“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.
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.”
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?
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.”
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.
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.