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In representations of terror, Bollywood finds nuance

Roshni Sengupta, a doctoral candidate at the School of Social Sciences, JNU, talks to Nidhi Gupta about how the portrayal of the Muslim terrorist in Hindi cinema has evolved over the years.

NIDHI GUPTA  5th Jan 2013

(Clockwise from top) Stills from A Wednesday, Kurbaan, Fanaa and New York

. What made you choose this topic to study?

A. I had completed an MPhil thesis on the coverage of the 2002 Gujarat riots by the vernacular press in that state and wanted to stay with studying the media, albeit a different form—cinema. Further, the rather vast scope that cinema provides for research is unmatched. The question of representation in media bothered me through my MPhil days, becoming more problematic and complicated as I started working on cinema and the representation of marginalized groups, in this case Muslims

The initial hypothesis that I started with has been falsified for two particular reasons. First, the content analysis of fifty films that my study is based on revealed certain strands and trends in terms of representation in cinema that would fill the gap in the realm of existing knowledge in this subject. Second, research has shown that the current scholar's obsession with the "negative" portrayal of the Muslim is slightly misplaced and overemphasized in no small measure.

Q. How do you think the Muslim has been depicted in mainstream Hindi cinema over the years? Have there been any changes and how?

A. Lyricist and poet Javed Akhtar once explained that Hindi cinema is a reflection and a chronicle of India's history and I would not aver from this assertion for even a moment. A cursory glance at the 100 years of Indian cinema would bring forth the fact that all major series of events and situations have been reflected and represented on celluloid. From the angst of the rising middle classes embodied on screen in the towering personality of Amitabh Bachchan, to the crisis of identity in Kashmir epitomized by early films such as Mani Ratnam's Roja and more recently in Rahul Dholakia's Lamhaa, Indian cinema has provided a ready canvas for conscientious filmmakers (and otherwise) to project or represent their perspective on screen. A number of commercial filmmakers and film producers, especially in the last few years, have brought to the fore issues like terrorism that one would normally not associate them with. This does not however absolve the film industry, particularly Bollywood from the charge of trivializing to the extent possible extremely sensitive issues.

Q. What movies in the recent past have addressed the question of terrorism?

A. Beginning from Roja in 1991 which dealt with insurgency in Kashmir, to the post-Babri period films such as Sarfarosh, Fiza, Mission Kashmir, Fanaa, Yahaan, A Wednesday, have all focussed on the issue of terrorism but stayed within the geographic boundary of the subcontinent, since in a great number of these films, Pakistan is represented as the enemy trying to foment violence and communal hatred in India. The terrorists in most of these films, particularly Fiza and Mission Kashmir, metamorphose into dangerous terror masterminds from innocent young lads faced by or caught in adverse situations such as a riot or rights violations by the Indian forces in Kashmir. September 11 then changed the equation and you had films such as New York and Kurbaan (preceded by the Pakistani sleeper hit Khuda Kay Liye based on a similar theme—America's war on terror and its fallout) being helmed by mainstream filmmakers. Both films were based out of the United States and while Kurbaan provided a succinct commentary on the reasons behind the making of a terrorist, New York pointed towards prison abuse in the aftermath of 9/11 as the cause for the transformation of an innocuous young man into a terrorist keen on retribution and revenge.

The terrorists in most of the post-Babri period films, particularly ‘Fiza’ and ‘Mission Kashmir’, metamorphose into dangerous terror masterminds from innocent young lads faced by adverse situations. September 11 then changed the equation and you had films such as ‘New York’ and ‘Kurbaan’ being helmed by mainstream filmmakers.

Q. How are these different from the 90s/early 2000s brand of films such as Fiza and Sarfarosh?

A. I separate the rather large time period into two sub-periods for the purpose of research—the post-Babri Masjid period where the on-screen communalization of the Muslim is a key issue and the post-September 11 period. While Fiza revealed a sympathetic appraisal of the terrorist where the only marker of Amaan being a Muslim was his name, Sarfarosh in its narrative strictly adhered to the formula of representing Pakistan as the chief antagonist. On the other hand, films like Black Friday portrayed an unabashed Tiger Memon seething with the thirst for revenge channelized through religious indoctrination of young Muslim men, themselves vulnerable after the Mumbai riots of 1992-93. A Wednesday, in a break from tradition, does not reveal the identity of the main antagonist, representing him finally as a hero who rids the world of "dangerous criminals" (read terrorists).

Q. You feel that Kurbaan and New York, as opposed to popular critical belief, have engaged with the subject of terrorism more deeply than is evident. How do you support this argument?

A. Both the films, Kurbaan particularly, engages in whatever detail is possible within the confines of time and commercial production values, with debate—perhaps for the first time in commercial Hindi cinema on the impact of America's war on terror on common, faceless Muslims across the globe. It disentangles, however briefly, the angst pervading the current generation of American Muslims with regard to the unashamed invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The film, through a keenly structured narrative, places all sides of fundamentalism on the table, although the question of the rights of Muslim women and the issue of hijab is alluded to briefly but not discussed at any great length. On the other hand my issue with New York is that the microscopic nature of the terrorist's revenge which focuses only on the FBI as they were his chief tormentors, again falls into the trap of trivialization, although the engagement with the issue of prisoner abuse and torture in American detention centres is vocal.

Q. Do you feel that any cinematic portrayal of the terrorist or dealing with the issue arising from the Indian subcontinent has done a fair? How does it compare with Hollywood portrayals?

A. Despite its many failings, Hindi cinema's portrayals of terror, and its aftermath as well as fundamentalism have been way more nuanced than Hollywood representations. Films like 300, Traitor, Black Hawk Down, The Hurt Locker, and so on give us reason to believe that not only do a large number of Hollywood films disregard historical authenticity; they indulge in outright slander and debasement of communities and religious groups.

Q. Why it important to study how truly or not cinema reflects the society around us? Do these movies manage to make an impact of large bearing on society?

A. After the recent brutal gang-rape of a young student in Delhi, all of a sudden, the issue of commodification of women on screen emerged as an issue across news channels and newspapers. What is so new? Women have been routinely represented as objects of desire for the predominantly male population that makes up for the bulk of the cine-goers in India. From the cabaret dancer in the films of the 1970s to the item girl of today, the on-screen female characters have hardly seen any drastic development. Films, through their characterizations represent social mores, and the commodification of women is a very good example. As far as the representation of the Muslim in popular films is concerned, it has remained within the dominant discourse, taking recourse to positive stereotyping. Cinema has immense reach and influence and therefore, it is important to study the messages conveyed by film narratives.

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