For Muslim fans of Bollywood, Indian movies can often be a difficult terrain to navigate. On-screen Muslim characters aren’t always treated with the most respect. In fact, more often than not, Muslims are reduced to stereotypical caricatures. Very rarely do Muslims see themselves as main characters in Bollywood. They often take a backseat to the Hindu protagonists and their Muslim identity is rarely portrayed in complex ways. In a post-partition South Asia, this isn’t a surprise to anyone. But could the new film, “Raazi,” be the start of fixing the problem in Bollywood?
Aggravated in the 1947 partition of Pakistan and India, the Hindu and Muslim conflict has been brewing since the days of Colonialism. When the British arrived, they found indigenous Muslim and Hindu populations in the sub-continent of India that more or less coexisted peacefully.
Although ethnically similar, the religions these populations followed were drastically different. As psychoanalyst and author Sudhir Kakur wrote,
“Hindus and Muslims lived together separately.”
However, since partition and after 300 years of British rule, the populations of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs were separated in one of the greatest migration in human history. And thus, Hindus and Muslims were polarized in the span of just a few years. As Professor Salman Sayyid writes,
“The story of 1947 is being told as that of one ‘good brother’ and one ‘bad brother’”.
This phenomenon has integrated itself into South Asia, not excluding Bollywood, an Indian cinematic powerhouse.
The Hindu-Muslim conflict or the Pakistan-India conflict (let’s be honest, these are synonyms by now) is often tackled by ambitious Bollywood movies. Films like “Veer-Zaara,” “PK,” “Total Siyapaa” and “Bajrangi Bhaijaan” have all taken on this conflict from different perspectives. All seemingly with the same message of peace in the region. Yet, there still exists an insidious undercurrent in Bollywood that portrays Muslims and Pakistanis as less than their Hindu, Indian counterparts.
Let’s take Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s latest blockbuster, “Padmaavat,” as an example. There was outrage over the film earlier this year for its obvious demonization of Muslims. In the film, Ranveer Singh plays Alauddin Khilji, a barbaric, merciless, lust-driven villain who threatens the happiness of the precious, virtuous, and Hindu king and queen. All the Muslims in the movie are depicted as devious, evil, and cold-hearted while the Hindus were morally chaste.
This is especially problematic in India where the Hindu nationalist sentiment is on the rise. In the past few years, India has been the setting for a conservative Hindu movement evident by the rise in religiously motivated incidents. Islamophobic actions, such as lynchings of Muslims over slaughtering cows, are becoming commonplace.
This dichotomy has always existed in Bollywood. Even in films that attempt to show reconciliations between the two communities, Muslims and Pakistanis are still somehow rendered inferior. In “Veer-Zaara,” the villains of the movie were Pakistani. Zaara, the Pakistani heroine, came from a strict and draconian family who forced a marriage on her. As such, Veer, the Indian man had to come to her rescue. Similarly, in “Bajrangi Bhaijaan,” it was an Indian man rescuing a defenseless Muslim, Pakistani girl and returning her home while the villainous Pakistani police and military tried to stop him. So, has Bollywood been assuaging the animosity or has it been applying an insidious salt to the metaphorical wound?
Enter “Raazi,” a movie once again addressing the complicated themes of Muslim identity, Indian patriotism, partition and the bloody history behind it. The difference between “Raazi” and its cinematic predecessors is this: There are no Hindus. This is a first for Bollywood. A film that talks about India and Pakistan with a religiously neutral backdrop; and that, too, is one that is Muslim.
Sehmet, the young 20-year-old protagonist is strong, morally complex, capable, devoted to India and Muslim. In the conception of such a character, the film declares patriotism to be separate from religion. No longer are Muslims and Hindus neatly labelled as Pakistani and Indian, but Raazi actually acknowledges the religious diversity of India.
Moreover, Pakistanis are not villainized because there is no clear villain in the film. Everyone is morally ambiguous, if not completely ignorant. Sehmet’s Pakistani husband, Iqbal, is a caring and loving man who is accepting of Sehmat’s nationality. Her in-laws are equally as warm and generous to the Indian girl they welcome into their house. In fact, it is Sehmat and her betrayal that is the offender of the narrative, making Sehmat somewhat of an anti-hero.
“Raazi” shows the Muslim identity to no longer be shown as inferior to the Hindu one, as is usual in many Bollywood films. It subverts many of the stereotypes we have about Indians and Pakistanis, disrupting the dichotomy of good and evil. Both sides are seen as harboring biases against the other. Both sides are perpetuating the conflict under the guise of patriotism. And both sides are committing immoral acts. In the end, there is just unwarranted death and Sehmat’s screams of “why?”
Raazi is perhaps the first Bollywood film that does Muslims and Pakistanis justice by humanizing them equally. Yet ironically, it has been banned from Pakistan — it’s militaristic, pro-India ending scene might be the reason why.
Perhaps it’s too naïve to expect Bollywood flicks to mend the divide. But maybe “Raazi” represents a point in our culture where both sides can start to think of each other as more than just “the bad brother.”
March 20, 2023March 21, 2023 4min readBy Nida Hasan
If you are a South Asian, born in the ’80s or the early ’90s, chances are your ideas of love and romance are heavily influenced by Hindi films — that first gaze, the secret love notes, that accidental meeting somewhere in Europe, over-the-top gestures and dancing around trees. While reality may have been far from what was promised on reel, you still can’t stop pining over a hopeless romantic, with chocolate boy looks, chasing you across the earth and many universes; in the life here and the ones after. Somewhere deep down, you still dream of that possibility despite your husband sitting and sipping his morning coffee right next to you. And much of the credit for weaving this dreamland, that we can’t resist happily sliding into, goes to the legendary Yash Chopra. Award-winning filmmaker Smriti Mundhra’s docu-series, “The Romantics,” that released on Netflix on February 14, chronicles Chopra’s prolific career; offering an illuminating look into the highs and lows of his journey, his unblemished vision for Hindi cinema and sheer love for filmmaking.
I wanted to look at Indian cinema through the lens of it being a major contributor to the global cinema canon and Yash Chopra seemed like the perfect lens to explore that because of the longevity of his career and the fact that he had worked across so many different genres. His films, for so many of us, defined what Hindi cinema is.
— Smriti Mundhra
As “The Romantics” unveils, in a mere episode — a challenging feat in itself — Chopra did experiment with multiple genres as a budding filmmaker, initially under the shadows of his elder brother B.R. Chopra. From the religiously sensitive “Dharamputra” and the trendsetting “Waqt” to the action-packed and iconic “Deewaar.” It wasn’t until later on in his career that he set a precedent for a Hindi film having a wholly romantic narrative; though “Waqt” did offer the perfect glimpse into what would go on to become Chopra’s cinematic imprint. And then came “Chandni” which ushered in a new era for Hindi cinema; defying the formulaic approach to box office success and making love stories the golden goose.
In the words of more than 30 famous faces, a host of archival videos and interviews, and personal anecdotes, audiences get an extensive insight into the life and career of Yash Chopra and the evolution of his vision through the business acumen and genius of his polar opposite son and a famous recluse, Aditya Chopra. “The Romantics” is not a fancy portrait of a legendary filmmaker but an exploration of what goes into making a successful film family and a path-breaking production house. As viewers, we not only get a peek into the making of a fantasy creator but also learn of the many failures, hurdles and uncertainties that the business of filmmaking comes packaged in, the impact of socio-political shifts on the kind of content being produced and demanded, and just how much control we have as an audience over the fate of the film and the filmmaker.
For both the uninitiated and fanatics, there are some interesting revelations like Shah Rukh Khan’s lifelong desire to become an action hero as opposed to a romantic one and the creative conflict between Aditya Chopra and his father Yash Chopra on the sets of “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jaayenge” — a project that, surprisingly, did not seem too promising to the latter. Mundhra penetrates deep into the family’s history and industry relationships evoking some really candid conversations; almost as if these celebs were eagerly waiting for their moment to speak. With one appraising interview after the other, it’s a panegyric that does border on being a tad tedious but there is enough depth and fodder in there to keep one hooked. Kudos to Mundhra for managing to achieve cohesion despite there being more than enough material to chew on. In the process of bringing this project to life, Mundhra also ends up achieving a number of milestones: one that the series features the last of actor Rishi Kapoor’s interviews and two, it brings Aditya Chopra, who, it appears, can talk a blue streak contrary to popular belief, to the front of the camera after almost two decades. The moment when he puts the nepotism debate to rest by referring to his brother’s catastrophic attempt at acting is quite the show-stealer.
At some point during the four-episode series, you might question if it’s fair to credit the Yash Raj family for being the only real changemakers of the Hindi film industry and for picking up the baton to get Hindi cinema the global recognition that it has. But then there is no denying the Chopra clan’s body of work, their ability to understand what pleases the crowd and their commitment towards growth and progress amidst changing times and technology — Yash Raj Studios is in fact the only privately held and one of the biggest, state-of-the-art film studios in India. Chopra’s career and legacy are in no way under-lit that Mundhra can claim to throw new light on with “The Romantics.” But what she really has on offer here are sheer nostalgia, some fascinating discoveries and an ode to a cinephile and his art with a bit of fan service.
In an interview with Brown Girl Magazine, Mundhra discusses why it was so important for Chopra to be the subject of her docu-series, her own learnings during the series’ research and creative process and her accomplishment of getting Aditya Chopra to talk, and that too, at length.