Bollywood: ‘Othering’ the Muslim on screen


A scene from Padmaavat

Bollywood must work on its own conscious and unconscious biases while representing Indian Muslims and move beyond the image of the “Muslim other” as terrorist, invading barbarian and villain.

In his seminal article on the fundamentally political relationship between cinema and the state, Prof. M. Madhava Prasad of the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, termed the cinematic apparatus (including the image and the audience) as a “microcosm of the future nation-state”. He explains the political and contextual compulsions of film-makers to use the screen as a medium to further the state’s political narratives.

At a time when Indian nationhood, identity and citizenship are undergoing a state-led process of transformation, it is important to deconstruct the role that cinema plays in the supplementary cultural transformations of public life. This is especially important at a time when a political fault line seems to be emerging within the film industry in the context of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the widespread protests against it.

For much of history, the connection between politics and cinema has been implicit yet intimate. Films have often served as a tool of propaganda given their unique ability to reproduce images, movement and sound in an extremely lifelike manner. Unlike other art forms, cinema possesses a sense of immediacy; through the willing suspension of disbelief that they naturally inspire, films are capable of creating the illusion of reality. The nature of photography and videography offers artists the freedom to play with conceptions of reality and also gives them the power to shape people’s perception of reality. This power of representation comes to the fore when films depict unknown cultures, places or histories.

In this article, we analyse the processes of exclusion and otherisation implicit in recent Bollywood period dramas. Contextualising this discussion against the absence of Muslim protagonists from most mainstream films, we argue that Bollywood’s otherisation of Indian Muslims is a well-entrenched practice that is itself reflective of India’s current political landscape.

Political positions

According to contemporary film theory, in order to fully explicate filmic ideology and the ways in which films advance specific political positions, one must also take a look at cinematic form and narrative and at how the cinema apparatus transcodes social discourses and reproduces ideological effects.

The political psychologist Ashis Nandy argues that “popular cinema not merely shapes and is shaped by politics, it constitutes the language for a new form of politics” since its “focus is on the key concerns of some of the most articulate, vibrant and volatile sectors of the Indian electorate today”.

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