When I moved to the United States for college, I realized that many of my new South Asian friends grew up on a steady diet of Bollywood films and Indian television shows. To their surprise, I had not seen any of the classic movies they adored. Truthfully, I had no politically motivated reasons for my lack of cultural knowledge of mainstream Bollywood films—as a child, I simply had other niche interests that kept me occupied.
The same cannot be said for Pakistan as a whole, where the consumption of Indian film and television has always been somewhat political. Over the years, when Pakistan’s relationship with India got tense, Bollywood films were quickly banned. The same goes for India—when relations turned rocky, Pakistani actors and actresses were refused work in India.
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Why Bollywood movies are more than entertainment?
To avoid getting left out of Bollywood conversations, I watched the classic Bollywood films with my friends in college. For most viewers, Bollywood films are a welcome escape from the mundane tasks that fill their lives. My new friends loved the Bollywood classics because they were associated with feelings of childhood nostalgia.
However, to me, a political scientist and international relations enthusiast, these films provided more than just entertainment—they were an insight into India’s political landscape. It quickly became apparent that Bollywood films bolstered simplistic and false characterizations of Muslims and were riddled with Islamaphobia.
For far too long, IR scholars have neglected the importance of popular culture in understanding international relations. Experts on South Asian politics have largely ignored Bollywood’s impact on identity politics in the region. A 2.3 billion-dollar industry, Bollywood produces a huge number of films each year that are watched by millions in India and around the world.
The ascendance of the Hindu right in India in the 1990s shifted the narrative of films produced by Bollywood. Bollywood became an effective medium to disseminate Hindu nationalist ideologies to audiences at home and abroad.
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Hindu Nationalism first gained popularity in the 1990s after the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the Ayodhya riots that brought the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) to power. Hindutva, an ideology central to Hindu nationalism, defines Hindus as the “sons of the soil,” for whom India is not only a motherland but also a sacred land.
Hindutva seeks to redefine Indianess as exclusively Hindu
Many popular 90s films reaffirmed and circulated the hegemonic discourses of Hindutva and the politics of the Hindu right. They did so by casting Muslim characters as the “other” and the enemy of the state. In films like Sarfarosh, Roja, Bombay, and Mission Kashmir, the Muslim characters were terrorists linked to Pakistani authorities, and Islam was viewed as a dangerous ideology.
Pakistan was not just a backdrop in these films—it was shown as a dangerous place and the primary cause of instability and violence in India. The loyalty of the Muslim characters to the state was constantly questioned in film. The Muslim characters relied on stereotypical tropes—often wearing Shalwar Kameez, speaking Urdu with a strange sophistication, and carrying AK47s. These uncreative characterizations implicitly created a strict binary of good vs. evil by constantly casting Muslims as the villains and Hindus as the heroes.
Take, for example, Roja. The Hindu man was cast as the brave protagonist in this film, ready to give up the comfort of his home to defend his homeland. Always a “family man,” the Hindu protagonists had a nuclear Hindu family. Hindu worship was seen at the heart of a nuclear, traditional, Hindu-joint family that wants nothing but good for their family and the state. The protagonists frequented Mandirs and reminded audiences that patriotic Indian families espoused Hindu values.
Hindu mythology provided the basis for several major Bollywood films. In Sarfarosh and Roja, the only Muslims seen praying were terrorists. By bombarding film screens with images of Hindu worship, India no longer appears to be a secular country as outlined in its constitution. It effectively rebranded itself as a nation that was Hindu and upheld Hindu religious values.
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Was such religious rebranding accidental? Not really. In 1998, BJP outlined its policy on media, cinema, and the arts in its electoral manifesto. The policy stressed that:
“Popular cinema has played an important role in promoting social harmony and nationalism
…however, in recent years it has had a negative impact on society…hence, the BJP is committed to checking this abuse of popular cinema…the BJP will strive for a national consensus with the involvement of all sections of the Indian society for a voluntary moral standard for the media, for the media plays a very important role both in fostering and prejudicing such a moral order.”
This statement is powerful for two reasons
First, it recognizes the power of popular culture, Bollywood to be specific, in influencing the masses to become sympathetic to BJP’s political ambitions. Second, it outlines BJP’s prerogative to control popular culture to promote its ideologies and strategic objectives. Over the decades, Bollywood films have successfully redefined Indian national identity as predominantly Hindu, alienating over 200 million Muslims who live in India.
India is not alone in using popular culture to reaffirm and support the state’s hegemonic discourses. Country music in the United States post 9/11 supported the Bush regime and helped solidify legitimacy for the war in Iraq. Hollywood studios, despite being private non-government
entities, receive millions of dollars of annual subsidies from the U.S. military for the overt purpose of positively framing the U.S. military. Marvel studios’ long-dated relationship with the Pentagon is no secret either. Cult favorites like Captain America, Iron Man, and Hulk were all carefully curated in collaboration with the Pentagon to boost the image of the U.S. military and frame America’s interventions abroad as necessary.
Read more: Pakistani guy returns wallet to Indian man in a thrilling Bollywood-style search
While the Indian film industry’s entrenchment in Hindu nationalism predates the Modi era, Hindu nationalism is more rampant than ever in Bollywood today. Top Bollywood celebrities are often seen fraternizing with Prime Minister Modi. Many new film releases pander to hard-line Hindu nationalism. It is pertinent that scholars of International Relations and South Asia pay attention to the perils of weaponizing Bollywood for political gains.
I am not telling you not to enjoy Bollywood films or unnecessarily rethink everything you have seen so far. The cynical takeaway is that we need to be conscious of the media we consume—we internalize propaganda without knowing and assuming harmful ideas about other religions, ethnicities, and nationalities.
Maha Akbar is an alum of Clark University and the London School of Economics. She holds a B.A. in Political Science with minors in Economics and Management. She has worked for the United Nations, Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate, and Fenton Communications Inc., where she designed communications strategies for award-winning social campaigns in the United States. She can be reached on Twitter at @AkbarMaha_ or on LinkedIn.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.