11. November 2006. Analysen: Kunst & Kultur - Indien Perennial 'Us' and 'Them'

Bollywood’s Engagement with the Muslim Identity (1996-2006)

This paper argues that Hindi Popular Cinema or Bollywood [1], as it is affectionately known, has perennially struggled to depict the Muslim community on screen as more than a heap of stone-age caricatures, and thereupon, failed to engage with the Muslim community constructively.

Through its romances and patriotic sagas, it has ostensibly a) perpetuated age-old prejudiced stereotypes of the Muslim community, b) acted as an extension of the incumbent Indian political context rather than acting as a buffer or space for alternate thought and c) has failed to portray Muslims as normal citizens, part of a holistic secular India.

Exploring Popular Hindi cinema over the last decade (1996 – 2006), paying particular attention to patriotic cinema, this paper will illustrate that Bollywood has largely neglected an artistic and even moral inclination to explore the Muslim dynamic in India. Rang De Basanti (2006) will be explored briefly as a key piece of modern Indian cinema that dwells into sensitive issues of national concern, succinctly and effectively, standing as both a beacon of reason and hope.


For all intents and purposes – Bollywood is a scopophilac medium, offering pure entertainment, with a focus on 'how things happen', rather than ‘what actually occurs’[2] At the same time, within the array of song and dance, Bollywood has categorically adopted a nationalist agenda through the retelling of fundamental bassist Hindu mythology in varying modern contexts.

With the Ramayan and Mahabharata mythologies taking precedence as subliminal narratives for most of Bollywood’s history[3], it would be therefore inaccurate to suggest that Bollywood has turned away from the rejuvenation of Indian-ness or national projects of cultural inclusiveness. Even early post-colonial Indian leaders were adamant that Indian cinema would only survive if it functioned as a modern tool of expanding ‘Indianness’, rather than Westernization.[4]

If India’s political leadership recognized cinema as a tool that could mobilize Indian values into the ‘popular’ - surely Bollywood recognized its potential as a trail blazer of social change and a driver of alternate possibility? Moreover, surely it is precisely Bollywood’s particular position as a popular medium that allows it the poetic license to creatively engage with difficult issues (with song and dance), if need be towards alleviating the status quo of minorities and marginalized communities.

Yet Bollywood, with its preoccupation with canning the perfect romance formula, has confused prioritizing India’s ‘unity in diversity’ dictum to mean special treatment for the Indian Muslim community, moving between ensuring not to hurt the communities’ sentiments yet remaining within the confines of stereotypes that do nothing more than bludgeon the Indian Muslim psyche into submission and alienation.

Bollywood Muslims: Perennial Caricatures?

The portrayal of Sita needing inevitable rescue from Ravan through the bravery of Ram and his comrade Lakshman has perennially bogged Indian cinema into enough cannon fodder for feminists to last generations of gender activism. Onscreen, women remain characterless and firmly clutched within the obedient housewife or the seductive vamp archetypes (or both) amidst changing times. As Main Hoon Na (2004) showed, this engendered formula still works and continues to charm audiences, albeit that Main Hoon Na had the luxury of being a post-modern Ramayana adventure starring Shah Rukh Khan.

On the other side of the coin, the Muslim image has poised more problems than solutions for Bollywood. 'Unity in diversity' has essentially been swallowed by a pompous cat called 'special treatment' that has produced a set of self-defeating caricatures of the visual Muslim identity.

This set of homogenous caricatures may be listed in five categories. Firstly, the bhai bhai caricature, where Muslim and Hindu characters are treated in such idealistic terms, in which secularism means blurring religious differences to such a degree that only serves to patronize the very essence of diversity and secularism. Here, there are no religious differences, just different names and therefore nothing to tolerate or engage with.

Secondly, the qawali singer caricature sees Bollywood present the Muslim character as a poet or qawali singer[5]: either pious or as a debauched and devious pervert surrounded by sultry courtesans. Or both.

Thirdly, the Muslim villain caricature has seen Bollywood demonize the essence of villainy into a Muslim frame, moving terrorism, smuggling, Pakistani and essential anti-Indian urban legends into the Muslim domain.[6] This particular representation is arguably a post-Ayodhya[7] phenomenon, whereby Hindu fundamentalism stepped out of the shadows of a repressed minority and into the domain of the popular. With the simultaneous rise in perceived global anti-Muslim sentiment, Bollywood merely replaced Ravan as the essential representation of evil in Bollywood’s factory of dreams, with a Muslim villain.

The reproduction of global anti-Muslim imagery on Indian screens has seen a simultaneous race to portray the now innocent, wrongfully accused Muslim, as the fourth caricature. One hollering anti-Indian extremist replaced by a tasteless and voiceless other.

Finally, it is the precise non-existence of a Muslim lead (hero) in almost all of Indian popular cinema that makes up the fifth Muslim caricature. It is incessantly indicative of how the sustainer of imagery has chosen to deal with the Muslim dynamic: absence.

This is not to suggest that all narratives require a Muslim character lead, but how is it that Yash Chopra’s, Subhash Ghai’s or even Karan Johar’s families are always Punjabi or Gujarati Hindu? Granted that Yash Chopra has focused on his own background as a Punjabi and drawn remarkable inferences from Gujarati diasporic families in his films, but is it not categorically accepted that the new Shah Rukh Khan or Aamir Khan (both Muslim Indians) release will see them cast as a Hindu rather than a Muslim character? It is precisely Bollywood’s willingness to fulfill this expectation that advances notions of ‘us’ (Indian, Hindu) and ‘them’ (foreigners, Pakistanis, Muslims)

Bollywood’s film makers and industry professionals clearly do not believe that Indian audiences on a whole are ready for a Muslim hero romancing a Muslim woman or for that manner, a Hindu woman, without it being part of some larger Indo-Pak, Muslim-Hindu, anti-India drama. This is clearly accentuated when you consider that super star Shah Rukh Khan has only played a Muslim character once (Hey! Ram, 2000). This includes playing the lead role (as a Hindu) in Main Hoon Na (2004) and Veer Zaara (2004), both involving Muslims and Pakistan inter-cultural dialogue.

Even the more flexible Aamir Khan, known for his eccentric roles, engaging with India’s history, class, caste and religious dynamics of late, including Sarfarosh (1999), Lagaan (2001), Mangal Pandey: The Rising (2004) and Rang De Basanti (2006), has only acted as a Muslim in Raakh (1989), 1947: Earth (1999) and most notably as a Kashmiri separatist in Fanaa (2006).

Hrithik Roshan, popular heir to Shah Rukh Khan’s throne in Bollywood, acted in Fiza (2000) and Mission Kashmir (2000). Both were unconventional pieces of cinema, but the characters Hrithik played, failed to move the Muslim identity beyond the militant or separatist. The potential engagement was therefore shot down by an insistence to stick to what the audience would successfully digest and what would make the censor board issue an all ages certificate[8].

Fanaa (2006) also attempted to humanize a Kashmiri separatist (in Bollywood that means making him fall in love), but the movie was politically naive, problematic and inaccurate, and yet again brought an anti-India Muslim to the fore. It did not help that Fanaa was poorly made, with too many signs that the filmmakers were battling with the nature of their message themselves.

Yash Chopra’s Veer Zaara (2004) brought the divided Punjab of India and Pakistan together, and with it Muslim and Hindu communities. But the Muslim character in the movie was Pakistani and the Hindu was Indian ultimately. Moreover, it was a Muslim woman that assimilated into a more secular image, away from her restrictive Islamic background, moving ‘back’ to India with the male Hindu protagonist (Shah Rukh Khan).

How the story would have been digested in India had it been a Hindu woman moving to Pakistan at the end of the film with her Muslim love: losing her to them? Unfortunately, Veer Zaara makes the same mistake as Bombay (1994), in which a Muslim woman elopes with a Hindu man. “The assumption of the masculine position, so that the link between nation and the patriarchic hero is always maintained”[9] underscores the endemic gender dimension and its conscious maintenance.

Other than falling into this trap, Veer Zaara attempts to illustrate the banality of Indo-Pak feuds amidst such cultural similarity, advancing transnational dialogue and implicitly nurturing Hindu-Muslim relations. Similarly, Main Hoon Na (2004) tells a remarkable tale of a nation ready to pass the olive branch to its neighbour, but has to overcome the personal vendetta of a Hindu fascist first.

But Veer Zaara and Main Hoon Na are few and far between - and still do not fall within the ambit of politically charged patriotic movies. Veer Zaara is a love story in the Laila and Majnu[10] or Romeo and Juliet mould, while Main Hoon Na is a spoof, popcorn entertainment. Of course, having Shah Rukh Khan in the lead is as impactful and popular as one might get, the genre is inconsequential towards nation-building or prolonged saffron waving. In essence, the espoused secularism remains within the ambit of the romance: a visual fantasy.

Patriotic Cinema: 'Us' and 'Them'?

The last decade has seen a spate of turbo-charged patriotic Bollywood cinema, mostly, but not restricted to armoured trucks and missile launching war dramas. Pardes (1997) reached out to the Indian diaspora during India’s silver Jubilee year, Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani (2000) explored big media companies’ flirtations with political leaders under dubious contexts, Lagaan (2001), the now legendary period movie in which a village takes on British soldiers in a game of cricket and Mangal Pandey:The Rising [11] (2004), about India’s 1857 rebellion against the British Empire, as the more notable exceptions to the war-mongering type of patriotic cinema that has dominated the last decade.

In fact, the vast majority of patriotic cinema has pitted a provocative enemy or foreign threat (read Pakistan) against a perennial defender, but eventual victor, India[12]. The manifestation of being attacked in the popular has not only placed India on the moral high ground in regard to its conflicts, it has ultimately romanticized the course of India’s war efforts.

The lack of self-reflexivity in Bollywood patriotic cinema, especially in big banner productions like Border (1998), Gadar:Ek Prem Katha (2002) and The Legend of Bhagat Singh have unequivocally solidified ‘Hindu Indians’ and ‘the Muslim other’ as popularized adversaries.

J.P Dutta’s excellent production Border was publicly announced as a remembrance to all those who lost their lives in the 1971 war with Pakistan, and ended up wit no Muslim character serving the Indian army in the plot. In Gadar:Ek Prem Katha, a Muslim girl falls in love with a Sikh and what follows are incessant ranting of Muslim-Pakistan linkages that instead of producing engagement, sinks the movie into a jingoistic tirade. And in Raj Kumar Santoshi’s The Legend of Bhagat Singh, history is re-projected when Ashfaqullah Khan, one of the main historical protagonists in the revolts against the Empire in the 1920’s, was virtually absent in the script.

While Yeh Dil Aashiqana (2001), Maa Tujhe Salaam (2002) and Bharat Bhagya Vidhata (2002) included legitimate representations and characters from the Muslim community including Ashfaqullah Khan. However, Border and The Legend of Bhagat Singh were far bigger productions, of larger distribution and with the potential of a far larger popularized impact on Indian and diasporic communities than the above, more accurate movies.

The insinuation is clear: Popularized discourse of Indian history, although stamped in text books and literary material, is susceptible to change through medialized imagery as presented by popular cinema. The Legend of Bhagat Singh won much critical acclaim despite the absence of a key historical character.

This bold abrasive approach to the Muslim community has unmistakably coincided with the rise of anti-Gandhi mantras of the Hindu right wing that entered the popular during the late 1990s and early 2000s. In fact, it is precisely Gandhi’s secular ideology of inclusion and perseverance towards unity with the Muslim community that has seen a battering during the last decade.

Bollywood: Skewing Normality?

Pukar (2000), Indian (2001) Hero (2003) and LOC (2004) continue the downward trend of the early 2000’s that posits Bollywood as a theatre of dreams albeit bigoted in its sense of reflecting reality. With the rise of a global anti-Muslim doctrine, and failing Indo-Pak relations which came to a halt with the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, Bollywood merely resorted to reproducing existing prejudiced medialized imagery, over offering challenging, alternate or critical perspectives.

And this is precisely the dilemma Muslims find themselves attempting to manage. Indian popular cinema has refused to depict Indian Muslims as somewhat ‘normal’ urban citizens as they would of the majority Hindu community that also suffer from streams of fascism, terrorism and other such misdemeanours. Instead the overarching ethos is such that Muslims are suspects until they’ve proven themselves, or that Muslims identify with Pakistan until they happily rhyme Vande Mataram, or never partake in public life until it’s a Muslim related topic.

As Bas Itna Sa Khwab Hai (2001 showed), key protagonist Jackie Shroff starts off as a well-dressed Muslim journalist, groped with a sense of normality, but inevitably turns into a sherwani-clad evil politician in the second half[13]. If Bollywood were to be believed, there are no Muslim leaders, I.T geniuses, sport stars or other sophisticated thinkers in India. Bollywood’s insistence to perpetuate imagery the audience desires, manipulates the notion of ‘how things happen’, cementing the archetype that Indian Muslims cannot possibly be normal law-abiding citizens with normal love or business interests.

Interestingly, Rajkumar Santoshi the maker of The Legend of Bhagat Singh (who failed to depict Ashfaqullah Khan as one of India’s early revolutionaries), reportedly made Khakhee (2004) as a response to the unwitting barrage of anti-Muslim films being made[14]. Khakhee, a savvy show about a Muslim doctor falsely charged of being a Pakistani ISI spy entered Bollywood into a new space of apologetic-to-the-muslim-cause films[15] that instead of criticizing Indian politics constructively cannot be seen as anything but patronizing to the Muslim community.

A close look at 2004 would see a spate of pro-friendship themes with Pakistan and a metamorphosis of Indian popular cinema from essentially jingoistic and anti-Islam sentiment to discursive narratives which try to reach out to the community and Pakistan as a whole.

Main Hoon Na, Veer Zaara, Lakshya and Dev were all products of 2004. Lakshya was a about a boy becoming a man by single-handedly protecting the Line of Control - a big banner (but bad) war movie with minimal anti-Pakistan banter, while Dev was an anti-communal movie showcasing the role of politics in the stirring and (mis)management of communal riots which drew direct inferences from the 2002 Gujarat riots (although the movie was set in Mumbai).

India’s relationship with Pakistan improved significantly at the end of 2003 and snowballed into renewed economic and cultural relations with Pakistan in early 2004. Not only did the two nations reopen the Samjhauta Express[16] in January 2004, the Indian Cricket team toured Pakistan in March 2004 for their first full-scale tour in fourteen years.

By implication, Indian popular cinema clearly rode on the back of changing political initiative by the Vajpayee government rather than being the vanguard of constructive and progressive imagery all along.

Even with changing national projects, Khakhee was more about Amitabh Bacchan’s willingness to show off his developing paunch and wrinkles as a beleagured cop, over advancing the Muslim community’s credibility as normal peace loving citizens. Once again, Muslims were merely presented as a suspect, who might actually be innocent.

As a consequence, Muslims are inevitably represented to be safer staying away from critical discourse on Indian politics. Effectively, what is essentially created by Bollywood is a reproduction of perceived reality: imagery constructed by State mechanisms, the media and through international events. The onscreen representation of Indian Muslims have been perennially formulated from the majority community’s perspective, creating an entire universe of imagined stereotypes, expressions of repression within the Indian national agenda, that eventually characterize the Indian Muslim community. In the meanwhile, Muslim isolationism has not been explored, their silence on socio-political concerns on the sub-continent not engaged with, and rather their image has been reproduced and their reasons locked into farcical caricatures.

Finding alternative Bollywood movies to the tirade of celluloid misrepresentations is difficult. Lagaan included an esteemed Muslim character, pertinent to the plot without his allegiance being questioned. But, Lagaan is also a fairytale concoction of all of India’s people, from leaders to the downtrodden coming together to form a winning cricket team, that is immensely useful for nation building but falls short on critical engagement with the actual socio-political realities at hand.

Rang De Basanti (2006) however, breaks a number of barriers in its depiction of modern-day India, of a bustling and ‘boisterous’ youth, failing democratic values, rising religious fascists and the coming of age of new community and living rights struggles.

While there is no direct confrontation with the Muslim dynamic, the ease in which Rang De Basanti explores the many political hindrances challenging India, including corruption, fanaticism, religious intolerance and paranoia, depicts the Muslims dilemma in a more succinctly delicate manner that potentially creates new spaces of exploration.

Case Study: Rang De Basanti (2006): Trailblazer or Isolated Instance?

Rang De Basanti is another self-appeasing piece of celluloid wrapped in saffron, but it is a patriotic movie with a difference. It does not tackle unchartered popular cinema territory: corruption, religious fascism, amongst other Indian pastimes, but the manner in which it tackles themes of universal appeal is precisely what makes it compelling and one of the most accomplished pieces of modern Indian cinema.

From the outset, Rang De Basanti is about a young British woman with ambitions to make a movie about India’s young revolutionaries: Bhagat Singh, Chandrasekhar Azad, Ram Prasad Bismil, Rajguru and Ashfaqullah Khan, based on the diaries of her grandfather[17].

She selects four middle-class Delhi University brats, typically carefree, arrogant and self-centered youngsters to play the four revolutionaries, minus Bismil. We are introduced to the boys, with their middle-class diluting their ethnic and religious background and differences.

The boys are very vocal about the issues plaguing India, including Aslam (the only Muslim in the group). On its own, Aslam is allowed to voice his concerns not unlike his friends about India’s overpopulation, corruption, and the plight of the common man, without sounding anti-India, in support of Pakistan or any other sort of anti-State malice that we have come to identify critical comments made by an Indian Muslim to be. The discussions are constructive, balanced and branded into a space of the young Indian middle classes, privileged enough to voice their dissatisfaction with the system without constructively offering any tangible solutions.

In the meanwhile, the fifth role of Ram Prasad Bismil is filled by a Hindu right-wing student leader named Laxman, amidst much protest from the other boys, because of a prior incident between Laxman and Aslam motivated by religious prejudice.

However, this obstacle is overcome and the movie metamorphoses into much more than a movie about making a movie about the past. Rang De Basanti moves from being a flick about middle class delinquents attempting to reenact the story of India’s early revolutionaries to young men assuming the very personas of their given revolutionary characters.

A close friend, an Indian Air force pilot dies in an air crash and it is clear that a mass corruption scandal involving the purchase of substandard aircraft parts had resulted in the crash and of many other experienced Air Force pilots in the same batch of MIG fighter jets.

The boys suddenly substantiate the point to their existence as they rally around the pilot’s mother and fiancé in a bid to expose the truth about the fatality of government corruption. Fascinatingly, their fight for truth, freedom and transparency in the jumble that is India’s democracy was incidentally the very foundation of India’s original freedom fighters. The story becomes juxtaposed between revolutionary struggles of colonial India and new struggles in contemporary India, eliciting invariable comparison between British imperialism and India’s democratically elected government as mere turntables of power.

The film’s energy alone carries the frustration of today’s youth and its disenchantment with political rhetoric that has seen so much of pre-1947 India, that of mass prejudice and marginalization continue to thrive within the very fabric of freedom.

But Rang De Basanti is not an art movie. Its charm lies precisely in the successful popularization of government inefficiency, the accurate portrayal of power politics operated by religious fascist organizations working in cahoots with police, the demise of democratic values in the crack down of perceived anti-state protest and of course in its subtle but realistic reminder of the difficulties Muslims continue to face today.

Rang De Basanti does not engage with the Muslim character in such a manner in which unbelievable revelations within the Muslim community are suddenly brought to the fore.

Instead, it is the reality faced and reproduced by the Muslim Indian identity Rang De Basanti briefly explores. Despite stereotyping Aslam with a poetic pedigree, he is everything but the generalization that Indian popular cinema has boxed his like for decades. He is young, hip, smart, rebellious to Muslim orthodoxy and boisterously secular. Yet he is also cultured and aware of his Islamic habitus as well as his Muslim identity. His best friends are modern, borne out of the middle classes that include alcohol and cigarettes, yet his habits are clean and sober. His is the epitome of secularism that is respectful, tolerant and yet critical of his world.

As aforementioned, Rang De Basanti incorporates the Muslim dilemma into its larger quest to unearth spaces of tension, debate and engagement with modern India. Thereupon, there are two specific scenes that I will focus on that deliberately illustrates firstly, Muslims’ insecurity with India’s secularism and secondly, (this) idea of forced isolationism or protectionism that India’s Muslims have succumbed to.

Scene One: The Secular Muslim’s Dual Struggle

Aslam arrives home one night in the company of his drunk friends, and the exchange that occurs thereupon brings his ‘split’ personality, as a critical Indian and yet secular Muslim to the fore.

Taken as a sign of disrespect, Aslam’s father questions him firstly on whether he had been drinking, and secondly, on his insistence to have non-Muslim friends that were categorical corruptible influences.

Aslam replies that his father ought to know that he does not drink and thereupon questions the notion that corruptible influences were linked to those of a different religious orientation.

The imagery accentuated by the scene is firstly, the fear of assimilation, and secondly, the perceived incapability to remain a Muslim amidst those who engage in non-Muslim activities.

Aslam’s elder brother advances this fear to a more pronounced level when he aggressively taunts him:

This country has not accepted Muslims and never will. How can you be so passive?!

Yet Aslam’s disposition is everything but passive. Aslam is engaging with his surroundings, testing his boundaries, yet holding steadfast to his faith. To the conservative father and brother - whom the outer shell of Aslam, as a young, naive and perhaps too liberal minded, is but their only image. They do not get to see Aslam as a critical thinker, questioning India with his secular friends. Earlier in the movie, Aslam is called a Pakistani by Laxman under no tangible provocation, to which his secular friends stand up for him under no compulsion other than friendship.

The effect emanating from the scene is the pronounced balancing act that Aslam must manage as a critical Indian and secular Muslim in India, one in which he has to encounter two different sorts of non-secular mantras both within and outside his home.

Scene 2: Forced Isolationism?

As the plot reaches its climax, a peaceful protest against the Minister of Defense turns violent with police and religious cronies’ intimidating the protesters, an injured Aslam is visited by his friends at home. On receiving his friends, Aslam’s father makes his fury known of the impeding circumstance. As they attempt to explain that their cause was just and they had merely positioned themselves on a peaceful protest - Aslam’s father pleads with them:

I’m not interested in what you think; in what you want to do…I’m just going to say this once…. Aslam does not know what is good for him….he is an emotional boy… always has been. He listens to his heart, not his head. These are bad times for people like us. Don’t take him down with you…

This is one of the defining scenes in Rang De Basanti, for two reasons. Firstly it is the scene in which it is suggested that Aslam’s father is perhaps not as conservative and narrow-minded as he might have appeared from the outset. By implication, it is not the natural desire to be living in Muslim community enclaves, in which Muslims have seen themselves choose over secular suburban areas. In this context, Aslam lives in a little gulley[18] in Old Delhi, where the majority of Delhi’s Muslim population has lived since Moghul times. What is clear from this scene is the rational and therefore forced reproduction of conservatism as displayed by Aslam’s father’s sentiments.

He claims Aslam functions with his heart and not with his mind. This is not a condescending statement of his son’s behaviour, but rather recognition that they (Muslims) have no choice but to play it safe, work within the rules, live a life out of the spotlight, for as he explains: these are bad times for people like us.

The much skewed sociality of Indian Muslims is brought to the fore, in a light that is not victimizing, not romanticized, and not patronizing. It is this very special portrayal of the Muslim psyche, forced into submission even for truth or justice, is what resonates from this powerful interlude in the movie.

Secondly, this is also the scene where Laxman apologizes to Aslam for his misguided hate and prejudice towards him as a Muslim. Laxman finally sees Aslam in an entire new light during the protest saga, as a man of truth and justice over religious orientation, not unlike himself. Moreover, Laxman’s misguided notion that being critical of India naturally meant being anti-India, pro-Pakistan or being a conspirator is finally put to rest.

Laxman’s apology to Aslam is a tentative scene that walks a fine line between sincerity and once again, patronizing the Muslim community. But it is necessary in the context of Rang De Basanti’s ambition to show an uncanny nexus of the pre-independence Muslim’s need to prove himself and the continuation of this obligation in the contemporary context.

The imagery of the past and the reality of the present are once again juxtaposed as Aslam’s character of Asfaqullah Khan in the documentary on India’s revolutionaries is made to explain to his fellow revolutionary Ram Prasad Bismil (played by Laxman) that his allegiance and soul belonged to India and not to a Muslim State, like Afghanistan.

Rang De Basanti manages to pose more questions than offer answers, but it is the synergy espoused that sent waves across national and international audiences as a movie of universal appeal, engagement and disposition.

The brilliance of Rang De Basanti lies in its profound script that allows one story to emerge out of another, an extraordinary catharsis in itself from reel to literally real cinema. The continuous movement between the past and the contemporary, effectively reaching real stories, energized the audience’s imagination and their collective spirit as a piece of meaningful cinema.


The popular in Bollywood’s concoction as a film industry legitimizes its choice of narratives and imagery, and justifies its zeal as merely a source of entertainment and not a driver of critical engagement with reality.

However, as this paper has illustrated, Bollywood is a thinking industry, continually adapting to the political climates, often using historical and tragic events as background to an impeding plot. By implication, this means that Bollywood has knowingly used problematic stereotyping for its own purposes under the guise of entertainment.

As an entertainment industry shaped by the “desire for national community”[19] rooted in deep seated Indian secular tradition, the last decade has clearly shown a tendency to dangerously alienate the large Muslim community from the national ethos or culture. Yet it would be farcical to reduce Bollywood as a failed art form because of its lack of engagement with the Muslim community, or its lack of imagination in depicting a Muslim onscreen.

The last decade has arguably seen more patriotic war movies than ever before, which can be endemically linked to the rise of fundamentalism in both Muslim and Hindu communities as a result of the unsolved Kashmir issue and the processes of cultural globalization that has radicalized cultural groupings. The Indo-Pak war in 1999 the attack on India’s Parliament in 2001 and the bombings in Delhi and Mumbai over the last two years have given script writers enough fodder to sharpen the Islam-terrorism nexus as worthy Bollywood narratives.

But what is the overarching ambition of Indian popular cinema? To include or exclude; to sell movie tickets; to create art; to purely entertain without consequence? We realize that Indian film makers do not lack sensitivity or foresight, but it does beg the question of how they perceive the consequences to their onscreen conceptualization of the Muslim identity to be.

To continually cast Muslims in particular archetypes in albeit different settings, and as a reflection of changing relations with Pakistan means that there is a significant thought process[20] behind the scripts that has evidently to date, failed to produce anything meaningful.

There is the tendency for filmmakers to blame the audience for their lackluster scripts, citing audience immaturity and incapability to follow difficult themes. But with the expansion of Bollywood into new spaces, and the breakdown of the urban, rural and international market, this argument can no longer find the necessary synergy to defend run of the mill scripts. As Rang De Basanti illustrated, time and space has shifted and audiences cannot be assumed ignorant or unable to fathom scripts slightly out of the ordinary.

Bollywood has invented and re-invented itself, and with its new persona of testing the censorship board’s boundaries in issues of the bedroom kind, there are new spaces that need incessant exploration. The hour has come for Bollywood to diversify in a different sense; the chastity belt has to be replaced by more self-reflexivity that is bold and critical, yet with the naivety and charm that is essentially Bollywood.


[1] Popular Hindi Cinema and Bollywood will be used interchangeably in this paper.

[2] Kasbekar (2001)

[3] Kasbekar (2001); Mishra (2002

[4] Kasbekar (2001)

[5] Salam (2002)

[6] Mujtaba (2004)

[7] In 1992, Hindu fundamentalists destroyed the 400 year old Babri mosque in Ayodhya, a spot Hindus believe is the birth place of Ram. The events raised communal tensions across India, especially in Bombay.

[8] Mehta (2004)

[9] Vasudevan (1996, in Mishra, 2002: 232)

[10] ‘Laila and Majnu are passionate but doomed lovers in Arabic and Persian folklore and literature’ (Masud, 2005)

[11] Mangal Pandey is significant in this regard since it is historically recognized as the first event that saw Hindu and Muslim Indians join forces against the British Empire. The movie however does not engage on this issue, over and above retelling the story of India’s first rebellion.

[12] Deshpande (2004)

[13] Salam (2002)

[14] ‘I thought I should bring some sanity to the prevailing situation’, Rajkumar Santoshi (in Gangadhor, 2004)

[15] Refer to the fourth caricature outlined at the beginning of this paper.

[16] The Samjhauta Express (Train of Compromise) links Delhi and Lahore by rail. This initiative started in 1971 by the Shimla Agreement, inadvertently closed in 2001 after the attacks on the Indian Parliament

[17] Essa (2006)

[18] Gulley meaning little street or lane.

[19] Mishra (2002)

[20] Mehta (2004)

Dieser Beitrag gehört zum Schwerpunkt: Islam in Südasien .


  • Deshpande, S. (2004) 'Secular Surge', in: Frontline, online under: [Accessed: 18/08/06]
  • Dwyer, R & Patel, D (2002). Cinema India: The visual culture of the Hindi Film, Rutgers University Press, New Jersey
  • Essa. A (2006). ‘Review of Rang De Basanti’, in: Reporter, online under: [Accessed: 12/08/06]
  • Kasbekar, A. (2001). ‘Hidden pleasures: negotiating the myth of the female ideal in popular Hindi cinema’ in: Dwyer, R & Pinney, C (2002) (eds). Pleasure and the nation: The history, politics and consumption of public culture in India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi
  • Masud, I. (2005). 'Muslim Ethos in Indian Cinema’, in: Screen India, online under: [Accessed: 12/08/06]
  • Mehta, Suketu (2004). Maximum City, Penguin, India
  • Mishra, Vijay (2002). Bollywood Cinema: Temples of Desire, Routledge, New York
  • Mujtaba, S.A. ‘Bollywood’s Caricatures’, in: HimalMag, online under: [Accessed: 15/07/06]
  • Salam, Z.U. (2002). ‘Regressive Trend’, in: The Hindu, online under: [Accessed: 20/08/06]
  • The Hindu (2004) ‘Train to Pakistan’, in: The Hindu, online under: [Accessed: 20/08/07].


Als registriertes Mitglied können Sie einen Kommentar zu diesem Beitrag verfassen.