Hindi films are increasingly targeting the Muslim community to promote the now-in-the-open Hindutva agenda as India goes to the Lok Sabha polls in 2024
Mohammed Abdul Mannan | Clarion India
After occasionally churning out movies with scripts and scenes demeaning and diabolising Muslims — and Islam — for over five decades, several Indian films, especially in the Hindi language, are hitting the screens with their storylines, characters and dialogues promoting Hindutva agenda of Islamophobia, ramping up hate against the largest minority community, twisting established history to show the Hindu supremacy and going all out in promoting the right-wing politics and bigotry.
After the controversies-laden The Kashmir Files and The Kerala Story, next to hit the screens is 72 Hoorain next month. Up to 20 movies with socially-shattering themes are set to be in cinema halls before the country goes to parliamentary polls in 24 with the rightwing Narendra Modi-led BJP government keen to govern the world’s populous nation for a third tenure.
The film industry is witnessing arguably unjustified and polarising twists and turns in their storylines with increasing intensity for the first time since the first full-length ‘silent’ film, Raja Harishchandra, by Dadasaheb Phalke was released in 1913. By the time the first ‘talkie’ film hit the screens in 1931, India had been producing more than 100 films a year. A decade after India’s independence, it was a Muslim whose social issues-themed film Mother India became the first Indian film to be nominated for the Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film category.
Over the next four decades, Hindi films freely mixed the genres of romance, melodrama, comedy, and violent crimes that explored the seedy underbelly of society. By the 1980s, around 800 films were being produced annually, making Bollywood the world’s largest film industry. In the 1990s, the film industry witnessed massive expansion as India underwent economic liberalisation. Film production budgets increased, and movies often had lavish sets and scenic international locations.
Now, India produces the most number of films in the world, at between 1,500 and 2,000 every year in over 20 regional languages — far above the 700-odd films made in the US and Canada annually. The film industry has been a powerhouse for years now with people buying the highest number of cinema tickets and India has the second-largest screen count. India had more cinema-goers than the United States, China and Japan combined. The country has around 31.52 lakh seats in around 8,700 screens. Of this, four southern states have around 4,150 screens with a seating capacity of 18.16 lakh. Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala have a share of nearly 47.78 per cent in terms of screens, and 57.61 per cent in terms of seating capacity. Among the cities, Chennai has more than 230 screens followed by Hyderabad with over 200 screens. India had nine screens per million population in 2019, compared to the US and Canada at 125 per million population. India is also the global leader in terms of linguistic diversity in feature films. Interestingly, less than 17 per cent of the films were produced in each of the top four languages (Tamil, Telugu, Hindi and Malayalam).
Historically speaking, to-date India had produced approximately a total of 73,830 films in Hindi and 18-plus regional languages. According to IMDb (Internet Movie Database), the total number of Hindi movies released till now alone stands at 10,285. After Hindi, films in Bengali, Tamil, Kannada, Marathi, Malayalam, Assamese and Telugu dominate the scene. Hindi cinema did not have a great 2022, but it was better than 2021. Bollywood saw a net box office of Rs 510 crores in 2021 but in 2022, the net total rose to Rs 2,000 crores as the industry saw around 50 major films being released. The total number of films released in India in 2021 stood at 800 and in 2022, the South film industry – comprising four languages – released as many as that number. The total number of films that were released in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada (not dubbed) in 2022 was an astounding 875, a remarkable number in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic delaying projects and shootings by several filmmakers.
In 2022, there were 165 theatrical Malayalam movie releases. If one adds on OTT (over-the-top) film releases as well, then the number could be as high as 235. A record 875 films came from the Southern film industry in 2022. For Bollywood came five blockbusters, two hits and 39 flops – 2022 had been the worst year in its history. Not long ago, the opening of a new film by a famous star was once an almost national event that would get greeted by weeks of fanfare, long queues outside cinemas, and halls packed to the rafters with audiences cheering and singing along. After the committed cinema-going crowds were confined to their homes due to the 21st century’s second pandemic restrictions, there had been a rise in the popularity of OTT platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hotstar, which are used by a quarter of India’s population. The multimillion-dollar Bollywood films, starring the most bankable stars and usually known to turn every film they touch into box office gold, have found themselves facing criticism for formulaic storylines and were largely shunned by the audience.
The failure of several films threw big Bollywood studios into a state of disarray. There were exceptions. RRR, a Telugu epic film about two revolutionaries fighting the British Raj, broke the record for the highest opening-day earnings for any Indian film and was the third highest-grossing Indian film of all time, taking about US$160 million worldwide. KGF: 2, a Kannada period action film, also had a roaring business. Vikram, a Tamil thriller, performed better than almost all big Bollywood releases. Overall, films from south India took in 50 per cent of the share of box office profits, an unprecedented change from previous years.
The Kashmir Files is a Hindi-language film that centres on a fictional retelling of the 1990 exodus of Hindus from the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir. The film was accused of politicised historical revision and Islamophobia and was endorsed by Hindu nationalists, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi. More recently, Brahmāstra, a Bollywood fantasy action film drawn from stories from Hindu mythology, had been a hit. Against the backdrop of the current political climate in India, with the rise of Hindutva chauvinism and escalating oppression against Muslims, concerns have been raised at what they called the “Hinduisation” of Bollywood.
Aakshi Magazine, a film critic, says that given cinema’s influence over Indian society it was concerning that overtly Hindu iconography and imagery are now being utilised as a tool by Bollywood to draw in audiences. Bollywood has long been viewed with suspicion by the Hindu right-wingers, who have in recent times attacked the biggest Muslim stars, including a boycott on Aamir Khan’s film Laal Singh Chaddha, accusing him of being “anti-Hindu”, after which it tanked at the box office. With Bollywood floundering and looking for ways to win back audiences, a Hinduised Bollywood is on its way to undermining its long history of being seen as largely secular and religiously inclusive. “If this film, with all its excessive religiosity, is a success, I’m sure many others will follow,” she says. Film producers are doing this to please the domestic crowds as the domestic box office collections account for 74 per cent of the industry revenues. The Hindi film industry dominates the business accounting for 43 per cent of all revenues, while regional (50 per cent) and international films (seven per cent) account for the balance. Tamil and Telugu movies account for 19 and 17 per cent of the total revenues, respectively. In the last decade, movies have been raking in over Rs 100 crore in box office revenues. There were six such movies in 2014 and 2015, followed by five in 2015. In 2013 and 2015, two movies earned over Rs 200 crore, while it was three in 2014. There were six such movies in 2014 and 2015, followed by five in 2015.
In Indian films, especially Hindi, the portrayal of characters from Islam and the Muslim community has always been slightly warped. Only a handful of them accommodates the Muslim narrative with honesty and proper research in place. Bollywood has in the past seen several brilliant films which have spoken about the Muslim experience, with Muslim characters shown not just as the kohl-eyed villain or the occasional tawaif or courtesan but in their entire humanity— their ways of living, their joys, sorrows and struggles. Now the theme is divisive and often nationalist-minded rhetoric in contemporary Bollywood movies. Several films have shown Muslims on screens as villainous and threatening, and Islamophobia in films has led to a larger, more negative, or stereotypical tone, and thereby dividing communities. The more common the stereotypical image is of them being ‘terrorist’ and ‘extremist’, reinforcing harmful prejudices to negatively affect the self-esteem and perception of Muslims.
Pathaan and Mission Majnu movies prove this point, as the latter hit Netflix charts with audiences, these primitive stereotypes are alive and well, and destructive to civilised conversations. Bollywood has been known to be more inclusive than Hollywood in terms of the representation of Muslim characters. There have been hardened instances where the dialogue has metastasised Islamophobia through a more frightening depiction of Muslim characters.
India is home to more than 200 million Muslims, yet Bollywood is still complicit in the depiction of its communities through characters that are terrorists or extremists in a lot of their projects. This depiction reinforces the stereotype that all Muslims are violent or dangerous and contribute to the demonisation of one of the religion’s largest populations. Kabul Express (2006), New York (2009) and Baby (2015) have each been criticised for their stereotypical picture of Muslim characters. Additionally, Muslim women in these films were also shown as oppressed or as victims of forced marriages. This, in turn, continues to fuel the narrative that all Muslim women are oppressed and that they are unable to make their own choices and decisions. Veer-Zara (2004) and Fanaa (2006) have also been criticised for their degrading portrayal of Muslim women through the romanticisation of Hindu characters often saving them as they are subservient and oppressed, often losing agency of their identity because of religion.
In the past few years, several Bollywood films have irked the Muslim community for being Islamophobic. In August 2022, Bollywood actor Annu Kapoor announced his upcoming film ‘Hum Do Hamare Baarah’ by dropping its first poster. From the poster, it can be made out that Annu, married three times, is playing the head of a Muslim family, and has 11 children, while the wife is expecting their twelfth child. The film is said to be a prejudiced commentary on the population explosion in India.
Sooryavanshi, the highest-grossing Hindi film of 2021, peddled the ‘Good Muslim vs Bad Muslim’ narrative which can prove to be problematic and dangerous. Furthermore, it was an attempt at “criminalising normal Muslim behaviour” and associating “things that a large number of Indian Muslims feel, say or do in their daily life” with terrorists. Tanhaji was termed ‘Islamophobic’ for its wrong portrayal of the Muslim rulers of India. Udaybhan, the general of Aurangzeb’s army, is depicted as a meat-eating and kohl-eyed villain. Padmaavat, a 2018 Indian period drama romance film is based on the sacrifice of Padmaavati, pursued by Sultan Alauddin Khilji, who had ransacked the kingdom of Chittor and killed Padmaavati’s husband. The film was termed Islamophobic too. According to critics, Khilji was shown as a Muslim ruler ‘who suppressed his wife, back-stabbed people, went after Hindu women, and devoured food like a beast’. Lipstick Under My Burkha showed the secret lives of four women, including two Muslims, who are in search of their freedom. The film mocked Islamic culture and nobody had the right to talk about a woman’s choice of wearing the burkha or veil negatively.
Khuda Haafiz: Chapter 2 – Agni Pariksha also came under fire for hurting the sentiments of the Shiites as it showed the community and the Muharram procession in a bad light by showing them as violent. Furthermore, they accused the filmmaker of mocking the religious ritual by showing violence. In Kalank, Muslims are the perpetrators of all violence, manipulation and wrongs, while Hindu characters are painted in gentle, pastel shades.
Experts have previously asserted that India is in the 8th stage of doing Muslim genocide, just one step away from extermination: Genocide Watch founder has shown how the majority of Hindus are successful in reaching stage 8th of 10 stages of genocide.
Famous actor Naseeruddin Shah says hate against Muslims has become ‘fashionable’, being ‘cleverly’ tapped into by the government. He hoped that the divisive religion card will one day ‘wear off’ but said that it is at its peak right now. He says it’s “worrying” how “undisguised propaganda” through art is being peddled to the masses, which is an alarming reflection of the current Islamophobic times.
The Economist magazine asks ‘Is Narendra Modi turning Bollywood against Muslims?’ in its report on The Kerala Story. It noted that ‘Bollywood has for the most part kept free of India’s scourge of Hindu-Muslim conflict. With its liberal values, Muslim stars and celebrity Hindu-Muslim marriages, the Hindi film industry has in some ways been a powerful antidote to it.’ Narendra Modi and BJP enthusiastically championed and promoted the film by claiming it had exposed “a new form of terrorism.”
Bollywood is known to be highly influenced by its vast political narratives, and the rise of right-wing politics in the country that has contributed to the rise of Islamophobia in society, reflected deeply in its movies. Pictures like Article 15 (2019) and Panga (2020) challenged the conventional depictions of Muslims. Indian movies over the years have used Muslim characters as tropes and stereotypes to perpetuate nationalist-minded agenda, objectifying the community and vilifying the religion. The Indian film industry has never truly attempted to portray Muslim characters three-dimensionally. Although there have been limited attempts by some film-makers to uphold secular principles and champion the message of communal harmony, only a handful of films have tried to show the everyday livelihood issues and the problems of poverty, deprivation, exclusion, unemployment, and illiteracy of Indian Muslims as noted by several empirical studies.
Tere Bin Laden (2010), Phantom (2015), Raazi (2018) and Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019) continue the tradition of painting Pakistan and its government as hostile and dangerous, and its people without necessary empathy. The use of Islam in these films is often employed as a device to paint Muslims in a negative light, by depicting the country as fundamentally opposed to India’s secular values and its supposed Hindu culture. Sooryvanshi (2021) was criticized by celebrated journalist Rana Ayub and deemed dangerous as the dialogue around the film’s grotesque success ‘contributes to the climate of hate and discrimination’ Muslims in India face every day.
The movie 72 Hoorain is the latest in the list of ‘propaganda films’ from the Hindi film industry this year. This is the third Hindi film in less than two years to claim that it focuses on the subject of Islamic extremism. Earlier two more films, The Kashmir Files and The Kerala Story were released with the same tagline. The schedule for the industry is so stacked that even before the long chain of debate shows on The Kerala Story could reach their climax, comes a new entry. The film focuses on how the myth of ‘72 virgins waiting for a martyr at the gates of Jannat’ is used by terrorists to brainwash young and ignorant Muslim minds and lead them to end their lives. ‘It is the newest movie to sacrifice facts at the altar of propaganda’, remarked Daily O, a publication from India Today Group.
Bollywood films are rapidly heading in the other direction with little regard for the damage it is inflicting on Muslims in their own country. Islamophobia has undoubtedly infected films. This is especially evident in productions about terrorism, espionage and wars. The Bhuj: The Pride of India includes rants about Mughal “outsiders” and a line that “spies don’t use attar”. This film came out after Toofan which is about a Muslim boxer who battles poor sporting form as well as religious bigotry. Writers Ira Bhaskar and Richard Allen in their book define “Islamicate cinema” as the “imagined history, social life and expressive idioms that are derived from and associated with Islamic culture and history”. There is an increasing representation of Muslims as criminals, gangsters and later as terrorists. It was as if the lid had blown off a simmering cauldron, a scholar noted.
The trend of stereotyping Muslims can be traced back to Mani Ratnam’s Roja (1992). The film betrayed a deliberate effort to follow and disseminate the prejudiced narrative about Kashmir and the Muslim community as a whole. The political psychologist Ashis Nandy argues that “popular cinema not merely shapes and is shaped by politics, it constitutes the language for a new form of politics” since its “focus is on the key concerns of some of the most articulate, vibrant and volatile sectors of the Indian electorate today”.
If one considers the top 12 Bollywood movies that crossed the Rs 300-crore mark in box office collections, except Sultan (rank 5, released in 2016 with a collection of Rs 584 crore collection) and 3 Idiots (rank 8, released in 2009 with Rs 392 crore collection), the other 10 films did not have a single Muslim protagonist based in India. The films with the third and fourth highest box office collections, PK (released in 2014 with a Rs 735.42 crore collection) and Bajrangi Bhaijaan (released in 2015 with a Rs 604.23 crore collection) do not show any prominent Muslim character as an Indian citizen, although the first half of Bajrangi Bhaijaan is set in Chandni Chowk, a religiously diverse locality in Delhi. Instead, both films show Muslims only as citizens of Pakistan and Hindus as citizens of India. Notably, Sushant Singh Rajput as Sarfaraz Yousaf in PK and all prominent Muslim characters in Bajrangi Bhaijaan are Pakistanis. This is the underlying communal bias of these Bollywood blockbusters.
Since 2016, the industry has produced several historical epics such as Bajirao Mastani, Padmaavat, Manikarnika, Panipat and Tanhaji. The recent wave of historical fiction in Bollywood highlights stories that have “never been seen before” but are just Hindutva versions of familiar histories. In their rhetoric and packaging, the Hindutva gloss on history is presented as a kind of exclusive scoop — sensationalist historiography for the masses, as it were. Bollywood’s consistent tendency to otherwise demonise Muslims is testimony to the fact that such prejudices, stigma and myths are endorsed by the broader audience watching this cinema. Rather than challenging mainstream misconceptions, Bollywood’s engagement with culture, history and politics is exclusively focused on producing crowd-pleasing content that appeases contemporary majoritarian mobilizations.
A study illustrates a content analysis of 50 movies, aimed to investigate the slant picture that was portrayed of Muslims in Bollywood movies. The findings indicate that an overwhelming number of movies had an ‘unfavourable’ representation of Muslims (65.2 per cent) while 30.4 per cent of Muslim portrayals were rather ‘neutral’. The remaining 4.4 per cent show a ‘favourable’ image of Muslims. About ten parameters were considered for rating the Muslim image including dress, motivation, profession, and patriotism among others.
The study also mentioned that there was a significant shift in the portrayal of Muslims in Bollywood, from movies in which they are portrayed as emperors and Mughals (Mughal e Azam, Taj Mahal and Razia Sultan), to the Jihadis in the late 1980s and 1990s (Roja, Mission Kashmir, Fiza and Fana) and Muslims as present global terrorists (Kurbaan and Vishwaroopam). Hindi films have waved the saffron flag – literally. Medieval sagas, sometimes based on fiction and myth, have turned into epic battles where valorous Hindu kings defeat crude and cruel Muslim marauders on the screen. The virtuous kings declaim their Hindu credentials loudly and often – they are fighting for the religion. It ties in well with the new hyper-nationalist, Hindutva agenda of the ruling government.
But now, one film has gone where none has gone before. A print ad for the new film, Samrat Prithviraj, proudly announces: “Come Celebrate India’s Last Hindu Samrat.” The film tells us the story of Prithviraj Chauhan, who ruled in present-day Rajasthan and Delhi in the 12th century and who finally lost to and was captured by Mohammed Ghori after defeating him several times. While the films perpetuate such Islamophobia, millions of Muslims in India languish in silence. Films like these create public perceptions and an atmosphere of distrust in society, and the relentless jingoism manifests itself in places where Hindu radicals openly call for ethnic cleansing.
Nandita Das, actor and filmmaker says in an article, “Mainstream cinema shows different portrayals of Muslims, based on popular perceptions of the community. Over the years, Islamophobia and the marginalisation of Muslims have impacted producers’ and directors’ choices in excluding and representing Muslim characters.” Whether it’s trigger-happy terrorists hijacking planes full of bewildered people or the distinct, deep black kajal and white skull caps worn by sinister Muslim gangsters – the temptation to typecast a Muslim character as a villain is irresistible, quite simply because the immense fear of Muslims is already so prevalent in society. Influential American publication, The Atlantic, noted in a June 2021 article that “Bollywood films have always celebrated a pluralistic India, making the industry— and its Muslim elite — a prime target for Narendra Modi.” It noted that “Bollywood has been central to the creation of India’s national myth. Its movies are full of dance and song, but their genius lies in the ability to weave serious issues — social justice, women’s rights, gay rights, interreligious marriage — into entertainment. Bollywood films are at once commercial and political. They epitomise the pluralism of India. And in today’s political climate, that makes them a target.”
The trailer of the most awaited action-packed, Rs 500 crore movie Adipurush is out now. Based on the epic of Lord Rama, it is releasing in mid-June. Days after the teaser’s release, a call has gone out for the boycott of the film with people tweeting ‘Adipurush a disgrace to Ramayan and Indian culture.’ A section of people said the film misrepresents Ramayan. Its producers have announced they will ‘book one seat in every theatre for Lord Hanuman’, a decision that too attracted comments saying that they know how to make money using emotions’. People have been calling it ‘Islamisation of Ramayan’ and ‘Ravan looks like Aurangzeb’. The role of Ravan is played by Saif Ali Khan. The News Minute says in a report that ‘blockbuster films are aiding the Hindutva nationalism project and the fact that films promoting a certain narrative are becoming money-spinners is a huge encouragement for filmmakers to persist with the trend.’
Interestingly, the mega budget film is coming out as the Ram temple in Ayodhya is expected to be inaugurated this year. The temple has been the dream project of RSS for decades now and has had a constant presence in the BJP’s manifesto. A Facebook reader commented ‘now propaganda movies are the last weapons of BJP to survive.’ Looks like no film on any community is safe from criticism and controversies in the time of hate and division that we live in. In 1961’s Dharmaputra movie, a Hindu nationalist seared with hate against Muslims in the post-partition days discovers he was born a Muslim. The timeless film has a strong secular voice and there are quite several scenes with conflict around religion, culture and identity – and mind-numbing political discourse that is still happening now in India. “Dharm kya aadmi se bada hai?” asks the Hindu mother who adopted the Muslim kid. It is a question that all of us need to answer now.
Mohammed Abdul Mannan is a senior journalist, writer and author of ten books.