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Do We Recognize Bollywood’s Affair with Islamophobia?

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“It’s the ones who smile at you while they’re plotting in the dark that I’ve learned to worry about.” ― Ausma Zehanat Khan, A Deadly Divide

Indian cinema has witnessed the rise of Islamophobia concerning the intersections of misogyny, oppression, ethnocentrism, patriarchy, sexism, etc. It makes it unbearable, one of the hardest things about being Muslim or Muslim women in today’s scenario. The various themes ranging from romance to thriller in Bollywood somehow paves the way of being engaged with Islamophobia and their never-ending absurd love affair with Islamophobia. A token of love, hate, blunt, unengaged, and most selling blockbuster by Indian film industries is glorifying and appreciated by many people.

Representational Image.

Bollywood is used as a tool to dehumanize Muslims and religious minorities to prevent them from the offense of being public with their faith. In this long-running hypocrisy, one gets nationalist affirmation after labeling Muslims as bigot perpetrators of indoctrination and radicalization.

The blood of Islamophobia is running in the veins of Media and Bollywood is unlikely to heal in the history of Indian cinema as an Anti-Muslim Agenda requires sense, consciousness, and inclusiveness from every aspect.

How Does The Representation Of Muslims In Bollywood Seem Absurd And Reflect A Partial Truth?

Well, close your eyes and memorize how Muslims look- the Kurta Pajama, beard, devilish gaze- weirder than the male gaze, which I prefer to call hyper-Insensitive gaze. It transcends all boundaries of speculations that will confuse us if we allow ourselves to look beyond definite configurations of masculinities. Later, we see how Muslims eat? Look at their meat-eating style (chicken legs in both hands and broader teeth) monstrous, and Kohl-ed eyes are following the pattern of portraying orient by the Occident. We are still trying to change the narratives of multiple discourses written by Occident and revisiting the fields to question the legacy of Britishers on Indian civilization. But do we achieve that goal or just brushing the dust for a while?

Creating so imperfect Bollywood standards for the Muslim characters has far-reaching implications on Indian society. The ongoing propaganda revolves around terrorists, jihadis, conquerors, outsiders, and invaders- intentionally created through discourses. Knowledge is produced and circulated through the legitimacy generated by knowledge production called power. It has been channelizing with multiple communication mediums till now. Hindi cinema portrayed an image of a “Muslim Other, “for centuries. Bollywood has been working on the psychological aspect of the masses through its conscious and unconscious biases, allotting Muslims as terrorists, Naxals, and villains killed by heroes in the end.

Nandita Das explained that conventional cinema shows different representations of Muslims based on the popular perception of the community. Over the years, Islamophobia and the marginalization of Muslims have influenced the decisions of producers and directors to exclude and portray Muslim characters.

The mood and scenario of Indian cinema are quite influenced by the political atmosphere of the country. Now, nationalism has become a commodity in the commercialization process through advertisements and movies. Hence, Islamophobia is a result of it. How can you justify it? Well, films like Phantom, Anwar, and Firaaq are lines of communal riots. But there is a trend in historical films by twisting misrepresenting history with negative prejudices, personifications where the enemy is born in the Muslim family, and the protagonist glorified among Hindus. How can it be a rare coincidence?

Representational Image

A personification of Islamophobia in film production is still relevant on which Neeraj Ghaywan also points out the production design or the color palette works differently while depicting Muslims. It is mostly black and low light with a demonizing effect. But when you bring up the other side, it’s all flowers and bright lights and etched at eye level.”

What’s The Representation Of Muslim Women In Bollywood?

The representation of Muslim women in Indian cinema is either diminished or stereotyped in the social-cultural paradigm. It focuses on women’s partial identity; it began from the 1970s to the 21st Century. The race of Bollywood is perpetuating the norms even though it has been changed.

Did you ever think and want to look back in time to see the representation of Muslim women?

Let me take you back to the 1970s by exploring the most common representations of women in the form of a tawaif (courtesan or dancing girl). The most famous films such as Mughal-e-Azam and Umrao Jaan are such perfect examples. Muslim women are dressed in glorious dresses, glittering, shimmering in gold, excited to be like that poured in luxury glorifies the characters of Anarkali (played by Madhubala) and the character of Umrao Jaan (played by Rekha). A sexualized representation of women to entertain nawabs out of choice because of lack of a proper family and economic stability. A necessity to maintain chastity without any conscious sexual feelings is ironic.

Contrary, a silent Muslim woman is represented in the film Veer Zara as a subservient and oppressed. Yes, a perfect example of compromising one who had lost her agency in the meanwhile in her love life. The pattern continues in movies like Fiza, Mission Kashmir, and more contemporary films like Raanjhanaa. In these movies, the Muslim women characters have been flat, representing parts of the whole. It is unimaginable to think of any Muslim woman character exploring self, agency, and conscious sexuality with political identities in the Indian cinema. The holistic representations, the character’s articulation is missing and untouched even till now.

The criticism is not ending here at all. I want to highlight some serious issues with the Film “Padmaavat.” The representation and otherization of Muslims begin with subtle juxtapositions of the “good Hindu king” against the “barbaric Muslim other.” In Padmavat Sultan Alauddin Khilji portrayed opposite to Raja Ratansen; reinforced “Muslim other,” and “good Hindu.” A desire to win Padmavati is contradictory because both men desire her beauty- portrayed differently due to its frank affair with Islamophobia.

In the first scene, Khilji cheats on his bride on their wedding night. He represented unstable, wild beast, irrational, barbarian who didn’t know how to chew meat and drink in the same way Indians were treated by Britishers and portrayed in their discourses as barbaric, uncivilized, and illiterate.

Representational image. Ranveer Singh as Alauddin Khilji in Padmaavat.

On the other hand, the veil is symbolic and has religious significance for Muslims. The veil or Abaya is used to conceal the identity of criminals or fraudsters in Indian films. The Film “Secret Superstar’’ showed a very rosy picture of a veiled woman doing everything. But in reality, the veiled woman is either taunted or harassed by the masses and liberals of being oppressed.

Indian cinema reflects shades of ideology, perspectives, and consciousness on harsh prejudices that rely on the principles of monoculturalism and exclusivism while portraying Muslims as terrorists, religious extremists, Pakistani loyals, anti-nationals, and a traitor.”

Therefore, Bollywood plays a very influential role in producing myths, prejudices, and stereotypes about Indian Muslims. It has been perpetuated by political articulation and hegemonic narratives for centuries.

The book “Indian Muslims After Liberalisation” by Prof. Maidul Islam highlighted a dominant trend of Muslim representation in Bollywood that has changed due to liberalization. He asserted the four key dominant themes of Muslims in Hindi films in the 1900s that how Muslims are portrayed ‘Muslim Other’ as an enemy of the nation; (b) an imaginary notion of a “Hindu-used nation” where Muslims are relegating to a lower citizenship status; (c) Muslims as a source of terror within the nation-state; and (d) a conflation of Muslim, terrorist and Pakistani. There is no representation of Muslims as protagonists in the top 12 Bollywood movies that crossed 300-crore except Sultan and 3 Idiots. The other 10 films didn’t even have a single Muslim representation or character.

A new shift in Indian cinema and the rage of Islamophobia is also reflected in Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, a 2019 biopic of Rani Lakshmi Bai. It revolves around right-wing political agenda, religious configuration, symbols, worship, and cow protection by claiming to applaud India as a Hindu Rashtra.

Here I conclude that Indian cinema, Bollywood, Hindi films constantly dehumanize and differentiate Muslims in their adherence to the principle of monoculturalism. It perpetuates prejudices, stigma, and myths supported by the masses. Their attachment to culture, history, and politics is not questioned by mainstream cinema but instead focuses on crowd-pleasing content that appeases contemporary majority mobilizations.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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