Bollywood's Islamaphobic Portrayal of Muslim Masculinity
Bollywood is one of the leading film industries in the world. It has had a major impact on the lives of millions with its dramatic plotlines, flashy musical numbers, and countless cultural references. Considering the wealth of cultural impact it has had on various diasporic communities, Bollywood’s commitment to a number of popularized tropes is concerning to say the least. Indeed, these archetypes often depict differing religious and ethnic communities within the Indian-Subcontinet, coloring the film industry with a thick layer of saffron colored propaganda. Amongst these popularized caricatures is the Muslim man, whose is religiously zealous, cold, and sexually deviant.
Within the Bollywood sphere, imagined period pieces have recently amassed a cult following. Their commercial success is often credited to the film’s high production value, impeccable score, and A-list leads. However, a disturbingly consistent element across the blockbusters is the archetype of a power crazed, lust filled
Muslim ruler backed by considerably military force. Indeed, when Padmaavat (2019) antagonist, Alauddin Khilji, is the ruthless, abusive, misogynistic leader of the Khalji Empire. He develops a fixation on marrying Padmavati, a beautiful Rajput Queen, after receiving an oracle about her beauty and the promise that she would bring him immense success. Alauddin’s humanity is essentially nonexistent, with much of his consciousness orbiting around an animalistic obsession, both for power and his own crude physicality.
The masculinity of Emperor Akbar in Jodha Akbar (2008) is depicted significantly differently but follows similar tropes. Jodha Akbar examines Emperor Akbar’s relationship with his wife Jodha who is a devout Hindu and of Rajput descent. The first two hours of the film depicts Akbar as quiet yet stern. Although he is overall admirable, especially in comparison to Alauddin Khildji, it is not until the last hour of the film that spectators get to see real emotion on his part. It is implied that the only way in which he is able to openly love and show affection is through Jodha. While this may seem as though it is simply a love story, the true hero in the film is Jodha, who is invertedly credited with rehabilitating Akbar.
Notably, both films discussed highlight the way in which Islam within Bollywood film is all too often depicted in a very Persianesque fashion which inspires the scenery, costumes, and props used to depict Muslims in Bollywood cinema. There is a focal point on making sure that Muslims are aesthetically and ideologically linked to a culture that is foreign and different from other communities living in the subcontinent. Linking Muslimness to something that is foreign and only rooted in the Middle East propagates a very orientalist outlook on the presence of Muslims in the south Asian region, further blurring the lines between culture and religion.
Unfortunately, Bollywood uses the same Islamaphobic lens to depict modern Muslim men as well, producing a number of “post 9/11” films that stoke the fear that Muslim are inflitrating various degrees of society to carry out a gruesome agenda. For example, Kurbaan (2009) tells the story of Avantika, a Hindu woman, who falls for Kaled, a Muslim man. The two get married and move to America where it is revealed that Khaled belongs to a terrorist organization and is planning on carrying out an attack. The plotline of this film pushess the “love Jihad” narrative which is a conspiracy that was propagated by Hindu nationalists implying that Muslim men are seducing Hindu women as one of their agendas to “take over” Indian society. The 2006 film, Fanaa, employs the same trope, which doubly exploits Islamophobic views by incorporating an India-centric perspective on the Kashmir dispute.
Today, religious tensions in India and the broader region are at a boiling point. Depictions of Muslims and other disenfranchised groups in Bollywood are so important due to how widespread the industry is. It is no secret that the media plays a significant role in dictating public opinion, and consistently and inaccurate inflammatory portrayals of any group are bound to feed the flames of prejudice. This is especially dangerous as Muslim communities within India are experiencing growing displacement and discrimination. Certainly, with an industry as prominent as Bollywood actively promoting stereotyped versions of Muslims, the community’s subjugation will only worsen before it gets better.