I’ve been on and off with Bollywood/Indian films over the years. Though lately, ever since I saw the brilliant (and hilarious) new Aamir Khan film, “3 Idiots,” and noticed how it helped improve my Urdu/Hindi, I have been watching more Bollywood movies. My personal history with Bollywood films is more appropriate for another post, but I will share this much: Growing up as one of the few South Asians in a predominately White American suburb meant that I rarely found myself to be an attractive person and it was mostly due to my skin color. Bollywood movies taught me otherwise, even though I recognized it temporarily and on a very subconscious level.
Very similar to how Sobia Ali opens her excellent piece, “Bollywood’s Muslim Heroines: Of Love and Hate,” I must point out that I’ve found my connection to Bollywood films to be problematic for a number of reasons: I didn’t grow up in a South Asian country, my Urdu/Hindi is not, um, “superb” (inside joke), and I’m a Pakistani Muslim. Though much of the Indian film industry is packed with Muslim stars, directors, screenwriters, lyricists, and musicians, there are numerous Bollywood films that contain either implicit or explicit anti-Pakistani sentiments (one of the major reasons why I stopped watching them a few years ago). However, in recent years, more Pakistani singers such as Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Atif Aslam, and Kamran Ahmed have been producing immensely popular songs for Bollywood films, and Indian celebrities such as Aamir Khan, Emraan Hashmi (both Muslims), Mahesh Bhatt, and others have visited Pakistan on several occasions to promote more artistic collaborations between the two nations. Movies like the Pakistani film “Khuda Ke Liye” represent the emergence of Indo-Pak collaborations, for instance.
But the latest film directed by Rensil D’Silva, “Kurbaan,” is anything but progressive. Being Muslim, I have always paid close attention to the Muslim stars in Indian cinema, namely Shahrukh Khan, Aamir Khan, and Salman Khan, and as a kid, it was nice to watch films where I knew the protagonists were played by Muslims, even though most of the time they’re playing Hindu characters (which makes for another interesting discussion). “Kurbaan” is one of those rare movies where the Muslim actor, Saif Ali Khan, actually plays a Muslim. However, to my disappointment, the film is set in the backdrop of terrorism and loaded with Islamophobic stereotypes, something that is so typical in both Hollywood and Bollywood cinema whenever Muslims are portrayed.
Saif Ali Khan plays Ehsaan, a university professor in India, who passionately falls in Love with a Hindu professor, Avantika, played by real-life girlfriend Kareena Kapoor. Their Love carries them overseas when Avantika receives a job offer to teach in the United States. After settling in a predominately Indian Muslim neighborhood, Ehsaan, upon Avantika’s encouragement, applies to teach a class on “Islam and the modern world” at the same university. Ehsaan gets the job, Avantika gets excited, the two embrace, and they live happily ever after. Right?
But wait, don’t forget about the Muslims next door. The men are mostly bearded and all of the Muslim women are wearing the hijaab (headscarf). Strict gender segregation rules are set in place when Ehsaan and Avantika visit Bhaijan, their elder Muslim neighbor. To say the scene was nauseating would be an understatement — it confirms every single stereotype a person may have about Muslim women: oppressed, secluded, and subservient to men. The eldest Muslim woman, Aapa/Nasreen (Bhaijan’s wife), is the controlling one, she keeps the Muslim women in line and every time she speaks about Allah, she does so in the most ominous way possible. One of the wives, Salma, tries to express her frustration at how Muslim men don’t permit women to work, but Aapa interjects and says Allah has “no greater duty” for Muslim women than to be a homemaker. Avantika, a Hindu woman, represents the contrast and is familiar to international non-Muslim audiences, especially in the United States: she is unveiled, progressive, a working woman, and unsettled by the restrictive atmosphere of her Muslim neighbors. Earlier in the film, we see some reluctance from her father when he meets Ehsaan, and while he says he prefers Avantika to marry a Hindu man, he does so in a friendly manner and eventually becomes open to the idea.
Salma’s rebellious attitude brings deadly consequences. One night, Avantika looks out her window and sees Salma trying to escape in her husband’s jeep, but she is slapped, back-fisted, and pulled back into her house by her spouse. Typical Muslim husband. Later, Avantika sneaks into Salma’s house and overhears Bhaijan and the other Muslim male neighbors discussing their plan to blow up a flight carrying a U.S. delegation to Iraq. Avantika is startled when she finds the dead body of Salma and the Muslim men catch her spying on them. She runs back to her house, locks the door, and rushes into the arms of her husband. Ehsaan tells her there’s nothing to be afraid of as he walks her back into the living room. Then Ehsaan says, “You all can come out now.” The Muslim men reveal themselves out of concealment. Avantika’s eyes fill with horror as she comes to the terrible realization that, yep, her husband is a terrorist.
*headdesk* *headdesk* *headdesk*
See, Hindu women (or any non-Muslim woman), never get involved with a Muslim man. Wait, Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor are dating in real life. Nevermind. But still, what gives? This is something that really offends me about the movie. Saif Ali Khan is a charming and good-looking Muslim man who teaches about Islam in a university, and he’s a terrorist?! The film provokes suspicion about Muslims at almost all angles. Suspicion about Muslim Lovers/husbands/professors, like Ehsaan; about Muslim neighbors, like Bhaijan and company; and about Muslim women, who join their husbands in the plot to blow up a subway station at the end of the film. No matter how Loving, intelligent, or kind they look on the surface, there is furious extremism boiling inside of them. And accompanying this suspicion is the ominous Middle-Eastern music that plays every time Muslims are on screen, as if every Muslim has some connection to the Middle-East, even if they’re Indian and speak Hindi!
Enter the “good moderate Muslim,” Riyaz (played by Vivek Oberoi). We are introduced to him early in the film as a TV reporter. He returns from a trip to Iraq and tells his Muslim girlfriend, Rihana (Dia Mirza), who is unveiled and dressed in Western attire, a noticeable contrast to Aapa and the other Muslim wives, about how “Iraq is a mess.” When Riyaz meets with his father in a restaurant, his father is disappointed with the U.S. news coverage in Iraq. What about the Iraqi civilian casualties, Riyaz’s father asks. Riyaz defensively says, “Dad, we are Americans. That is the kind of fundamentalist mentality that has made things worse for all Muslims.” Whoa, to speak about Iraqi causalities is a “fundamentalist mentality”? If that is the case, then the majority of the Muslim population (and anti-war activists) would fit that profile!
Riyaz is a superficial character. He is the super-patriotic, unrealistically pro-American character that is trying to speak for the majority Muslims, but fails. He fails because he tries to take on the definition of “moderate Muslim,” the kind of Muslim that Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Daniel Pipes and other Islamophobes fantasize about. The kind of Muslim who is only good because he is anti-Muslim. The “moderate Muslim” label is something a lot of Muslims are fed up with because it is generated by either Islamophobes or misguided individuals who have a very superficial understanding about Islam and Muslims in general. The term, “moderate Muslim,” reinforces the idea that “Islam has been hijacked,” or that the majority of Muslims in the world are hostile, violent, and oppressive. It also comes with unrealistic expectations and generalizations; for example, if a Muslim is anti-war and criticizes the Iraq war, s/he cannot be a “moderate Muslim” because, as Riyaz establishes in the scene with his father, that is a “fundamentalist mentality.” In other words, the “moderate Muslim” is a very narrow, tight box — anyone outside of that box is perceived as suspicious, dangerous, anti-American, and even violent.
Riyaz becomes a prominent character once his fiance, Rihana, dies in the plane bombing orchestrated by Ehsaan et al. Riyaz gets in touch with Avantika and comes up with a plan to join Ehsaan’s terrorist group. During a security check, Riyaz is “randomly searched” by a security guard and shows some resistance. “I don’t see anyone else getting searched,” Riyaz says. “It’s just a random search, sir” replies the guard. After being searched, Riyaz sits next to Ehsaan and complains about being profiled. “I’ve got a Muslim name, that’s why they had a problem with me.” Ehsaan replies, “I know what you mean.” At first, I appreciated this scene because it showed the experience of a Muslim getting profiled, but then you, as the viewer, are reminded that Riyaz is trying to befriend Ehsaan in order to stop him. We can’t tell if Riyaz is speaking for himself or simply putting on a front to impress Ehsaan.
We get to see Ehsaan’s lecture on Islam when he invites Riyaz to his classroom. I found this scene to be immensely problematic. When a student asks about why violence comes from Muslim majority countries, Riyaz raises his hand and argues the same point his father makes early in the film: “What about the Muslim casualties?” He argues points that many Muslims would argue if they were asked the same question, i.e. the violence in Muslim majority countries cannot be separated from U.S. and Israeli occupation of those countries. But this is all “fundamentalist” to us because the audience knows Riyaz is not there speaking for himself. He’s simply saying it to win Ehsaan’s attention.
There is something else going on in this movie that I must point out. Unlike the way Hollywood portrays Muslim terrorists, Ehsaan’s character is designed to gain the sympathy of the audience. He is not only seen as a good-looking, charming, and sexy Muslim man, but also as a lethal and unstoppable killer who can drop six police officers faster than you can say “007.” His insane stealth skills remind me of the hitman protagonist in Luc Besson’s “Leon: The Professional.” This is interesting for a number of reasons. In Hollywood films, the Muslim terrorist is played by a no-name actor, completely unfamiliar to the audience. Saif Ali Khan, however, is a sex symbol in Bollywood cinema. Audiences are familiar with him, therefore it makes sense to develop his character, no matter what horrible acts of violence he commits. A back story is given briefly — he was previously married, happily in Love, but his wife and child were killed by U.S. military forces. Thus, he was recruited by extremists.
The steamy sex scene between Ehsaan and Avantika is another example of how sexualized (exoticized?) the Muslim male terrorist is. The bullet wound on his chest symbolizes his indestructible power and guardianship of his Love, Avantika. Like Leon, the hitman, Ehsaan is a killer, but he has a heart and tragic story behind him. Ehsaan decides not to bomb the subway at the end and instead, commits suicide to save his beloved Avantika. This does not make me happy about the way Muslims are depicted in this film at all, but it is certainly a very different depiction we usually see in Hollywood films.
In closing, “Kurbaan” offers nothing new about “terrorism” as director Rensil D’Silva aspired for. In an interview, he said that the “alignment of terrorism with Islam remains unchanged,” which is extremely offensive and insulting. It perpetuates the stereotype that only Muslims carry out acts of terror, and that “Muslim” is synonymous with “terrorist.” (My regular readers have heard this lesson before on my blog here). As for Bollywood’s depictions of Muslim characters, it is not different from previous representations. As Sobia Ali wrote in the article I mentioned above:
It seems that in the past 10 or so years, it has been difficult to find a film in which the Muslim aspect of a main character’s identity was simply just an aspect of their identity, as was the colour of their hair. Hindi films in which the central characters (i.e., hero and/or heroine) are Muslim maintain Muslim-ness as central to the storyline and the storyline is usually somehow political – either in severe (terrorism) or romantic (inter-religious love) ways, or both.
We need to see more films that accurately depict Muslims in the way the community deserves. Always setting Muslims within the backdrop of terrorism is offensive as it is nauseating. After “Kurbaan,” I wondered what the point of it was. What does it tell us about Muslims? One may get the impression that Muslims are mistrustful and dangerous. That Muslim women are oppressed and need saving from the “strict” religion that Islam apparently is. Others may get the impression that Muslim men are “tough” and “bad-ass” individuals who struggle with extremist interpretations of Islam. All of these stereotypes reinforce Islamophobic narratives that hurt the Muslim community more than anything.