Bollywood Gets Political

delhi6The opening scene of Mr. and Mrs. Iyer (2002) comes as a shock to the seasoned Bollywood enthusiast. A montage of news reports flickers across the screen. Images from 9/11, the murder of Daniel Pearl, America’s invasion of Iraq, and the most recent sectarian violence in Gujarat confront the unsuspecting viewer.

This is not the type of Indian film I am used to. No singing, no dancing, no heroes or heroines. It’s a love story nonetheless, but without the trappings of a crowd-pleasing, sing-along romance. Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, directed by Aparna Sen, tells the story of two acquaintances, Meenakshi Iyer, a Hindu woman, and Raja Chowdhury, a Muslim man, who find themselves caught in a flare-up between Hindu and Muslim extremists while traveling by bus to Calcutta. Interacting with a Muslim is anathema to Meenakhsi, who comes from a conservative Brahmin family. But when a Hindu mob enters the bus and begins looking for Muslim passengers to beat up, she unexpectedly hands her young son over to Raja and passes him off as her husband. Amid curfew and communal riots, Meenakshi and Raja continue their journey as Mr. and Mrs. Iyer and come to understand each other’s views along the way. They find comfort in each other while savage acts of human intolerance occur all around them.

Mr. and Mrs. Iyer came on the heels of a series of massive communal riots in Gujarat, where more than a thousand people, both Hindus and Muslims, were killed in February and March 2002. Moreover, it is part of a shift in the content and consciousness of popular Hindi language cinema, better known as Bollywood.

While Bollywood films have traditionally focused on themes of nationalism, Hindu mythology, and peasant and working-class life, recent films are increasingly addressing issues of communal violence and religious intolerance. Such topics barely surfaced in popular cinema of the preceding decades. But in the last 10 years, Indian films have begun to explore harsher realities and confront their audiences with tougher questions. They have played a diplomatic role as well, mediating relations between India and Pakistan outside of the political realm.

The Birth of Bollywood

Though the first mass-produced Indian films appeared in the 1930s and the industry reached its “Golden Age” in the decades immediately following Indian independence, the term “Bollywood” did not appear until the 1970s. Bollywood gets its name from Bombay, renamed Mumbai in 1995, where the films are produced. Today, it is a thriving industry that turns out 150 to 200 films per year. It is not India’s only film industry, though. India is the largest producer of feature films in the world, of which Tamil and Telugu language films make up a large part. In fact, Hindi films make up just 20% of the national industry. However, they bring in close to 50% of the revenues.

The Hindi film industry began to grow in Mumbai after the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, which divided the Bengali film industry based in Calcutta and the Punjabi film industry based in Lahore along with their respective audiences. Mumbai enjoyed an influx of prominent actors, producers, directors, lyricists, and technicians from these weakening industries in Pakistan. As a result, the Mumbai film industry became religiously integrated at a time when the rest of the region was unraveling along religious lines. Some of the most famous male actors today, including Shahrukh Khan and Aamir Khan, are Muslim, as are the renowned scriptwriter Javed Akhtar and music director A.R. Rahman. According to anthropologist and film scholar Tejaswini Ganti, Bollywood is “perhaps the least religiously segregated place in India today.”

The typical Bollywood movie involves a love affair, a large and meddlesome family, a lavish wedding, and a happy ending, all accompanied by song and dance. These films are often infused with religious imagery, usually Hindu, and tend to avoid inter-religious plotlines altogether. It seems odd that an industry with significant Muslim representation would only recently turn to sensitive themes of inter-communal relations. As it turns out, Bollywood was not always a friendly place for Muslims. Throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, Muslims were thought to harbor anti-Hindu agendas and threaten the film industry as a whole. Some of the most recognized actors and actresses of the time chose to suppress their religious identity by adopting Hindu screen names. Yusuf Khan became Dilip Kumar, Mahjabeen Bano became Meena Kumari, and Mumtaz Jehan Begum Dehlavi became Madhubala. Today, the Khans — Aamir, Saif, Shahrukh, and Salman — dominate the industry without having to hide their Muslim identities. In this respect, Bollywood as an institution has evolved considerably in the last 40 years. It is only fitting that its films follow suit.

Revisiting India’s Past

Jodhaa-Akbar (2008), directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, is one of Bollywood’s latest efforts to grapple with deep-seated communal issues. By going centuries back into history, the film helps to reshape the discourse on what it means to be Indian.

Set in the 16th century, the film tells the story of the great Mughal Emperor Akbar and his marriage to the Rajput princess Jodhaa. What begins as a political alliance between Muslim and Hindu rulers slowly blossoms into a tantalizing romance, complete with elaborate costumes and a remarkably hum-able score.

From Alfred Lord Tennyson’s 19th century poem, “Akbar’s Dream,” to Salman Rushdie’s latest novel The Enchantress of Florence, Akbar has been featured widely in popular literature. The story of his marriage to Jodhaa was first popularized in the 1960 Bollywood blockbuster, Mughal-e-Azam. However, while Mughal-e-Azam ignores the communal theme altogether, focusing instead on Akbar’s son Salim and his love affair with a court dancer Anarkali, Jodhaa-Akbar consciously tackles religious differences. Akbar, depicted as an enlightened and reasonable emperor, confronts intolerance from Muslim and Hindu groups alike and, through the influence of his wife, becomes a more benevolent ruler. Jodhaa and Akbar come to love each other, even as their families and communities continue fighting. Their relationship, a social taboo at the time and, in many cases, even today, underscores the importance of mutual respect and understanding in the face of unsubstantiated hatred.

The film made headlines when its release sparked controversy among many Rajput communities in northern and central India. The Rajasthani state government immediately banned the movie in 30 theaters. Historians and incensed viewers alike questioned the accuracy of Gowariker’s storyline. Some claimed that Jodhaa did not really exist since the Mughal documents of the period never mention her name. Others argued that she did exist, but she was called Mariam Zamani by the court biographers. Still others believe that she was married to Akbar’s son, and misrepresenting her as Akbar’s wife rather than his daughter-in-law was unacceptable. In short order, Gowariker’s imaginative and finely crafted message of tolerance was reduced to a public debate over seemingly petty details.

This focus on trivialities is revealing of a societal inability to address and discuss sensitive issues. The misguided backlash against the film indicates that the topic of communal relationships strikes a controversial chord with many and that identity is deeply tied to religion and perceptions of history.

Indeed, inter-communal marriages are not widely accepted in India, though they have become more common in the last few decades. Bollywood, in particular, is teeming with famous Hindu-Muslim couples, and Jodhaa-Akbar‘s own star, Hrithik Roshan, is married to a Muslim woman. However, hard data on marriages between Hindus and Muslims is difficult to come by as there has been no concerted effort to quantify the phenomenon on a national scale. Often, studies of inter-communal marriages cover marriages between Hindus of different castes as well as between Hindus and non-Hindus, so the resulting data is cluttered. In many cases “love marriages,” those not arranged by family members and therefore more likely to be inter-communal in nature, meet with significant resistance from family and community members.

The phenomenon is controversial in the public sphere as well. The minister of the state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the largest city, was recently accused of authorizing a criminal investigation into love affairs resulting in marriages between Muslim boys and Hindu girls. This decision came after members of the Bharatiya Janata Party, a right-wing nationalist group, alleged that Muslim boys were conspiring to undermine Hindu communities by wooing girls and shipping them to the Gulf Coast. Nitin Raut, the minister in question, later denied that any such probe would take place and urged his government against communalizing state politics. Despite Raut’s rhetorical Band-Aid, communal tensions clearly run deep in many parts of India, even in Bollywood’s home state.

Consequently, the messages of tolerance, mutual understanding, and respect that films like Jodhaa-Akbar deliver are a necessary step in mending the deep wounds of communal animosity.

Filming Modernity

While Jodhaa-Akbar takes viewers 500 years into the past, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Delhi-6 pulls them back into the 21st century. Released in 2009, the film is Bollywood’s latest attempt at making tolerance popular. Heartthrob Abhishek Bachchan stars as Roshan, the son of a Muslim mother and a Hindu father, who comes to Delhi for the first time as an adult and witnesses the violent breakdown of his grandmother’s neighborhood along communal lines. The film is set in the historic Chandni Chowk area, home to a religiously and culturally diverse community. In returning to his roots, Roshan confronts an India that is more modern than he thought, yet still governed by deep-seated religious tensions. Where Hindus and Muslims lived and worked together in peace, an elusive troublemaker known as Kala Bandar (“The Black Monkey”) and a series of small misunderstandings pit neighbors against each other in violent riots. In the end, Roshan, the hybrid, takes the biggest hit.

The film weaves together Mehra’s own experiences growing up in the Chandni Chowk neighborhood with the urban legend of a monkey man who reportedly terrorized the streets of Delhi in 2001. Released just three months after the Mumbai attacks, Delhi-6 was a timely meditation on contemporary Hindu-Muslim relations in India. Since the November attacks, purportedly carried out by the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, the threat of sectarian violence has been high. Many fear that Hindu and Muslim groups in Mumbai and throughout India will exploit mutual suspicion and renewed communal hostility for their own political and religious ends.

Ultimately, Delhi-6 gives viewers a multifaceted portrait of urban India and, at the same time, highlights the faultlines that make it so vulnerable. It represents a new type of Bollywood film, one that still strives to entertain but is unafraid to expose society in its most brutal and hypocritical forms.

The film received mixed reviews from moviegoers. Some felt Mehra’s film presented a “half-baked collage of many vital social issues,” while others commended his efforts at capturing the complexities of the “modern Indian soul.” Even if the plot left viewers dissatisfied, the message rang loud and clear: We must look within ourselves before pointing the finger at others. In a country where Hindus and Muslims have been pointing fingers at each other for hundreds of years, Delhi-6 gives the hackneyed appeal for tolerance a fresh face.

The Diplomacy of Film

Hugely successful in North America and the United Kingdom, recent Bollywood films have crossed physical as well as social boundaries. They have regularly traversed literal and figurative borders that people could not. Such is the case with Pakistan, where Bollywood is a fixture despite the Pakistani government’s formal ban.

For much of their 62-year history, India and Pakistan have been uneasy neighbors. Since partition, their shared border of over 1800 miles has been highly regulated through a single crossing point that connects Lahore to Amritsar. Air travel has also been highly regulated, particularly in 2001 when India imposed travel sanctions on Pakistan International Airlines, banning it from entering Indian airspace.

Cultural exchange, too, has been formally if not effectively restricted. Following the Indo-Pak war of 1965, the Pakistani government imposed a ban on the distribution and broadcast of Indian films in movie theaters across the country. Despite these efforts, the availability of pirated films has skyrocketed, and Bollywood films have become a mainstay of Pakistani pop culture.

Recently, film has taken on a diplomatic role between these two stubborn neighbors. In 2008, the critically acclaimed Khuda Kay Liye (“In the Name of God”) became the first Pakistani film to be released in India in 43 years. The film, which broke box-office records in Pakistan, gave Indians a long overdue look into Pakistani life, which they were surprised to learn is not so different from their own. According to the film’s director, Shoaib Mansoor, his Indian colleagues had astonishingly little understanding of life in Pakistan: “They asked: ‘Do you have taxis there?’ ‘Can women drive?’ ‘Are women allowed to go to university?’ They thought Pakistan consisted entirely of fanatics and mullahs.”

Khuda Kay Liye narrates the stories of two musician brothers growing up in Lahore, whose different interpretations of Islam lead them along radically different paths. While one falls under the extremist influence of a mullah and fights alongside the Taliban, the other moves to Chicago to study music, marries an American woman, and must navigate the difficulties of being a Muslim in America after 9/11. Though this film’s message of tolerance does not have direct communal undertones, it has nevertheless promoted greater understanding of Muslim communities within India and in neighboring Pakistan.

“Ignorance breeds suspicion and suspicion breeds hate; it creates huge villains,” said Bollywood scriptwriter Javed Akhtar in response to the film. “There is a lot to be heard and seen by Indian and by U.S. audiences here too.”

Looking Forward

Over the last 10 years, there has been a noticeable shift in content and consciousness of Bollywood films. On the surface, it is still unthinkable to produce a Hindi film without any song, dance, or romance. On a deeper level, the industry is addressing sensitive social issues that have been largely ignored for decades.

Today’s Bollywood operates along increasingly inter-communal and international axes. Whether by recognizing differences and encouraging viewers to overcome them or by highlighting underlying similarities between religious and cultural groups in India and neighboring Pakistan, Bollywood films have finally begun to address the social tensions that have been ever-present in India’s history and remain salient today.

However, this trend is nascent at best. Nationalistic, slash-and-burn films are still popular, as are crowd-pleasing action movies and cheesy romantic comedies. The Bollywood I’ve grown up with, sung and danced with, isn’t going anywhere. But a handful of filmmakers are using the industry’s popular appeal to spread a powerful message of tolerance that politics has yet been unable to champion.

Two upcoming films will serve as a test of this hypothesis. My Name is Khan and Total Ten are both potentially controversial Bollywood productions set for release in 2010. The first film, starring Bollywood’s leading man Shahrukh Khan, will examine the experiences of a Muslim man from India living in the United States. Though the film is not explicitly about 9/11, it will inevitably explore what it means to be Muslim in America in the wake of these terrorist attacks. Ironically, Khan already hit some bumps in the road on his own journey to the United States in August. He was detained for questioning at Newark Airport when his name was flagged for an extra security check. The actor, arguably the most famous and influential in India, was released after an intervention by the Indian embassy. The incident angered fans and the Indian government alike. It has only bolstered the perception among Indians that the United States espouses an “Islamophobic” attitude. Despite this hiccup, My Name is Khan may still do for U.S.-India relations what Khuda Kay Liye has done for India-Pakistan relations.

Total Ten, on the other hand, has the potential to do more harm than good. The film chronicles the events of the November 26 terrorist attacks in Mumbai through the character of Mohammad Ajmal Amir Kasab, the only gunman captured in connection with the attacks. While Kasab’s trial is currently underway, Bollywood has wasted no time in bringing this incident to the big screen. The film, which is expected to hit theaters prior to the completion of the trial, delivers its own verdict in the case: Kasab is hanged. A Pakistani citizen, Kasab has been the subject of much controversy and speculation on both sides of the border, and preempting his sentence through film is not likely to go over well.

Ultimately, Bollywood is proving itself to be ahead of the curve both politically and socially. It has pushed viewers to address issues of communal relations and religious intolerance within India. It has taken on a diplomatic role in the absence of government initiative, particularly with respect to neighboring Pakistan. It has taken risks that its American counterpart would never dream of. In a country where nearly 40% of the population is illiterate, Bollywood has asserted itself as a popular vehicle for discussion, reflection, and social change.

Noor Iqbal is a former intern at Foreign Policy In Focus.