Representing Muslims in cinema

Bollywood: ‘Othering’ the Muslim on screen

Print edition : March 27, 2020

A scene from Padmaavat.

A scene from Manikarnika.

Bollywood must work on its own conscious and unconscious biases while representing Indian Muslims and move beyond the image of the “Muslim other” as terrorist, invading barbarian and villain.

In his seminal article on the fundamentally political relationship between cinema and the state, Prof. M. Madhava Prasad of the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, termed the cinematic apparatus (including the image and the audience) as a “microcosm of the future nation-state”. He explains the political and contextual compulsions of film-makers to use the screen as a medium to further the state’s political narratives.

At a time when Indian nationhood, identity and citizenship are undergoing a state-led process of transformation, it is important to deconstruct the role that cinema plays in the supplementary cultural transformations of public life. This is especially important at a time when a political fault line seems to be emerging within the film industry in the context of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the widespread protests against it.

For much of history, the connection between politics and cinema has been implicit yet intimate. Films have often served as a tool of propaganda given their unique ability to reproduce images, movement and sound in an extremely lifelike manner. Unlike other art forms, cinema possesses a sense of immediacy; through the willing suspension of disbelief that they naturally inspire, films are capable of creating the illusion of reality. The nature of photography and videography offers artists the freedom to play with conceptions of reality and also gives them the power to shape people’s perception of reality. This power of representation comes to the fore when films depict unknown cultures, places or histories.

In this article, we analyse the processes of exclusion and otherisation implicit in recent Bollywood period dramas. Contextualising this discussion against the absence of Muslim protagonists from most mainstream films, we argue that Bollywood’s otherisation of Indian Muslims is a well-entrenched practice that is itself reflective of India’s current political landscape.

Political positions

According to contemporary film theory, in order to fully explicate filmic ideology and the ways in which films advance specific political positions, one must also take a look at cinematic form and narrative and at how the cinema apparatus transcodes social discourses and reproduces ideological effects.

The political psychologist Ashis Nandy argues that “popular cinema not merely shapes and is shaped by politics, it constitutes the language for a new form of politics” since its “focus is on the key concerns of some of the most articulate, vibrant and volatile sectors of the Indian electorate today”.

In his book Indian Muslim(s) After Liberalisation, Prof. Maidul Islam argues that the forms and narratives of image construction of Indian Muslims in Bollywood cinema deserve widespread critique. His book enunciates the constant process of vilification of Muslims in Hindi cinema and how it has produced the image of a “Muslim Other”, which is contradictory to the image of a law-abiding citizen.

A movie can be identified as articulating ideologies in a passive voice when it conveys a fixed meaning to its audiences as opposed to engaging with them in a critical dialogue. We can identify a number of Bollywood movies with this passive, discursive tone and have singled out some for reference in this article.

When considered alongside the influence of Bollywood and the fact that it may be the primary source of information about law and justice for several audiences, a passive voice allows for the construction of a certain perception of the state, the judicial system (including judges, lawyers and the law) and a particular dichotomy between law and justice.

This discursive tone is identifiable in the hypernationalist rhetoric of films such as Jolly LLB 2 and Batla House. Using the setting of a courtroom drama, these films portray the law—as embodied in adherence to juridical procedures and judicial accountability—as an obstruction to justice. The narratives of supercop films such as Singham and Dabangg also follow this style.

Justice in these narratives is embodied by the motives of the protagonist, which are given a higher moral claim by appeals to national interests. Thus, the protagonist fights not only the “traitors” of the nation but the very idea of human rights and juridical checks and balances. Justice, ironically then, is achieved through the successful subversion of the very principles that ensure justice. Similarly, Bollywood’s recent turn towards the genre of historical fiction propagates the trope of the “Muslim Other”. In recent times, Bollywood has played an immensely influential role in producing myths, prejudices and stereotypes about Indian Muslims.

Using Muslim characters handpicked from history, these films seek to shape the dominant public perception of Muslims in India today using historical tropes. They also bear little resemblance to the historical narratives they seek to represent.

With the Hindu right wing’s growing hegemony over political and institutional power, these cinematic representations add to a vitriolic atmosphere wherein Muslims are demonised and brutalised. Crucially, this is being done in the midst of a lack of progressive political articulation within the Muslim community to counter these hegemonic narratives.

Changing course

After Independence, top movie stars such as Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar and movies such as Mughal-e-Azam exemplified the highly pluralistic ethos of the film industry as well as the post-Partition sociopolitical understanding of communal harmony.

During this pre-liberalisation period, Bollywood was used to further the constitutional values of liberal democracy, (Nehruvian) secularism and inclusiveness.

In a 2004 speech, the film director Mahesh Bhatt said that the first change in Bollywood emerged when films began to use Pakistan as a dog whistle for Muslims in India, taking a perverse delight in mocking and ridiculing the Muslim community under the guise of a triumphalist, militarist nationalism.

Prof. Islam’s book posits that the dominant trend in representing Muslims in Bollywood cinema has changed significantly following liberalisation. Four key themes dominate the representational scheme of Muslims in Hindi films released in the 1990s and after: (a) the “Muslim Other” as an enemy of the nation; (b) an imaginary notion of a “Hindu-ised nation” where Muslims are relegated to a lower citizenship status; (c) Muslims as a source of terror within the nation state; and (d) a conflation of Muslim, terrorist and Pakistani.

However, while these narratives were resolutely rejected by the masses before liberalisation, things have changed now. Anti-Pakistan movies have become a recent favourite of Bollywood directors who want to produce crowd-pleasing cinema. Packaging hypernationalism as entertainment, these films depict Pakistan as the villain in whose defeat rests Indian national pride. These anti-Pakistan movies use cinematic representations of Pakistanis to raise problematic questions about the citizenship and belonging of Muslims in India, implying that all Muslims living in India are either black sheep or Pakistani agents.

If one considers the top 12 Bollywood movies that crossed the Rs.300-crore mark in box office collections, except Sultan (rank 5, released in 2016 with a Rs.584 crore collection) and 3 Idiots (rank 8, released in 2009 with a Rs.392 crore collection), the other 10 films did not have a single Muslim protagonist based in India. The films with the third- and fourth-highest box office collections, PK (released in 2014 with a Rs.735.42 crore collection) and Bajrangi Bhaijaan (released in 2015 with a Rs.604.23 crore collection) do not show any prominent Muslim character as an Indian citizen, although the first half of Bajrangi Bhaijaan is set in Chandni Chowk, a religiously diverse locality in Delhi. Instead, both the films show Muslims only as citizens of Pakistan and Hindus as citizens of India. Notably, Sushant Singh Rajput as Sarfaraz Yousaf in PK and all prominent Muslim characters in Bajrangi Bhaijaan are Pakistanis. This is the underlying communal bias of these Bollywood blockbusters.

Blatant obscurantism

In recent times, Bollywood has turned its attention to historical fiction. Since 2016, the industry has produced a number of historical epics such as Bajirao Mastani, Padmaavat, Manikarnika, Panipat and Tanhaji. However, Bollywood’s turn to history is not a turn to history per se but a turn towards Hindu history. The recent wave of historical fiction in Bollywood focusses on highlighting stories that have “never been seen before” but are actually just Hindutva versions of familiar histories. In their rhetoric and packaging, the Hindutva gloss on history is presented as a kind of exclusive scoop—sensationalist historiography for the masses, as it were.

These supposedly forgotten epics are “revived” for celluloid and used to retrospectively construct the Hindu fold. Erasing the complexity of medieval politics as exemplified in constant internecine conflict between medieval monarchs, these films homogenise Hindu monarchs by juxtaposing them against Muslim “invaders”.

These historical dramas feed off the Hindutva version of Indian history as a series of foreign invasions and occupations to portray a Hindu India that was besieged by a fanatic Muslim horde. All of these films culminate in the “virtuous” Hindu monarch facing fanatic, barbaric Muslim hordes in cataclysmic battles.

The otherisation of Muslims in these films begins with subtle juxtapositions of the “good Hindu king” against the “barbaric Muslim other”. In Padmaavat, for example, Sultan Alauddin Khilji, who serves as the “Muslim other”, is juxtaposed against Raja Ratansen, the “good Hindu”. One of the most noticeable of these juxtapositions is that of their desire for Rani Padmini. In the film, both men desire Padmini for her beauty, yet the desire of each is represented in different ways. This discourse begins from the first scene of the film, where we see Khilji cheat on his bride on their wedding night. Throughout the film, Khilji is presented as an unstable, irrational “barbarian” who chews meat off the bone, drinks himself silly and sleeps with whomever he desires, often with little care for consent. The film also insinuates a homosexual relationship between Khilji and his slave-general, Malik Kafur, to further stress his barbarity and “otherness”. Khilji’s desire for Padmini is absorbed within this discourse of the “Muslim invader’s” unbridled appetite, sexual and otherwise.

In contrast, Raja Ratansen’s desire for Padmini is given legitimacy through the discourse of romance and courtship. Despite Ratansen’s previous marriage, his desire for and marriage with Padmini is depicted not as an example of polygamy but as the picture of true love itself. This quiet acceptance of Ratansen’s polygamous Hindu household represents a significant Islamophobic double standard as it comes at a time of heightened political hysteria around the alleged demographic threat Muslims supposedly pose to Hindu India through polygamy and “love jehad”.

In Padmaavat, a particularly noticeable departure from Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s source text is the complete erasure of the history of localised internecine conflict between Rajput kings. The Hindu fold is constructed by presenting the Rajputs as a single, united Hindu tribe, when in reality they were anything but. The film does this by changing a vital detail from the epic. In the epic, it is the neighbouring Rajput ruler of Kumbhalner, Raja Devpal, who kills Ratansen on the battlefield after challenging him to combat with Padmini as the prize.

As Thomas de Bruijn writes in his book Ruby in the Dust, internecine Rajput conflict is a major part of the epic poem. Raja Devpal, like Khilji, is enamoured of Padmini, having heard tales of her beauty. Devpal also lusts after Ratansen’s prosperous kingdom, desiring not just his wife but his lands and palaces. In the film, however, it is Khilji and not Devpal who deals Ratansen the fatal blow.

This, along with the erasure of local Rajput contestations, allows for the communalisation of the story. Rather than engage with the complexity of medieval politics, viewers are fed a simplified narrative that pits Hindu Rajputs against Khilji’s lustful, marauding Muslim horde.

Against this context, Padmini’s suicide is presented as a heroic moment—as the ultimate duty of a good Hindu wife. Rather than critique the honour-shame-martyrdom complex that compels Padmini and other Rajput women to commit suicide upon the death of their husbands, the film celebrates it. In doing so, it momentarily reactivates a problematic history of the celebration of sati as the “ultimate duty” of the “good” Hindu wife.

Thomas de Bruijn also writes that Jayasi’s text must also be understood in the context of its time. As an epic poem written more than 200 years after the 1303 siege of Chittor, Jayasi’s epic is itself a work of historical fiction. Rather than portray a Hindu-Muslim conflict, the epic is didactic in nature and tells the story of the relationship between a loyal servant and a dishonourable lord.

In contrast to the retrospective constructions of the Hindu fold, Jayasi praises Sher Shah using images he later associates with the ideal ruler. (In Kanhavat, Jayasi lavishes praise on Humayun.)

He also uses contemporary historical figures as moulds for its cast. Ratansen, for example, is believed to have been modelled on the then ruler of Chittor, while events in the epic such as hiding soldiers in palanquins resemble Badauni’s account of Sher Shah’s siege of a Rohtas fortress in 1537. Furthermore, the film’s use of the “Muslim invader” trope hides the complexity of Khilji’s own position within Indian history. For example, despite being born outside the borders of modern India, Khilji defended the Indian subcontinent against six invasions by the Chagatai Khanate. The paradox of an “invader” defending a kingdom against other “invaders” is the kind of complexity that these historical tropes gloss over. Medieval Indian history is rich in the admixture and assimilation of West Asian and Central Asian cultures into the melting pot that is South Asia.

In representing complex medieval histories through the lens of a religious conflict akin to the “clash of civilisations” trope, Padmaavat bears similarity to Bajirao Mastani, Tanhaji and Panipat. All of these films repeat the trope of a Muslim horde at the gates of a Hindu India. Communalising complex historical and cultural processes of absorption and assimilation, these discourses only serve to “other” Muslims, presenting them as alien to the land. The success of this rhetoric is visible in the box office success of these films and in the political success of candidates who whip up communal hysteria by referring to Indian Muslims as descendants of Khilji and Aurangzeb.

India’s rightward shift and the ascendance of Islamophobic politics in the garb of cow protection and vegetarianism is also reflected in Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, a 2019 biopic of Rani Lakshmi Bai, a 19th-century Indian queen who fought against the British colonial army in 1857 in the First War of Indian Independence. In a particularly stirring scene in the film, British soldiers snatch a calf in order to kill it for steak. Rani Lakshmi Bai, played by Kangana Ranaut, rescues the calf and offers a lesson: “Learn to respect the people and the sentiments of the land you are standing on.”. The film is steeped in Hindu nationalist imagery around religious worship and cow protection. In its construction of the Hindu fold through the eyes of Rani Lakshmi Bai, the film seems to forget her alliance in that war with the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar II. Indian revolutionaries fighting in 1857 were fighting to restore the Mughal emperor to his throne. Rather than highlight this historical fact as a vivid symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity in the fight against British colonialism, the film harps on modern symbols of Hindu nationalism to deliver a distinctly communal warning to the so-called meat eaters of India.


In conclusion, this (re-)construction of the Hindu fold using the debris of history is problematic for the ways in which it fuels a modern-day political discourse that incites violence in order to avenge imagined historical injustices. Recasting Indian history in the Hindutva mould of a Hindu history reinforces audience biases of religious strife in India as a timeless, ceaseless, “clash of civilisations” style struggle, when it is anything but.

What is needed instead is a deeper engagement with the complex realities of medieval politics. Here it is important to briefly recall the work of Prof. Richard Eaton, who argues that since the sixth century C.E., temple desecration became a part of medieval warfare practice but not for religious reasons. In fact, Hindu kings desecrated the temples in the territories of rival Hindu kings just as often as their Muslim counterparts. This is because medieval kingdoms stored their wealth in temples, thus making them attractive candidates for looting. During inter-dynastic conflicts, victorious Hindu kings destroyed their rival’s patron idols to signify their rival’s defeat.

Bollywood’s consistent tendency to otherise and demonise Muslims is testimony to the fact that such prejudices, stigma and myths are endorsed by the broader audience that watches this cinema. Rather than challenging mainstream misconceptions, Bollywood’s engagement with culture, history and politics is exclusively focussed on producing crowd-pleasing content that appeases contemporary majoritarian mobilisations.

Given the entrenchment of Islamophobia in every rung of Indian society, it is extremely important for Bollywood to work on its own conscious and unconscious biases. While representing Indian Muslims, Bollywood has to move beyond the image of the “Muslim other” as a terrorist, foreign spy, mafia don, fraudster, invading barbarian and villain.

The onus rests not only on the film-makers and writers who create these representations but also on the actors who agree to portray them on celluloid. In this, Jim Sarbh, who played Malik Kafur in Padmaavat, presents a shining example. Despite being a fledgling actor, he publicly refused to play any more “Muslim invader” roles, in recognition of the dangerous and vitriolic stereotypes such representations perpetuate. We can only hope that his example will inspire others within the industry.