The Religious Conflict as a Blockbuster

The Bollywood wave has reached our western shores. But how much screen time is actually devoted to politically and socially critical issues in these Indian films, which are primarily about love, consumption, and affluence? Pouyeh Ansari reports

'Veer - Zaara' (photo:yashrajfilms)
In "Veer - Zaara" Yash Chopra intentionally highlighted the conflict between Hindus and Muslims and dressed it up as popular entertainment

​​Millions of people in India adore Bollywood films. But in the West too, this popular film genre is attracting an ever-growing following. At first glance, Bollywood films would appear to target women with a penchant for trashy love stories. After all, Indian popular cinema is characterised by lush colours, melodic singing, and rhythmic dancing.

But Bollywood does not restrict itself to these obviously entertaining cinematic effects, it also tackles controversial issues like the religious conflict between Muslims and Hindus, which is reflected in the tense power-politics played out between the neighbouring states of India and Pakistan.

"Veer – Zara", for example, is loosely based on the story of Romeo and Juliet. Director Yash Chopra intentionally highlighted the conflict between Hindus and Muslims and dressed it up as popular entertainment.

Cinema as a mirror for social conflicts

Vinzenz Hediger, expert in cinematic studies and professor at the Ruhr University in Bochum, is of the opinion that entertainment films are particularly suited to tackling the issue of social conflicts. "Popular cinema in particular, with its dramatic turns of events and concise formulae, is ideal for highlighting social conflicts in an effective manner that will reach a broad span of people. In addition, popular films always have to be relevant. In other words, cinema-goers must be able to relate what is happening on the screen to what is going on in their lives. And they have to be successful, because they are so costly to produce."

The social conflicts that are addressed and dealt with in Bollywood films are, to a certain extent, both a model and a screen for the audience.

Pluralism in the film business

Indian men burning a poster picturing actor Aamir Khan (photo: AP)
Supporters of the right-wing Hindu party BJP call for a boycott of the latest Bollywood film starring Aamir Khan, "Fanaa"

​​Many Muslims and Hindus work together in the Indian film industry. But the religious pluralism doesn’t end there: members of other religious groups are also active in the film sector. To a certain extent, this harmonious co-operation is a model for the rest of society.

"If blogs and fan sites are anything to go by, then it is clear that fans of superstar Rhitik Roshan are indeed aware that he is married to a Muslim woman," says Vinzenz Hediger. "The corresponding postings definitely suggest that Roshan's decision to include both Hindu and Muslim elements in his wedding ceremony is considered to be a symbolic gesture."

Calls for boycotts by conservative Hindus

However, this harmonious trend recently took a negative turn. Supporters of the conservative, right-wing Hindu party BJP have called for a boycott of the latest Bollywood film starring the well-known actor Aamir Khan, "Fanaa". The reason being that Khan spoke out in favour of giving adequate compensation to Muslims who were affected by the construction of the dam in Gujarat and forced to move elsewhere.

Documentary maker Rakesh Sharma, a Brahman (a Hindu of the highest caste), wrote about these events in his weblog. Sharma is one of Hindu nationalism's severest critics. Reading his weblog, it is clear that he was not in the least surprised by these developments. He has tackled similar calls for boycotts in his own films on several occasions in the past.

Indian documentary filmmaker Rakesh Sharma (photo: AP)
With biting sarcasm, Sharma comments on the apolitical behaviour that is expected of actors

​​In his blog, he offers cinema colleague Aamir Khan a piece of advice: "Welcome, Aamir Khan, to the world away from the arc lights. Are you surprised at the hysteria cutting across party lines? To see Congress and BJP youth burn your posters in tandem? […] Why don't you simply apologise - actors are supposed to be 'bimbos' - just say sorry and all will be forgiven. Learn the virtues of silence."

With biting sarcasm, Sharma comments on the apolitical behaviour that is expected of actors. They are there to sing, dance, and entertain the public, but certainly not to express their own opinions. It is their job, says Sharma, to keep the audience smiling and not to get involved in domestic political conflicts.

Because of the calls for a boycott against "Fanaa" in Gujarat, the film has become a huge box office success in the country’s remaining states. We can only hope that Khan's remarks were more than just a marketing ploy to help boost box office takings.

Pouyeh Ansari

© 2006

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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