Films hold a mirror to the world we live in and reflect the aspirations, perspectives, thoughts and biases of the societies we live amongst. Nevertheless, they also have the power to influence minds and hearts.
There is no doubt that a good movie can entertain, educate, influence and inspire the viewer in numerous ways. The Hindi film industry colloquially referred to as Bollywood, therefore, has a very important role to play in society today.
The stats and why it matters
Between 1500 to 2000 films are produced by Bollywood every year and these movies are increasingly finding overseas appeal. With the unimaginable reach of social media, Bollywood celebrities are recognized and appreciated worldwide and big production houses with deep pockets have made sure that viewers across the world can watch Bollywood movies at the same time as Indians do.
In 2017, box office collections for Indian films overseas was $367 million – a three times increase from the year before. This exponential rise and reach of Bollywood has increased its ability to influence more and more viewers.
Bollywood has surely evolved over the years and Hindi films today are more than just mere boy-meets-girl- and family drama ensues – romances. In recent times, Bollywood films have tackled a variety of issues and portrayed many diverse characters in nuanced and delightfully mature ways. Despite this progressive arch, Muslims continue to be underrepresented in Bollywood and most depictions of Muslim characters are misleading and stereotypical.
History of Muslim in Bollywood
From the 1950s to the 1980’s a majority of the Muslim depictions on screens were those of the “nawab and the prostitute”. In Pakeezah, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar or Umrao Jaan the brothel owners and their most popular prostitutes were invariably Muslim. The sexagenarian Muslim nawab visited brothels in the name of art. He would sniff the jasmine wreath around his wrist and look listlessly or lustfully at an adolescent girl twirling in circles under a massive chandelier. This was amongst the most common depictions of Muslims on celluloid.
Other popular ways in which Muslims have been depicted over the years are as Mughal emperors (Mughal-e-Azam), loyal sidekicks (Zanjeer, Sholay) or poets and artists (Amar Akbar Anthony, Sarfarosh). These portrayals while stereotypical and unidimensional are not necessarily dangerous even though they portray Muslims as a distinct reductive archetype characterized by an inexplicable love for Urdu, sherwanis, biryani and aristocracy.
However, in recent times the depiction of Muslims in Hindi films as terrorists or violent characters with a blind hatred for India – in the context of Kashmir or Pakistan – has increased manifold. This was depicted in successful movies such as Sarfarosh, Mission Kashmir, Roja and Fiza.
Even this would not be as ominous if it weren’t the most dominant way in which Muslims are portrayed in Hindi films. After all, many Hollywood films have depicted Russians as assassins or the Chinese as greedy businessmen. But the most glaring observation is that regular Muslim characters without an overt religious identity and a thick line of kohl around the eyes do not really exist in mainstream Bollywood.
When was the last time you saw a regular love story like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge or Maine Pyar Kiya with Muslim protagonists? Very few movies have depicted modern, secular and next-doors Muslim men or women. Here are a few times Bollywood films have managed to portray relatable and real Muslim characters on screen
The Three Idiots
Aslam (R. Madhavan) in Three Idiots for instance is a balanced and authentic representation of a college-going boy who just happens to be Muslim. The dilemma he faces in choosing between a secure engineering job and a vocation he is passionate about is religion agnostic.
The pressures he faces from his family are not tied to any religious beliefs. In fact, the films go above and beyond to escape from stereotypes by positioning Raju Rastogi (upper-class Hindu by name) as the most economically marginalized of the three friends instead of falling for the regular trope of portraying a Muslim character as the most economically backward. Aslam is more than a loyal sidekick with a well-developed character arc and his own personality quirks and flaws albeit without a love interest.
Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara
Imran (Farhan Akhtar) in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara is another good example of a Muslim character being represented independently of his religious identity. Sure, the love for Urdu poetry is a bit trope-ish but Imran is a modern, independent and mostly well-adjusted man whose life circumstances are in no way influenced because he is Muslim. He does not dress differently, eat differently or speak differently and fits seamlessly into a group of upper-class men, very much reflective of how it plays out in real life.
Amongst women, in recent times Alia Bhatt’s portrayal of Safeena in Gully boy is an authentic and endearing depiction of a young Muslim woman in India. Safeena wears a hijab (headscarf) and comes from a conservative Muslim family but she is independent, strong, educated, driven and feisty.
She knows her own mind and is aware of her own limitations. Her character arch is etched free from the misleading stereotypes that often accompany hijab-wearing women in the media. In fact, Safeena’s family is not portrayed in an overbearingly conservative and unrealistic way – the pressure to get married early and the boy related household drama are very much a part of any conservative Indian household regardless of religious beliefs.
One other film that has done a reasonable job of capturing nuances around the depiction of Muslim characters without demonizing or other-ising them on screen is Raazi. Here a Pakistani defence household comprising a father, his two sons and daughter-in-law is depicted in an authentic way without irrational broad stroke generalizations. Even though they reside in the “enemy state”, they are dignified, elegant and rational.
However such depictions are far and few in Bollywood. Representing Muslims in films as modern, educated, secular individuals who can co-exist comfortably in multicultural settings is long overdue. Just like everyone, else Muslim men and women fall in love, have dramatic parents and face insecurities and anxieties that come with life.
With rising Islamophobia and incidents of violence against Muslims, mainstreaming characters that show Muslims as radically different is both misleading and dangerous.
Niloufer Memon is a strategy consultant at a global social impact advisory firm in New York. She works across social issues with a strong focus on equity and representation. She has worked in Asia, Africa and the US.