“Bollywood Gets Political,” by Noor Iqbal

Via Foreign Policy In Focus:

… Over the last 10 years, there has been a noticeable shift in content and consciousness of Bollywood films. On the surface, it is still unthinkable to produce a Hindi film without any song, dance, or romance. On a deeper level, the industry is addressing sensitive social issues that have been largely ignored for decades.

Today’s Bollywood operates along increasingly inter-communal and international axes. Whether by recognizing differences and encouraging viewers to overcome them or by highlighting underlying similarities between religious and cultural groups in India and neighboring Pakistan, Bollywood films have finally begun to address the social tensions that have been ever-present in India’s history and remain salient today.

However, this trend is nascent at best. Nationalistic, slash-and-burn films are still popular, as are crowd-pleasing action movies and cheesy romantic comedies. The Bollywood I’ve grown up with, sung and danced with, isn’t going anywhere. But a handful of filmmakers are using the industry’s popular appeal to spread a powerful message of tolerance that politics has yet been unable to champion.

Two upcoming films will serve as a test of this hypothesis. My Name is Khan and Total Ten are both potentially controversial Bollywood productions set for release in 2010. The first film, starring Bollywood’s leading man Shahrukh Khan, will examine the experiences of a Muslim man from India living in the United States. Though the film is not explicitly about 9/11, it will inevitably explore what it means to be Muslim in America in the wake of these terrorist attacks. Ironically, Khan already hit some bumps in the road on his own journey to the United States in August. He was detained for questioning at Newark Airport when his name was flagged for an extra security check. The actor, arguably the most famous and influential in India, was released after an intervention by the Indian embassy. The incident angered fans and the Indian government alike. It has only bolstered the perception among Indians that the United States espouses an “Islamophobic” attitude. Despite this hiccup, My Name is Khan may still do for U.S.-India relations what Khuda Kay Liye has done for India-Pakistan relations.

Total Ten, on the other hand, has the potential to do more harm than good. The film chronicles the events of the November 26 terrorist attacks in Mumbai through the character of Mohammad Ajmal Amir Kasab, the only gunman captured in connection with the attacks. While Kasab’s trial is currently underway, Bollywood has wasted no time in bringing this incident to the big screen. The film, which is expected to hit theaters prior to the completion of the trial, delivers its own verdict in the case: Kasab is hanged. A Pakistani citizen, Kasab has been the subject of much controversy and speculation on both sides of the border, and preempting his sentence through film is not likely to go over well.

Ultimately, Bollywood is proving itself to be ahead of the curve both politically and socially. It has pushed viewers to address issues of communal relations and religious intolerance within India. It has taken on a diplomatic role in the absence of government initiative, particularly with respect to neighboring Pakistan. It has taken risks that its American counterpart would never dream of. In a country where nearly 40% of the population is illiterate, Bollywood has asserted itself as a popular vehicle for discussion, reflection, and social change.

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