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Muslim identity formation in india through the bollywood political culture

From the beginning of the 20th Century, films have been treated as one of the leading parameters of cultural and sociological expression throughout the world. It is not difficult to imagine and experience the effects of films in various aspects of societies – cultural, sociological, psychic and political. Within such a broad perspective, the Hindi mainstream cinema (Bollywood cinema) in India, undoubtedly, has a tremendous influence on the everyday life of the Indian psychology, more among the urban population than the rural.


Literature on the history of Indian cinema can be traced back from the 1920s. During this period, writers paint an industry constrained by colonial rule in its infancy. Colonial censorship was strict because the British understood the influence of cinema. Films which criticized British rule in India were banned. Compared with the colonial period the passage became easier after independence but not altogether smooth. Finance, technology, and a Victorian censor board comprised formidable problems. On top of this were political, social and religious considerations of making films in a fractured and volatile society. The observers claimed, during this period as also in the later decades, that the Hindi film industry is a melting pot of cultures and an example of Indian ‘secularism’. But Hindi cinema is neither politically innocent nor conveys an unequivocal secularism. Its ‘social’ film is predicated upon the politics of inequality and escapism. This paper would look at the (mis) representation of the Muslims in Hindi/Bollywood mainstream cinema as an example of such inequality.




Since the early 1920s the Bollywood cinema industry had been producing films with Muslim characters with a number of productions like RS Choudhury’s Anarkali (1928), Noorjehan (1923, Madan Theatres), Humayun by Mehboob Khan (1945), and Shahjahan by A R Kardar (1946). This trend continued into the 1950s with production of films like Baiju Bawra by Vijay Bhatt (1952), Mumtaz Mahal and Nandlal Jaswantlal’s Anarkali (1953). But all these films treaded on themes taken majorly from a historical past which was not the realistic scenario of those times. The above-mentioned films were about the zenith of the Mughal regality and not about the conditions of the Muslims immediately prior to, and at the wake of, the Independence and division of India, with the birth of Pakistan.


In the 1950s and 1960s, Hindi films defined the mainstream and colonized the religious minority. Muslim characters dominated the historical and the Muslim Social. In these socials Barsaat ki Raat (1960), Mere Mehboob (1963), Ghazal(1975), Mere Huzoor (1968), Mehboob ki Mehendi (1971), Pakeezah (1972), Bahu Begam (1967), Chaudvin ka Chand(1960) etc., a stereotyped Muslim ambience was presented. These films, with excellent music, songs and ‘mushairaa’, essentialised Muslims as feudal, and, by implication, anti-modern. Muslims in them were invariably cultivated Hindustanis. These films are temporally difficult to locate though their scenes refer to an urban Hindustani culture which declined rapidly after independence. In general, the Muslim socials were non-political and thus conveniently avoided the identity crisis of the Muslims.


Much of Hindi cinema during the 1970s and the 1980s remained anchored to Nehruvian India. As we can notice that with the onset of the 1970s Hindi cinema, the Muslim characters had already started taking a backseat, the Zohra Bai of Muqaddar ka Sikandar (1978) and Rahim Chacha in Sholay (1975), can be cited as the best examples.


Since the early 1990s – coinciding with the Kashmir rebellion, the destruction of the Babri Masjid and its fallout – a transition has taken place in the portrayal of the Muslims. In the cinema and television of the 1990s, the Muslim ‘terrorist’ has increasingly appeared as a threat to India in keeping with the changing political climate and discourse of the country, Roja being the most accepted film of this genre. This film was amongst the first to show a symbiotic relation between Kashmir, Pakistan and Muslims. Probably the increasing marginalization of the Indian Muslims in the 1970s and 1980s underpinned the phenomenon. Films like Maa Tujhe Salaam (2002), Pukar (2000), Ghulam-e-Mustafa(1997), and Mission Kashmir (2000) holding signature of such cinematic narratives.


Bollywood portrayal of the Pakistani ‘Other’ augments its pan-sub continental distorted imagery of the Muslims. Either they are always shown as ‘terrorists’, trying to blow up the ‘basis’ of Indian ‘democracy’; and as a reason, films show such characters, influenced by ‘jealousy’ towards India – Sarfarosh (1999) being the greatest hit of this genre. Other films of this category can be Border (1997) and LOC (2003). This genre established the ‘outside’ threat perception as the root cause of Indian nationalism under threat without any scope of introspection or problem-detection from within. In certain recent films like Gadr – Ek Prem Katha (2001) and Veer-Zaara(2004), cross-border ‘love story’ have been attempted, and they ran brisk business. But the success of both the films rested on the fact that the female lead characters were Muslims and Pakistanis. Thus, the Sikh and the Hindu protagonists respectively, winning over the ‘Muslim’ and ‘Pakistani’ women, was accepted well by the audience as a reiteration of ‘triumph’ of ‘Indian’ nationalist ‘superiority’ over Pakistan. The fact that all these films were made during the whole decade of the 1990s and till early part of the second millennium, which is known as the highest point of Hindutva politics in India, shows the political and cultural connivance in Indian popular culture.


Post 9/11 has internationally produced a complete thematic shift in the portrayal of Muslims from around the world. Bollywood, expectedly, has not been an exception. But recently, the urbane playboy Muslim ‘terrorist’ has also made an appearance in films like Fanaa (2006), thereby sociologically broadening the definition of Islamic terrorism. Fanaashows clearly that the boy next door who looks like you, dressed in designer jeans, could be a dangerous ‘terrorist’ with ambiguous political loyalties. Even before that, in 2000, the film Fiza portrayed a Muslim boy from Mumbai taking to “Jihad” after the post-Babri communal riots in Mumbai. The female characters in both films – Fiza as the sister to Amaan, the artist-turned-terrorist in Fiza; and Zooni the lover of Rehaan, the terrorist from Kashmir – were shown as extremely submissive and subjugated by the male protagonists. If we carefully follow the significance of the cinematic language imbibed in these films, it is problematic as they portray secular-nationalist Muslim women with a soft attachment for the ‘Muslim terrorist’.


The two of more recent films, post-September 11 genre, Aamir (2008) and A Wednesday (2008) have shown a disturbing trend – civilians losing both faith and zeal over the administration and state security system, and in turn, taking up the law in their hands in a desperate attempt to recover their lives from the heinous threat of ‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorists’, without suffering any punishment in the end. This is a very dangerous propagation as it legitimizes an individual’s violation of civil laws rather than strengthening the democratic process of expression of protest.


Thus we can fairly establish that Muslim portrayal in commercial Hindi cinema has been communal. Films like Garam Hawa(1973) highlighting the dilemma of Indian Muslims are rare. The mention of the film Dharmaputra (foster-son, 1961, BR Chopra) can be made. It is a film on Hindu-Muslim relations during the time of Partition. So are the films likeNikaah (1982), which militate against Islamic patriarchy where Muslim males divorcing their wives at will, just by pronouncing the word ‘talaq’ three times, leaving their spouses in helpless situations. Another film, Bazaar (1983), rightly portrayed the real issue of Indian Muslim families arranging marriages for their very young daughters with very old men who had made fortunes in the Gulf countries. This film was a much sympathetic take on the economic plight, and gender discrimination ensuing from that, amongst the Muslims of India.


As examples of exception, Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s two major films Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989) and Naseem (1995) can be mentioned. Salim Langde…..was a film about a working class family in Bombay (now, Mumbai), living in a downtown neighborhood, replete with organized crimes. The film Naseem was quite different from the previous film. It characterized the silence of the Muslims as also its nostalgia for a lost past, in the pretext of a turbulent period of communal tensions – the destruction of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, by the Hindu political fanatics, and the consequent communal riots across the length and breadth of India.  Another exceptional film during this time wasBombay (1995), which highlighted the necessity of Hindu-Muslim harmony in the changing face of the country, through the portrayal of marriage between a Muslim woman and a Hindu man.


The list of such exceptional films during the recent times is not at all dismal. The film Dev (2004), by Govind Nihalani, showed the complex relation of majority and minority communal chauvinism, which feed into each other, as also police excesses, suspicious socio-political ambiences and communal tensions in Mumbai. The film ends with an exceptional optimism as Farhaan, the ‘Jihadi terrorist’ transforms himself into a secular Muslim and practices law in court.


Pooja Bhatt’s Dhoka (2007) sets itself apart even within the exceptional bracket. The film is about a police officer, named Zaid, whose wife Sara becomes a ‘jihadi’ suicide bomber. The film never takes sides as far as tainting a particular religious community, responsible for terrorism, is concerned. It rather condemns those who spread terror in the name of religion and categorically rejects terror.


Nagesh Kukunoor’s two films, Iqbal (2005) and Dor (2006), portray many features absolutely contrary to the popular beliefs. Iqbal is a character who is infected with the desire of playing for the Indian national cricket team, and finally accomplishes his dream. It’s a success story of a rural, poverty-stricken, physically challenged Muslim boy, winning his battle against all odds. The protagonist’s religion never plays a vital role in the development of the narrative of this film, which can be considered as a vital breakaway from any previous film entailing a Muslim character. The film Dorportrays the story of two women – Meera and Zeenat. This film shows the character of Zeenat in a positive light – an idependent and brave woman who has lived her life in her own terms, married for love, and is ready to go to any extent to save her husband’s life. This film breaks the stereotype of the purdah system as an inherent part of Islam and showed that it can be equally found as an effective tool of patriarchy in a conservative Hindu Rajput family of Rajasthan, who makes the life of the newly-widowed Meera a living hell with such strictures.





It is well within the scope of critical argument that more often than not the mainstream Hindi films have misrepresented and also misinterpreted the Muslim protagonists/characters in a negative light – as terrorists, anti-nationals, anti-socials, non-modern and feudal. Although there have been some attempts to show Muslim lives in India in a realistic way, the general trend of film-making lacks integrity and sincerity to show the day to day misdemeanor of Muslims in India – in the form of poverty, deprivation, exclusion, illiteracy and unemployment.


The standardized imageries of Muslim characters – the bearded men with rosaries, the Arab scarves donned by ‘Muslim terrorists’, the hijab, the topi and the burqa – shown in popular Hindi films have harmed the Muslim identity in the public domain, rather than adding to the distinctiveness of the Indian Muslims. In this context the Hindi films’ overdrives to establish the Muslim ‘otherness’ through such stipulated definitions is no short than a religious – cultural savagery, that keeps the cash registers ringing, as these are what the audiences want to be catered with, repeatedly.


To say that cinema in India is mere escapist entertainment would be an understatement. To say that it is passion bordering on hysteria would not be an absurd hyperbole. In a country like India any attempt at crazed cine-patriotism cannot be merely debilitating but also insulting to a rich tradition of heterodoxy and secularism that informs our culture. The only way out seems to be a Brechtian detachment in watching movies, and inner filter that removes all prejudices.




1.     Hjort, Mette, and Scott Mackenzie, Cinema and Nation, Routledge, 2000

2.     Barta, Tony, Screening the Past: Film and Representation of History, Praeger, 1998

3.     Miles, Margaret R., Seeing and Believing: Religion and Values in the Movies, Beacon Press, 1996

4.     Babb, Lawrence A., and Susan Wadley, Media and Transformation of Religion in South Asia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995

5.     Virdi, Jyotika, The Cinematic Imagination (Sic): Indian Popular Films as Social History, Rutgers University Press, 2003

6.     Parfitt, Tudor, and Yulia Egorova, Jews, Muslims and Mass Media: Mediating the ‘Other’, Routledge Curzon, 2003

7.     Badaracco, Claire Hoertz, Quoting God: How Media Shape Ideas About Religion and Culture, Baylor University Press, 2005

8.     Norris, Pippa, Montague Kern, and Marion Just, Framing Terrorism: The News Media, the Government and the Public, Routledge, 2003

9.     Veer, Peter Van Der, and Shoma Munshi, Media, War and Terrorism: Responses from the Middle East and Asia, Routledge, 2004

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