With its tendency to put out unoriginal, unentertaining and often downright disgusting content, it can be easy to forget that Bollywood is nevertheless the world’s largest film industry by any measure. Bollywood’s influence in shaping India’s national identity and the global community’s opinion of India cannot be overstated. The films offer many in India, where over 400 million people live on less than $3.20 a day, a temporary escape from their miserable existence.
Media literacy—a person’s ability to critically evaluate media products such as movies—is virtually non-existent among the masses. Bollywood thus has the potential to be the perfect propaganda machine, spreading misinformation and reinforcing false narratives. The ruling establishment in India has long understood this, but it is the Modi regime that has really turned Bollywood into its lapdog.
No film signifies this more than PM Narendra Modi, a recent biopic of Modi himself. The film, perhaps for the first time, glorifies a sitting prime minister, especially one who had completed only one term in office. It follows Modi’s life from his days as a chaiwala (roadside tea seller) to his spiritual retreats in the Himalayas to his rise through the ranks of the BJP. As many critics pointed out, the film is shamelessly put together, introducing heroic moments in Modi’s life which did not actually happen (e.g. him being arrested during the Emergency of 1975-77), denying events in his life that did happen (e.g. him getting married and then abandoning his wife), and clearly outlining his enemies as Pakistan, the news media, and a dark-skinned Indian from the south.
Worst of all, the 2002 Gujarat massacres are squarely blamed not on Modi’s hatefulness and incompetence but on his opposition, and he is positioned as the hero. The creators of the film scheduled its release for just a few weeks prior to the 2019 elections, and the release was postponed after the Election Commission of India deemed it to be propaganda—a judgement that Modi’s BJP actually considered unfair.
Other recent films reinforce the false narratives of history that these movements are based on. Padmaavat (2018), one of the most expensive and most successful Bollywood films ever made, is a good example. The film is about Ala ud-Din Khilji, the ruler of the Delhi Sultanate in the 13th century, who becomes smitten by the beauty of a Hindu Rajput queen, Padmavati, and attacks her kingdom. Khilji is depicted as an evil, barbaric character, always cast in darkness, while the Hindu Rajputs are projected as honourable and immersed in colorful culture. The director of the film admitted that he gave Ranveer Singh, the actor who would be portraying Khilji, books describing “the psyche of the dark ruler’s of history,” including Adolf Hitler. Ultimately, the queen has to burn herself alive to deny the evil Muslim king the opportunity to dishonor her. Interestingly, the movie faced protests not only from Muslims and historians, but also from Hindu supremacist groups. They are apparently not intelligent enough to figure out that they cannot have it both ways—they want Muslims to be portrayed as the arch-evil of history, but also don’t want Muslims to be depicted as being too powerful over the Hindus.
Other recent films which push similar narratives include Panipat (2019), Tanhaji (2020) and Takht (2020). Panipat focuses on the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761 between Ahmad Shah Durrani, widely considered the founder of modern Afghanistan, and the Marathas. Once again, the Afghans are portrayed as ruthless, bloodthirsty savages, and the Marathas as sophisticated and righteous. Tanhaji and Takht are both centred on the life of Aurangzeb. Again, the Muslims are outsiders, and the brave “native” Indians have to fight them off or suffer under their rule. As Saif Ali Khan, one of the lead actors in Tanhaji, admits, “I don’t think this is history.”
Many Bollywood films are set in Kashmir. Some of these present Kashmir as a dreamy place to which a person might escape for its natural beauty, romantic appeal and serenity, completely glossing over the dire conditions in which the local population lives. But most films set in Kashmir fall into the genre of “war drama”, setting up Indian-occupied Kashmir as a war zone rather than as an occupied territory and the site of horrific human rights violations. The characters in these movies are clearly marked as patriots or traitors, “good Muslim” or “bad Muslim”. The situation in Kashmir is displayed as chaotic and hopeless, but in such a way that it seems that the Kashmiri people themselves are responsible for it.
Even promising films such as Haider (2014), which daringly shows the difficulties of life in Kashmir because of Indian policies, ultimately focuses on the personal decisions of the Kashmiri people as the cause for their continued suffering. Such a vision of Kashmir has not improved with time. In fact, within days of repealing Article 370, Bollywood filmmakers had scrambled to register over 50 film titles such as Article 370 Abolished and Kashmir Hamara Hai (Kashmir is Ours). Shikara, released in February, is about the so-called exodus of Kashmiri Pundits in the 1990s, and has faced criticism for its vilifying portrayal of Muslims and also from the Hindu supremacist RSS, who claim that the film is too soft on Muslims! Thus, it seems filmmakers that are already deeply biased against Muslims are facing pressure to go even further, and Islamophobic narratives in Bollywood may get even worse in years to come.
In other films, the narrative is pushed more subtly. According to the Human Rights Watch, 44 people were killed by “cow vigilantes” in India between 2015 and 2018 based on the suspicion that they were transporting cows to be sold for meat; 36 of them were Muslim. This is in spite of the fact that according to the Indian government’s own statistics, 70% of Indian women and 80% of Indian men—far more people than the country’s Muslim population—regularly eat beef. Yet in Bollywood films, Muslims in particular are identified due to their love for meat. In a scene in Padmaavat (discussed above), Khilji monstrously digs into chunks of meat.
In the movie Mulk, which is supposedly an effort to draw attention to rising Islamophobia in India, the film opens with scenes of a Muslim family celebrating a birthday party, their identity confirmed by generous time given to showing the cooking, smelling and eating of meat. Bollywood similarly stereotypes Muslims as lust-driven and sexually promiscuous, given to enjoying dazzling displays of women dancing to suggestive lyrics. A long list of examples could be unrolled here.
The question to think about is why, despite a full-throttled effort by Bollywood to vilify Muslims, do Muslims around the world continue to support the industry by consuming this content. Why do we support an industry which spreads the narratives that lead to real-life brutality towards Muslims in Kashmir and across India? While we are often helpless to affect change at the policy level, boycotting Bollywood and exposing its Islamophobia in the public sphere would likely go a long way toward putting pressure on those that control the narrative to think twice about what they are doing. How much longer are we willing to pay money and spend time sitting in front of screens to watch ourselves get insulted and demonized?