How Muslims Are Represented in the Context of Hindi Cinema

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The Indo-Pak border occupies a major part of Indian history and Hindi cinema has long been influenced by it. With the Indo-Pak Partition being a central thematic concern of many Hindi films, it becomes important to analyse how the representations of Muslims have varied across time and films so as to understand how the perceptions of Muslims in India have evolved. My aim is to show how Hindi cinema has been a medium through which Muslim identity is constructed and depicted by Indians and how these representations further categorise Muslims as either bad or good as opposed to Hindu nationalists or Indians who are portrayed in a totally different light.

During my research, I denoted how despite being represented as good in many films, Muslims whether from Pakistan or India itself, are most of the time, marginalised and “Othered” to perpetuate nationalism. Further to my research, I was able to find how the Muslim ‘Other’ is sharply contrasted with Hindu ideals who are mostly men. Furthermore, it could be argued that good Muslims are characterised by women and bad Muslims by men, thus implying a phallocentric attitude towards representation, especially in Veer-Zaara (Chopra, 2004). Indo-Pak Border and Partition. While focusing on the historicity of the India-Pakistan Partition of 1947, Purewal (2003) argues that the Indo-Pak border has become an impetus for the perpetuation of culture and politics both in India and Pakistan. The border that exists therein as the latter argues, is mostly a construction that permeates the political agenda of the two nations and that is closely monitored and maintained.

It has been one that is mostly uncrossable and inaccessible. “[T]he territoriality of nations and the boundaries between cultures […]” as he calls it, has today become a field of study, mainly known as “Border Studies”. The main focus of this field of study is to denote how the Indo-Pak border which is merely a geographically and ideologically constructed one serves to define national identity, political power and even culture. Purewal (2003) further corroborates that the creation of the Indo-Pak border in 1947 simply equals to an “apocalyptic uprooting” where the individuals, their identities and cultures were displaced. The individual has been, from then, defined as per the boundary he or she ‘belongs to’ `and those living on the crux of those boundaries are deeply affected by it. The everyday life experiences of people living on these borders has not been the same ever since. It forces individuals to adhere to difference.

The border has become an instrument of surveillance the nation uses to control in its process of ‘othering’. To further perpetuate this notion of difference between the borders, Viswanath and Salma (2009) argue that the media, more specifically, cinema has been and is still being used. As the name of their work suggests, Bollywood cinema is a “revisiting of 1947”. They further argue that Bollywood cinema is deeply rooted in Partition. Viswanath and Salma (2009) go on to argue that just like the land was separated, many other spheres ended up getting divided too. Along with the land, cinema got divided. Clearly, as they argue, Pakistani cinema is not as prominent as Hindi cinema as unlike the latter, Pakistani cinema had to start from scratch after Partition. To further document the rise of Pakistani cinema post-Partition till now, Viswanath and Salma (2009) divide it into five stages: the struggling phase, the peak phase, the competition phase, the action films phase and the eventually, the downfall of Pakistani cinema. This is a result of the division that has occurred.

Variations in films on Muslims. Lal (2018) argues that Hindi films including Muslims varied across time and gender. On a first note, he argued that Bollywood films have always been influenced by Hindutva and have made it part of their main agenda. To further permeate this, certain genres emerged at certain points in time. To begin with, the ‘Muslim Historical’ genre, as the name suggests, dealt with the historical splendor of Mughal rulers. It also included the ‘tawaif’ in movies. It was then followed by the ‘Muslim Social’ genre which brought forward “[…] an idealised Muslim world […]” where Nawabs lived up to their grandeur. The “Muslim Political” genre, on its part, served to create national identity. However, the last genre, the “Muslim Contemporary” is far more problematic. In this one, Muslims are put forth as evil. Muslims are, in fact, deprived of any identities and are reduced to either terrorists or rigid characters. Jain (2014) also writes about various films that seem to belong this particular genre – films with Indo-Pak themes, films with Hindu-Muslim violence, cross-border romances, films on friendly relationships between these two extremes and films portraying Islamic communities in contemporary society.

Sheikh’s (2013) thesis on the Muslim image and Banaji’s (2007) survey on viewership bring forward Cross-Border romances and films on political issues as well nationhood, respectively. Both film types contain hidden layers of meaning. The Cross-Border romance, as argued by Sheikh (2013), is not just a film with romantic nuances, cross-border love and interfaith marriages bur it is one that has gives way to political dogmas. On the other hand, Banaji (2007) argues that films on political issues are both a form of entertainment and a transmission of ideology and nationhood. Both critics come down to one argument: cinema has several hidden layers of meaning and is interwoven in the transmission of ideology to permeate fixed national identities. Representations of Muslims in Hindi cinema. Dwyer (2010) suggests that out of all Indian cinematic forms, Hindi cinema is the most prevalent and it acts as a guide to India itself. She adds that it “[…] does not mean that life reflects Indian society rather it shows us how life should or could be.” Contrarily, Sheikh (2013) argues that Bollywood clearly depicts India’s “[…] everyday life and thought.”

It presents to its viewership how Islam is expected to be viewed in India. Dwyer (2006) further adds that the representations of Muslims by Hindi Cinema is quite problematic. There are several cultural symbols attached to them (Dwyer, 2006; Islam, 2007). These symbols range from a specific language, that is, Urdu, a specific type of clothing, a cap and a beard. Islam (2007) argues that these cultural symbols are in fact stereotypes that serve to pigeonhole Muslims as ‘unassimilable aliens’ to the nation of India and further adds that these symbols, in no way, represent the everyday life of Muslims. They are imposed on Muslims who do not have the freedom to define themselves as fully-fledged identities. Chadha and Kavoori (2010), in their chapter, corroborate that as cultures meet and negotiate through popular Indian cinema, there is a myth of unity in diversity in India. With the focus on cross-border romances and the friendly Indo-Pak relationship in many Indian films, Hindi cinema seems to have shifted from its perpetuation of nationalism and Hindutva. Hirji (2010) suggests in Veer-Zaara (Chopra, 2004), there is a focus on universalism and cultural melding, especially with the song “Aisa des hai mera”, closely translated as “This is how my country is”.

This song as argued by Hirji (2010) denotes that Indians and Pakistanis are the same and that personal relationships tend to transcend borders. However, taking into account Said’s (1990) Discourse of the Orient, it can be argued that the Muslim Other exists in both Western and Indian media. The identity of the Muslim ‘Other’ in Bollywood, is portrayed as the ‘anti-India’, “terrorist” and “villain” (Islam, 2007). As argued by Dwyer (2006) the ‘Muslim Other’ in Hindi films refers to both Indian Muslims and Pakistanis – “Indian-ness no longer means living within India.” Chadha and Kavoori (2010) go on to suggest that Muslims in India are presented as supporters of Pakistan who advocate for Islam. They are, time and again, asked to prove their loyalty to the state of India but never will they be identified as Indians.

Kumar (2013) denotes that all Muslims are seen as threats to the nation state as Hindi cinema passes on the message that “[…] all terrorists are not Muslims but all Muslims are terrorists.” To further document the partiality that is thoroughly permeated through the representations of Muslims in Hindi films, Islam (2007) corroborates that there is either an under-representation or (mis)representation of Muslim characters in Bollywood despite the popularity of many Muslim artists such as the three ‘Khans’ in the industry. In the same context, Chadha and Kavoori state that the casting of Muslim characters in very limited roles. They are either viewed in stereotypical ways or in the margins of Hindi films. Masculinity and Nationalism. Madhavi (2009) has drawn a close link between masculinity and nationalism as she argues that nationalism in India and Hindi cinema is mainly advocated through maleness.

An idealised picture of the Hindu male is mostly permeated through Hindi cinema. Madhavi (2009) states that in mainstream popular culture, teleserials on Lord Ram helped establish this idea of the ‘ideal’ male. He was identified as a righteous Hindu man and a warrior thus further attempting to turn the male Hindu into a miniature or icon of Lord Ram. Closely linked to “renunciate celibacy”, the ideal man is expected to leave behind his family and country for his duty and service to the nation. This notion was put forward by Hindu reformers such as Dayanand Saraswati and Vivekananda in the 19th century who firmly believed that Hindus should know the grandeur of their nation and ideal men should completely devote themselves to the service of the nation.

While Dayanand Saraswati’s definition of manliness is closely related to duty and devotion, Vivekananda’s “Make me a man!” statement advocates the patriotic and nationalist nature of the ideal Hindu male. Furthermore, along with the renunciation of the home and family as part of the characteristics of a Hindu man, Madhavi (2009) also focuses on Hindu male’s biography is linked to his nation and how the Hindu masculinity is defined by nationalism. Hence, being a man is being a nationalist. To further add up, Balaji and Hughson (2013) argue that masculinity is a celebration of Indian nationalism. They argue that Bollywood presents the nation’s desire to construct a patriotic ideal that is corroborated through the male body. Taking into Butler’s (1988) Gender Performance, gender is seen as a construction. It is a repetition of acts that helps construct gender identity. Balaji and Hughson (2013) thus argue that Bollywood actually helps construct this Hindu ‘ideal’. However, the Hindu male is only at the expense of the Muslim Other. They cannot co-exist and it is, in fact, the Hindu nationalistic man who further permeates the ‘Othering’ of the Muslim male. In the same context, Madhavi (2009) while Hindu nationalism is linked to duty and service, “Muslim masculinity is linked to Islam which is seen as an ideology […]”. Islam is not depicted as a faith but an ideology that compels Muslim males to be violent terrorists.

The Hindu male is sharply contrasted with the Muslim male who is, in turn, encouraged to destroy and kill in the name of nationalism unlike the Hindu man who works for his country. Good and Bad Muslims. Despite the fact that Muslims in Hindi cinema are mostly “Othered”, Bollywood tends to classify Muslims as either good or bad. According to Hirji (2010), this dichotomy of the Good and Bad Muslim can be seen in Veer-Zaara (Chopra, 2004). However, Hirji (2010) further shows that this idea of the Good Muslim is not as it appears to be. The Good Muslim is the one who places India first and strives for its betterment. Mamdani (2014) argues that Muslims only have to abide to culture. They have no history, no politics and no identity of their own. They only tend to be defined within the context of Hindu nationalism. Mamdani (2014) further denotes that “[…] if there are good and bad Muslims, there are good and bad Westeners too.” However, he concludes that it is not at all the same as Islam is perceived differently. Conclusion In Veer-Zaara (Chopra, 2004), the main focus appears to be the cross-border love between Veer and Zaara. However, throughout the film, the dichotomy of the good and the muslim is perpetuated vis à vis the Hindu male protagonist, who is also the nationlistic ‘ideal’. In this process, Muslim women are mostly portrayed as positive characters who help the Hindu protagonist whereas the man is negatively portrayed

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How Muslims Are Represented in the Context of Hindi Cinema. (2022, Jan 31). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/how-muslims-are-represented-in-the-context-of-hindi-cinema/

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