Upon recent online stumbles, Reason.com launched an article about Bollywood taking the ‘hardline against extremism’. A video interview with Senior Analyst Shikha Dalmia explained how recent blockbuster hits - Sheila Ki Jawani and Munni Badnam Hui - are helping to send out interesting messages about modern Muslims. It’s not that one would say these messages are right or wrong - but compare them to the encouragement of Muslims to become suicide bombers - then almost everything else seems right. The overarching message is that Bollywood speaks more closely to the experience of those in the middle east than Hollywood. I instantly tweeted the video when I saw it. It was one of those very rare occasions when Bollywood’s work could be celebrated with pride and not too much embarrassment. Though I do have to add, that the foresight of Shikha Dalmia definitely helped see it in this way.
Since its conception Bollywood has continued to be hit and miss with the notion of exploring terrorism in film, with tensions between Hindus and Muslims usually forming the core of the genre. Bombay, Dil Se and Fiza - are just some examples of films that have touched upon internal unrest in the bigger cities. However the ongoing conflict in Kashmir also remains a popular subject matter. Though these films strive to create valid points about tolerance - they are ultimately good yarns. Audiences are captivated by the stars and the spectacle - and it’s typically good that triumphs over evil (usually through song, dance, and melodrama).
All of this, however, was thrown out of kilter with the events of September 11th 2001. India’s never been a stranger to violence and terrorism - but the threat suddenly seemed much closer to home. Just as the world began to re-think the way it viewed the middle-east - India appeared unsettling close to the heart of the action. This can’t have fostered the harmony that Bollywood had been attempting to forge between Hindus and Muslims in the decades before.
Years after the 9/11 attacks - Bollywood films were evolving again. I expected a turn-around of well-executed - ultra sensitive and intelligent responses to the dangers of terror - some of which we did get. Though on the whole - we were faced with the likes of Tere Bin Laden. At first - I really didn’t know how to feel. I was sure this wouldn’t do much to enhance Bollywood’s reputation and it almost seemed that by using comedy as the genre - they had distanced themselves from the actual tragedy that had happened. Naturally, not everyone felt this way - and there were some - who weren’t cringing at the use of Bin Laden as comedy character. They do say that comedy is the best remedy for tragedy - but the worst fear was seeing Osama Bin Laden trivialised. Yes, it would be great if this would help people see him as less of a threat and take him less seriously - but worse if he’d subversively gathered admiration or respect.
Filmmakers may or may not have these sensitivities in mind - as such, we’ve come to learn that nothing can ever fully be predicted in Bollywood films. Films such as Kabul Express, on the other hand took on a different stance on the whole affair. Similar to western offerings such as A Mighty Heart and Rendition - it offered a grittier telling of the dramatic lives of those caught up in conflict. These films were about telling the world what was going on as realistically as possible. They were about bringing messages to audiences in the comfort of their plush homes and distant lives. In principle - it could be argued that films with a more realistic tact are going to work well with more westernised audiences - as this is what they’re used to. Audiences in the slums of India don’t want the harsh reality of a middle-eastern conflict - when they themselves are embroiled of many of their own troubles.
Bollywood has always been about escapism, and that’s what keeps its Item Numbers and ever evolving actors and actresses in business. There’s very little that’s needed on top of this sugar and spice to make it more appealing, and as we’ve learnt - this makes for compulsive viewing - not only for NRIs and Indians - but also a multitude of middle-eastern audiences - akin to the values of Indians. When the war on Iraq broke out - British - correspondents were sent to many outposts across the Middle East. Afghanistan was one of these destinations. Our Sunday broadsheets showed the horrors that were unfolding - yet in amongst this we saw market stalls selling Bollywood merchandise. One of my favourite images was a street-seller with posters of Sharukh Khan, Sri Devi, and Aishwariya Rai. It revealed that in the depth conflict - people always value entertainment (adding a different dimension to notion of bread and circuses).
Yet apart from just offering entertainment, Bollywood has become a careful way of diffusing global values towards hard to reach audiences. If the characters in the lives of these films are independent and free thinking, while still conforming to traditional values (without resorting to extremes) then there is no reason why this aspiration couldn’t work to deconstruct the cultural conformity tightly bound up in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan etc. Of course - it will take more than just Bollywood to do this - but it already has a strong foot-hold.