Nothing excites mass audiences like action-packed, propaganda-filled hero movies. Every exaggerated stunt and cheesy line of dialogue is met with sheer delight, as the super-dramatised villain is triumphantly defeated in a convoluted – but predictable – plot. There’s plenty of merit to making escapist and entertaining blockbusters – but too often these come at the expense of stigmatising, typecasting and even inciting violence against entire communities and cultures.
And no group has been more vilified and caricatured in cinema than Muslims. We live in a time of global xenophobia, overwhelming ignorance and widespread bigotry, particularly against Islam. It’s not surprising that dominant film and television industries around the world reinforce the same problematic tropes that perpetuate the same kinds of cultural violence. But the truth is that Islamophobia in films has long-preceded what we now know as prominent markers of anti-Muslim narratives, such as 9/11 in the United States or the demolition of Babri Masjid in India. These trends developed simultaneously in Hollywood and Bollywood as products of different but intersecting histories – both of which are equally consequential given the political climate of the world today.
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.
Not only is it an easy plot point but it’s also a tried-and-tested, profitable one. Right from Reagan-era CIA invasions of Afghanistan during the Cold War, the United States has relied politically on an anti-Islamic sentiment among the public to continually justify its horrific, illegal and completely profitable war in the Middle East. Regardless of genre, cinema has always been a mirror that reflects reality and in equal measure a tool with which to shape it. So movies everywhere, even in Bollywood which is fairly influenced by Western attitudes, began to portray Muslims as terrorists – the most convenient political scapegoat there is.
In his book, Reel Bad Arabs, academic and author Jack Shaheen conducted a survey on approximately 1200 depictions of Arabs and Muslims in American movies, and found that “roughly 97% [were] unfavourable, coloured by orientalist myths, racist demonising and xenophobic paranoia.”
From 90s Hollywood classics like True Lies (1994) where the macho, irreverent Arnold Schwarzenegger defeats a bunch of terrorists hell-bent on nuclear war against the United States (for no apparent reason other than the ambiguous “jihadi cause”) to plane-hijacking favourite Executive Decision (1996) where Kurt Russell outsmarts the ultimate Muslim terrorist from a fictional “Muslim-sounding” country, Hollywood has capitalized on these patriotic thrillers for decades.
Recent hits like American Sniper (2014) and London Has Fallen (2016) not only feature particularly warped images of Islam but also intensify the white/Western saviour narrative already ingrained in global society, particularly after 9/11. It was also unsurprisingly after 9/11 that such intensely negative depictions of Muslims – and the sheer number of anti-terrorist films and TV shows – increased exponentially. And usually, the actors that play these roles are from the Indian subcontinent or otherwise South Asian.
In India, similar Islamophobic tropes exist within cinema, but they manifest very differently and are products of a complicated, violent history rather than just a one-dimensional narrative. Because we are a postcolonial state, memories of Partition and the India-Pakistan conflict have become ingrained in our cultural repertoire. Indian patriotic thrillers like Akshay Kumar’s Baby (2015) – and many older Bollywood movies, in general, – often feature not just a Muslim villain but a Pakistani one.
Saif Ali Khan starrer Kurbaan (2009) featured a Muslim terrorist from Pakistan who planned to attack the United States. In Sarfarosh (1999), Naseeruddin Shah plays a Pakistani vocalist who “encourages” terrorism in India. Fanaa (2006) has Aamir Khan playing yet another Muslim terrorist. In Veer Zaara (2004), the entire plot showcases a vengeful Pakistani whose only emotion is anger. It’s framed in a way that implies all Muslims are Pakistani, making the dominant narrative that Muslims don’t belong here. In a country where Hindu-Muslim conflict is still rife and where Bollywood’s impact runs so deep, pushing such narratives sets a dangerous precedent.
India’s Muslim community comprises over 173 million people. Since Partition, over 10,000 Muslims have been killed in almost 7,000 instances of communal violence. It’s reductionist to say they are collectively the most “hated” minority because not only are they are far from being a homogenous community, but also in a country as diverse as India most identities are compounded and marginalised on many different levels. That is not to say they have not been subjected to horrific violence; Muslims have always disproportionately suffered at the hands of powerful Hindu patriarchs.
India has borrowed many of its cultural codes from the West, including Orientalist ones as well as a normalised practice of Islamophobia, both on and off screen. If not directly as terrorists, Muslims have been vilified with many other cinematic tools, from portraying Ranveer Singh’s character as a maniacal savage in Padmaavat (2018) to the Muslim crime families of Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). Interestingly, what has developed from our adoration of the West is a kind of “good Muslim/bad Muslim” narrative. Essentially, it’s the idea that Muslims inherently need to “prove” that they are good (AKA, not terrorists) and aren’t “radical fundamentalists who will give their lives for Islam” in order to be viewed as “normal” and unthreatening to the Western way of life. It flips the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ stance on its head and perpetuates the idea that Muslims must always be defending their faith and identity, and situate themselves in diametric opposition to other, “bad” Muslims.
My Name Is Khan (2010) was one such movie where the entire premise of the film was fixed to the idea that Shah Rukh Khan’s character would prove himself a good Muslim, against all odds. In the past, and in some cases even now, most positive depictions of Muslims have been overly exotified and sensualised, like the nawaabs and dancing women in Mughal-e-aazam (1960) or elaborate historical sagas like Jodhaa Akbar (2008).
The irony of all of these movies is that many of the actors playing these parts are Muslims themselves – culturally identified if not in religious practice. So many big names in Bollywood are “Khan” and yet these tropes still pervade through society as much as in cinema.
However, Bollywood and the film industry in general have seen a great deal of positive transformation. Movies like Mulk (2018), Raazi (2018) and Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016), among many others, are bringing forth more sensible and sensitive narratives that situated Islam more realistically and holistically. Some, like Parzania (2005) and Firaaq (2008), have even done a fantastic job of portraying lesser-known stories with fierce emotion and heartfelt authenticity.
The simple fact is that terrorism is terrorism, born from a history of imperialism, and should never be conflated with faith, or reduce down millions of people to a singularly ignorant narrative. Perhaps it will take decades before Bollywood is no longer intrinsically stereotypical – on all fronts – but it’s about time we become more self-aware as a society of the dangerous and violent realities that exist for not just a third of our country’s population, but also for the entire 1.2 billion Muslims around the globe.
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