How Bollywood portrays ‘the other’


Film is not just an entertainment medium. It has been used and continues to be used to view history and can create and reinforce perceptions about the ‘Other.’ In Hindi cinema, the largest film industry in the world, depictions of the partition of India have been used to not only distort but propagandise how Pakistan and Muslims are viewed. A sanitised view of oneself and a muddied view of others is dangerous and irresponsible if left unchecked.

‘Cinema is the great interpreter of the past and constantly programs the memory of its audience,’ wrote Gaston Roberge (131). The twentieth century saw the greatest exodus known to mankind. Partition resulted in a displacement of 12 million refugees, over a million killed and tens of thousands of women kidnapped. Independence and its resulting traumatic partition was a subject mainly ignored by film makers at the time. After the second war between India and Pakistan in 1971, however, the political winds changed, and so did cinema. Indian cinema (commonly known as Bollywood) has shifted from a position of ignoring this phenomenon as a taboo, to being more antagonistic towards Pakistan and its Muslim population.

Gurinder Chadha, an English filmmaker of Indian descent, has written about the earlier use of propaganda in film, to challenge British rule: ‘One of the earliest weapons they [Hindi film makers] had was the non-English language. They used common metaphors, religious stories and codified messages. Indians had a lot to play with to subvert rulers at the time.’ Although the tables have been turned and India is free, it has continued to use the lessons it learnt in using film to communicate and influence using subtext.

I was motivated to write this essay while I was researching the partition of India and Pakistan. I live in the US, but have parents who went through the trauma of partition. I found the stories in books (fiction and non-fiction) as well as in film to be at odds with their experiences. As there are not many more than a handful of feature films on this subject, I have watched these films repeatedly and wanted to analyse the narrative and the subtext under the entertainment.

A more detailed view of how Pakistan is perceived in Hindi cinema and the position that it holds as both a leader and follower of public opinion, was given by Arti Shukla on Culture Wars in 2005. none of the films, perhaps except Mission Kashmir, is there any reference to follies that might have been committed by the Indian army or state. (In this film the police kill some innocents, but justify it as a mistake, because it was impossible to distinguish between the innocents and the terrorists.) The Indians are good, humane, patriotic, peace loving etc, although there are a few rotten apples (the traitors), whom the film protagonists always, of course, uproot. Thus, almost always the Indians have an embellished image compared to that of the Pakistanis.

I would like to carry on where Arti Shukla left. The films discussed below all play a key role in reinterpreting history. Train to Pakistan (1998), Gadar (2001), and Pinjar(2003) portray in many ways the political pulse and tensions between India and Pakistan at the times they were made. Although Hindi films have been known to be merely melodramatic, the portrayal of Indian Sikhs and Hindus as protagonists and Pakistani Muslims as antagonists is a theme that is reinforced throughout most but not all of these films. In the last few years political relations between the countries have improved and there is an effort to promote peace, love and commonality with some film makers. This is reflected in one of the top grossing films Veer Zara (2004).

While watching these films what has piqued my curiosity are the following questions.

• Why in these films is it always a Muslim girl falls in love with a Sikh or Hindu man? Why not the other way, which in the real world is a little more common, a Hindu or Sikh girl falling in love with a Muslim man. Conversions to Islam are a lot more common than people leaving Islam.

• Although some of the earlier films are a little ambivalent, why is the protagonist always a Hindu or Sikh in Hindi film? At best Muslim characters are weak or at worst, wicked. Why are Indians the benevolent, peace-loving, tolerant type and the Pakistanis the war-mongers who are the hard-line villains, devoid of human compassion?

• Where are the Muslims? Why aren’t they doing all they can to balance or correct these vile images of themselves?

Below are specific themes and examples that are found in the films.

History, and ‘who started it?’

Cause and effect are very important in establishing how we view a historical narrative. This genre of films always shows Muslims are the cause of trouble; the effect being that Hindus and Sikhs have to defend themselves.

In Train to Pakistan, once the Sikhs hear news about the ‘ghost trains’ from Pakistan (whose passengers have been attacked while fleeing to India after partition) they argue about how to respond. ‘Our daughters and sisters are being raped. If they kill one of ours we will kill two of theirs. If they kidnap one, we will kidnap two,’ says one. One of the more level-headed says, ‘What is bravery in killing the innocent?’ To this the crowd replies, ‘Who is innocent? This is war. Children of Hindus and Sikhs who were killed in front of their mothers?’

Pinjar starts with a serene view of the Golden Temple and a peaceful Sikh procession. This is all interrupted when rampaging mobs of Muslims attack the Sikhs and slaughter them. As it is the Muslims who incite the violence, then the Sikhs defend and take revenge, so to the audience it’s a natural consequence and comforting to see the ‘bad’ Muslims getting speared and killed.

Gadar starts with scenes of mayhem before partition. This segues into a scene where a Sikh family is shown terrified, and the parents give their daughters poison, telling them it is better to take the poison than have their dignity taken by Muslims. Next we see the well-to-do Muslim Ashraf Ali about to depart India, shouting orders to his servants and demanding guarantees of safety from his Hindu peers. As his train leaves the station, the bloodshed starts. The train just arrived from Pakistan is full of massacred bodies of Hindus and Sikhs. It has a message on it which reads ‘Indians, learn from us how to slay.’ This not only incites the Hindus and Sikhs to taking vengeance, but justifies their actions.

Forbidden love: Muslim girl and Hindu/Sikh man

Although the reality of partition was very violent, most films still find room for some love interest. ‘Forbidden love’ has of course been a major feature of motion pictures since they began. What is unique about Hindi film is that the story always involves a Muslim girl falling in love with a Hindu or Sikh man, but never the other way around.

In Train to Pakistan the Sikh Juggut Singh, a local dacoit or hoodlum, is shown sneaking into his Muslim lover’s house and trying to get intimate with her. Her father, the village imam, hears the commotion. He is blind, and shown to be so clueless and gullible that his daughter is easily able to distract him. Later Juggut and his love are shown frolicking in the fields, and at some point she becomes pregnant, but this only subtly implied. (In conservative villages this phenomenon of a Muslim girl and Sikh boy would be hard to imagine.)

In Gadar and Veer Zara, once again under different circumstances a Muslim girl falls in love with a Sikh and Hindu protagonist. The implication is that Muslim men are not good enough for their women, and that the best qualities a man can have come from Hindus and Sikhs. It also says it’s OK for a Muslim girl to break her family and religious bonds even though this is forbidden in Islam. By making love the key theme, these films take a tragedy and turn it into romance. The underlying message being the oft repeated cliché that ‘love conquers all’.

Portrayals of Muslim men: weak and cowardly

India is a population dominated by a Hindu population with a minority 12-15% Muslim population. It is natural to show Hindus in stronger roles. However it is the total absence of strong moral Muslim characters that is surprising.

In Train to Pakistan an outsider arrives in town with no place to stay. He is mainly referred to by his first name, Iqbal, which suggests he is a Muslim, though his surname is the Sikh Singh. When he asks for a place he is told to go and stay at the local Gurdwara (Sikh temple) which he readily does. As the story develops Iqbal is sent to prison. There the police ask him if he is a Muslim. He tries to deny it, but they ask him to pull his pants down as they want to see if he is circumcised. When they see that he is, he still does not have the courage to say he is a Muslim, and instead blames circumcision on an infection he had.

Benevolent, chivalrous Hindu men

In Gadar, Sakina (a Muslim woman) is separated from her family and a hoard of Sikhs start chasing her. The protagonist Tara Singh (a Sikh) sees this rampage and tries to prevent it. Even though he has lost family he stops the hoard with a noble speech. And in Veer Zara, as the story unfolds we learn why Veer (the jailed Skih) has taken the ‘high road’ and not disclosed evidence which could exonerate him. Veer cares more about the dignity of Zaara (a Muslim woman from Pakistan whom he loves). He won’t say or do anything which could hurt her, even if it means staying in jail forever.

Even in Train to Pakistan, Hukum Chand is a just but conflicted Hindu village headman. Muslim courtesans come to his party, and a young teenage girl stays to keep him company when the others leave. Both the girl and her family are shown as very naive. The mother is shown as someone who is willing to sell her daughter without any consideration to her and their dignity. When the girls family leaves Hukum asks her what she can do. She innocently replies ‘I only know how to sing and dance.’ Hukum Chand is shown as someone who tries to control his passions and does not make any advances to her. After some song and dance, he tells her to go back, but she doesn’t want to. Although nothing explicit is shown, the scenes imply that she is promiscuous and wants to be seduced by Hukum, so rather than taking advantage, it seems instead that Hukum gives in to the girl.

Tolerant Accepting Hindus and Hardline Fundamentalist Muslims

We all like to root for the hero and despise the villain in a film. In this genre the Hindu family is shown as tolerant and sympathetic. Conversely the Muslim family is portrayed as fundamentalist and insensitive.

In Pinjar the protagonist is a Hindu woman called Puro, who on the eve of her wedding is kidnapped by a Muslim, Rashid. When her parents learn of her fate they go to the suspect’s parents’ house. The father and the panchiat (his advisors/uncles) give them the cold treatment. The father, the panchiat and later the imam who marries Rashid and Puro are shown as villains. Not only bereft of any decency but also any humanity. Later when more of her relatives are kidnapped they are shown in a household where the kidnapper is a Muslim drunkard and the pimpish mother-in-law has no sympathy for the young Sikh girl who has been kidnapped and enslaved.

In Gadar, Tara Singh and Sakina fall in love. There are no conflicts on the Indian side with his family even though he is a Sikh and she a Muslim. She is fully accepted and does not have to convert. This is not the case for Tara when he later goes to the not so tolerant Muslim Pakistanis, when Sakina goes to Pakistan to meet her family, and Tara has to follow her to get her back from the clutches of her fanatical father.

In order to keep his wife, Tara has to convert to Islam. Although to become a Muslim only requires one to give a one sentence declaration of the belief in Oneness of God and in the last Prophet, being Bollywood it appears Tara has to go through more of an ordeal. Not only must he give the declaration but he has to do it in front of a gathering of the whole town. The wicked imam asks him to make the declaration, and then the most inciting and creative dialogue takes place between the eye-popping father-in-law Ashraf and Tara Singh. Tara is asked now to say Pakistan is the best, and bless it, to which he reluctantly agrees. Then to up the ante Ashraf asks Tara to curse India, leading to the following dialogue:

Tara Singh: Why are you playing these political games? Pakistan may live long. We do not have an objection to that. But India shall always live long.

Ashraf Ali: Till you say ,‘Death to India’, how will our people believe that you are a true Muslim?

Tara Singh: There are more Muslims in India than this country. Their hearts always say, ‘Long Live India’, so are they not true Muslims?


If you take the same images and you repeat them over and over again, and the images teach us to hate a people and to hate their religion, what happens is that we, in spite of our intelligence, our innate goodness, actually turn around and let these images despise and vilify an entire people.’ (2001)

Film is more than an entertainment medium. Following a survey conducted among Muslims in Britain, it was reported that those interviewed ‘found a direct correlation between media portrayal and their social experiences of exclusion, hatred, discrimination and violence’. What we can say conclusively is that film is an influential medium. How it portrays history and people of opposing beliefs or nationalities should be taken with great care. I hope this will give cause for someone else to take the baton and run with it. I will close with an old Indian tale which maybe has some insights. A father used to read his child bedtime stories. One day the child asked the father, ‘Dad, how come in all the stories you read, the hunter always bags the tiger.’ The father thought for a moment and replied, ‘When the tiger learns to write you will hear that story.’

References Alibhai-Brown, Yasmin, 2005. Film: Bollywood’s message, Independent, 15 July Roberge, Gaston, 1985. Another Cinema for Another Society. Sheehan, Jack, 2001. Author Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. Ward, Lucy. ‘From Aladdin to Lost Ark, Muslims get angry at ‘bad guy’ film images.’ Guardian, January 25, 2007

Javed Mohammed



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