill audience do not bid positive signifiers. An endeavour was also made to assess Indian popular cinema and projection of Muslims in recent times through these films. Understandably, the tasks undertaken includes-looking through the carefully crafted images, the production and generation of stereotypes and analysing the centrality of mainstream Hindi movies in reinforcing the prejudices with respect to Muslims. We do not need to emphasise that the Indian popular films are made in isolation to social reality and while we do consider Bollywood as thriving on fantasy and romanticism, its symbiotic relationship with the dominant socio-political paradigm cannot be overlooked. In fact this romanticism of social reality itself (which often also gets manipulated in addition) contains the potential threat to the plural and secular fabric of our country, especially during the times when the socio-political environment is unfriendly and hostile for the minorities in general and Muslims in particular.
Dramatic productions may show human fate in various ways. Looking back over the films which we have been discussing, we can indicate with certainty that the plot configuration, theme evolution and treatment of the characters in mainstream Hindi cinema exhibits construction of otherness for minorities in general and Muslims in particular. Mainstream Hindi cinema (the likes of Gadar and Mission Kashmir) has augmented the greater receptivity to hostile belief, emerging out of the boundary constructions of us against them. These hostile rumour, frequently also referred to as the wedge-driving rumour contain all the elements of hysteria on a large scale. Anti-Semitic propaganda before World War II displays the same characteristics. In the first place, the enemy-always directly or indirectly identified with the symbols of distinctiveness-different prayers, dress, appearance etc. They are perceived to be a potent threat to the socio-economic and cultural well being of the NATION. And most importantly the enemy is perceived to be quite cunning and powerful-as is the depiction of Muslims in Indian cinema in recent times. Facts are carefully assimilated, combined, compiled and put together to make the enemy community-as an incarnation of generalised and threatening forces.
Contemporary Indian Films also evoke the feeling that danger to the nation and her peace loving citizens lies in impulses and tendencies available in individuals of specific communities-by indicating and even highlighting their identity markers-recall long beard, short pyjamas, head scarf and consistently producing the sound bytes of Azan before an episode of murky violence is likely to surface.
There are several social scientists and film critiques, who argue that films are only entertainment medium and they should not be assigned the emancipatory roles, for they have very limited sphere. It is also argued that the Indian cinema contrary to the popular understanding was equally inadequate in reflecting the social reformist agenda of the Nehruvian state. With 1980s and 90s, the advent of the multi-generic entertainment extravaganza replete with dramatic dialogue and spectacular song and dance sequences, there are reasons galore not to expect social-cultural transformation from Indian cinema. The underlined text also believes that the cinematic medium has nothing to with complex social-political processes. Mauree Kiernan (1990) writes, ‘All film is political, to some degree. A film text is only a means for communicating a set of values and ideas and whether these ideas are political or not, the film still embodies ideological precepts. In most cases, a given film will translate the dominant ideology of the cultural context into an easily “read” text. Such a process does not question this ideology on any level; rather the entire film grammar of such texts is constructed so as to communicate in a clear and undisruptive manner.’
It is through Kirenan’s argument, we doubly become conscious that one of the biggest challenges of plural societies and secular state, in which media forms and practices are engaged, is how to recognise and accommodate religio-cultural differences without reification and fixity. It is quite evident that films which should have aspired to foster a shared tapestry of nation-community have in effect become vehicle of exclusion and marginality-undeniably replicating and reproducing the hegemonic political processes outside. Consequently, the culture-commodity which is glorified by mainstream Hindi films underlines a highly constricted space for plural living; feeding a huge majority of populace with manufactured memory and manufactured destiny. It is depressing to note that good number of mainstream Hindi movies appear forming a junction with the Hindutava movement to reconstruct India politically.
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