Cinema in India has passed through several stages, with each phase showcasing a particular shade of dominant theme. In the films made in the first phase in British India, the central message pivoted around religion and religious figures, which reflected the impact of Parsi theatre on Indian society. The next phase of Hindi cinema, in Independent India, was marked by films that propagated communal harmony. In the last few decades, however, there is a new trend that has taken root: films centred on communal dissonance to fuel Islamophobia.
The trend of stereotyping Muslims, and Kashmir, can be traced back to Mani Ratnam’s Roja (1992). The film betrayed a deliberate effort to follow and disseminate the state’s narrative about Kashmir and the Muslim community as a whole. Bollywood, which had hitherto looked at Kashmir with love, seemed to have changed colours. “The movie does not care about the people’s narrative on the subject. What is more problematic is that the binary of good Hindu and bad Muslim is constructed in such a way that it makes bland generalisations about Kashmiri Muslims and constructs them in the place of another, who is a terrorist, devoid of humanity and any civilisation, something which Orientalist writers used to do about Indians, Arabs and Africans during the colonial period,” writes Mohammad Ameen Parray, a professor at University of Kashmir, in International Journal of English: Literature, Language & Skills (Volume 7, Special Issue 1, August 2018).
Over the years, the sensitive issue of Kashmir has been exploited to push a particular political agenda about the Valley and incite hatred against Muslims. What do Kashmiris think about the portrayal of the Valley in Hindi films? Baramulla-based Gauhar says: “Earlier, we were portrayed as shopkeepers, tourist guides, or boatmen enjoying the escapades of a romantic couple. Now, we are depicted either as a terrorist or a collaborator. Kashmir is more than just a touristy place, but nobody is interested to know it from Kashmiri’s perspective. The portrayal of Kashmir and Kashmiris in Hindi movies is like translating a work without knowing its original language.”
The recent controversy over The Kashmir Files has once again drawn attention to the role Bollywood plays in the negative portrayal of Muslims. The Kashmir Files is based on the armed insurgency in Kashmir during the 1990s, which led to the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits. But rather than showing the complexity of the situation around the exodus of Pandits from the Valley, the film shows a one-sided narrative in which Kashmiri Muslims are depicted as hostile toward Pandits. The agenda of prejudice is a dominant undercurrent throughout the film. Agenda-driven movies are aimed at ‘othering’ a particular social group and encouraging polarisation. The film has been successfully doing the same. In an old interview with Newslaundary, its director once said: “Who says facts are facts? Aap apne facts apne paas rakhiye. Mujhe jo karna hai main karoonga (Keep your facts with you; I’ll do whatever I wish to)”. So, with The Kashmir Files, he did what he wanted. Rather he did what was needed to gain political benefits. As a result, several videos are circulating on social media, where people are shouting slogans against Muslims.
A young man from Anantnag, who lives in Delhi, says that ever since the movie has released, he can discern a change in the behaviour of people around him. “I don’t know why we (Kashmiris) are the targets of suspicion and hate. How can you hate someone you don’t know?” he says. The duty of an artist is not to provoke but to show reality, with sensitivity and responsibility. But it is an enterprise in which the crew of the film does not seem interested. If they were, they would have tried to dwell on the avenues for resolution and reconciliation. They would also have accepted the atrocities going on in the Valley. “The decade of the 1990s in Kashmir was a period of extreme violence against the Kashmiri Muslim inhabitants who were, and continue to be, caught between militancy, resistance, and state oppression,” writes Shubh Mathur in a research paper, ‘The Human Toll of the Kashmir Conflict: Grief and Courage in a South Asian Borderland.’ The state oppression has been on since then. Instead of portraying the Exodus, the director seems to be more interested in vitiating the already communalised land. The Kashmir Files stereotypes Muslims as a social group hostile to other faiths. Bollywood films have a wider audience not only in India but in several parts of the world. Cinema plays a very important role in perpetuating stereotypes. Painting the whole community with wide brush strokes and showing them as monolithic entity not only obliterates individual identity, it also has its own inherent dangers.
After the twin tower attack in New York, Hollywood portrayed Muslims as extremists and terrorists. Several Hollywood movies showed Muslims as uncivilised and barbaric. They played a vital role in the American public’s hostile views against Muslims. Even in India, Muslims were looked as traitors after 9/11. There were some movies in which they were shown to be good human beings, but even these films featured some other Muslim characters who were ‘traitors’. Bollywood movies have a binary of good Muslims and bad Muslims. Good Muslims are supposed to put mulk (nation) over qaum (religion), and bad Muslims put qaum over mulk. Movies based on medieval Muslim rulers, like Padmaavat, show Muslim rulers as cruel and sensuous. After Independence, Muslim characters in Bollywood were shown to be hailing from the aristocratic backgrounds: men were shown as nawabs and women as courtesans. But after the 1980s and the 1990s, most Hindi films started showing Kashmiri Muslims as terrorists. During the 1990s, Ram Janmabhoomi movement was at its peak and it affected Bollywood, too. After the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 and the 1993 Bombay bomb blasts, the ‘othering’ of Muslims in cinema continued apace. Muslim characters were underworld dons, ISI agents, and Pakistani sympathisers. The portrayal of Muslim women also changed; they were shown as weak and submissive to the ruled and the lustful Muslim males. These Muslim characters wore Pathani suits and had surma in their eyes. Bollywood’s depiction of Muslims as a monolithic community ignored the community’s linguistic and cultural diversities. A Muslim man was portrayed as the ultimate enemy of national unity.
Movies are a very powerful medium in today’s world. When Muslims are shown in a negative way, it has far-reaching consequences. After the 2008 Mumbai attacks (26/11) hostilities against Muslims increased in India. Bollywood movies were also based on these events. In the last two or three decades, several Bollywood movies have been based on armed insurgency in Kashmir and Pakistan’s support of these insurgents. Movies based on terrorism make huge profits in an Islamophobic world. Although Bollywood has several Muslim superstars, directors and singers, its movies have not shown them in a positive light. Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, and Amir Khan have a huge fan following in India. Among the Khans, SRK is highly popular not only in India but in several countries. But these popular Muslim actors have not helped reduce the hatred against Muslims in Indian society. They have worked in several blockbuster movies but due to the political environment, these films have depicted Indian Muslims as the ‘other’. Since 2014, several Bollywood movies have aligned themselves with Hindu nationalist projects and have made huge profits by exploiting the masses. These movies appealed to nationalistic sentiments after 2014. Medieval Muslim rulers were depicted as villains who threatened the Hindu social order. Several research projects have suggested that these movies have created and sustained myths about the Muslim community.
During the First World War, Britishers used films to mould public opinion in their favour. In the 1920s, the Soviets also discovered the art to use movies to propagate Communist ideas. Propaganda movies were also used by Nazis to propagate their ideas. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, also used movies to shape German public opinion against Jews and other minorities. These movies were made to cultivate German racial purity and how other minorities were destroying it. One such film is Triumph of the Will (1935) by director Leni Riefenstahl, which glorified Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Hitler was projected as a messiah; this movie was popular not only in Germany, but also in France and Belgium. Other films were made to dehumanise and demonise minorities, particularly Jews.
Goebbels issued special instructions on how such movies were to be made. One such anti-Semitic movie, Jud Suss (Suss the Jew), claimed to be ‘historically accurate’. Another such movie was The Eternal Jew (1940), which contained blatant lies against Jews and parts of it had to be omitted to show in other countries. These movies aimed to convince the masses of Hitler’s noble cause. Nazi party constantly talked about German racial purity and its racial pride. The German nationalism excluded Jews, Roma, and gypsies; marital relations between Jews and gentiles were seen as a threat to racial purity. Hitler was personified as a god-like figure in German society, and the Nazis were a highly moral group fighting for peace and equality. The Swastika sign was shown in movies as Aryan racial pride. For racial purity, German women had to be protected from Jews and other minorities.
During WWI and WWII, both blocks fighting the war used movies to share their public opinion, but Nazis thought that movies had a greater role to influence the masses. Goebbels used this medium to create a national identity based on the pure German race. Even during WWII, entertainment movies were made to deflect attention from war. Surprisingly, before Hitler’s rise to power several directors have made anti-Semitic movies because of the hold of the far-right on German society. Nazi Party only exploited this sentiment. Jews were projected as treacherous to the cause of the nation. These movies also affected several other European countries.
With the release of The Kashmir Files, Kashmir and its insurgency during the 1990s, is being debated. This debate is welcome, but it should not be one-sided; that’s not art, it is politics. Any art which is influenced and dictated by politics only brings disaster. The ongoing reactions to this movie should be taken seriously because it will not only increase the gap but also gives more currency to hate-mongers. The vandalism of Delhi’s CM House in reaction to his statement about not making the film tax-free in the state explains how films are being used for political purposes and how influential these movies are to control the psychology of the masses. Many pro-capital, right-wing propaganda movies have been released before with great ease. What makes The Kashmir Files so different? The ‘Files’ in the film’s title alludes to secrecy; some unknown data related to the exodus of Kashmiri Pandit and their suppression by Muslims In the film, the director consistently tries to label the exodus as ‘Hindu genocide’. The Kashmir Files shows a false and exaggerated number of Hindu Pandits who were persecuted. To support the film, right-wing people tried to give evidence about the number of Hindu Pandit killings. According to their view, approximately 4,000 Pandits were killed and five lakh were displaced from Kashmir. But the Jammu and Kashmir’s government website declares 60,000 Kashmiri Hindu families suffered during the violence. An unofficial source, The Kashmir Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, says that the death toll could be up to 650 in the Valley. Vivek Agnihotri, the director, twisted the facts. According to Hindutva websites, around one lakh Pandits were killed in a lake and buried in the Valley. But no one will not talk about what happened on January 21, 1990. Just two days after Jagmohan took office as J&K Governor, at least 50-60 Kashmiri Muslim protesters were shot down by security forces at Gawkadal, a bridge in Srinagar. It seems Agnihotri wanted to wash out the real data from our memory.
There is hardly any Bollywood film in which Hindus and Muslims bear the same pain, and share their history without fear. In the current political scenario, Bollywood is churning out prejudices and myths about Indian Muslims more readily than ever. It has been heavily influenced by the hegemonic chronicles and monoculturalistic articulation for years. Movies like Ghazi, Attack, Romeo Akbar Walter, Qyamat: City Under Threat, Zameen, Kurbaan signal scathing attacks on, and personal affronts to, Indian Muslims. Agony is the best tool for Bollywood which is being used voraciously. Our mindscapes are being changed in such a way that we can hardly stay neutral or objective.
There is a polarising message in almost every film. The Bollywood films on Kashmir, and Muslims, never portray the actual story. Deutsche Welle (DW), a German media house available in 32 international languages, termed The Kashmir Files “a movie that divides India.” It is correct because, with this movie, a narrative has been drawn against the largest minority of India; incidents involving Muslims being attacked and killed as revenge for 1990 are already being reported. Art, particularly cinema, has a very strong impact on the masses. While making it, an artist should be sensitive about the message that his/her work can send out because it has the power to capture people’s imagination.
In India, where communal disharmony keeps rearing its heard, these kinds of agenda-based propaganda movies will further intensify the hate towards a community, and Kashmir. Bollywood films are watched by millions of people from around the world and filmmakers have a moral responsibility not to spread prejudice and hatred. Kashmir, which has been a victim of political greed, needs different treatment than being used as a weapon against a community for the sake of pseudo-nationalism. It is, therefore, imperative to understand Kashmir, and Muslims, from an insider’s perspective. The need of the hour is rapprochement, not recrimination.