Introduction and Argument
The Conceptual Framework
The Muslim ‘Other’ & Media Framing
Case in Point: Muslim ‘Otherization’ in Bollywood
Film Review: Exoticized, Marginalised and Demonized Muslims
Introduction and Argument
The Politics of Information
The modern world faces a communication paradox: the audience being richer with information, but the information being laced with inauthenticity and criticism.
The evolution of the society and the complexity of social relations at local or international level can be traced back to the characteristic trait of human beings to acquire information. This unremitting need resulted in interpersonal relations as first form of communication in traditional societies, leading up to the development of the term ‘media’ in the 1920s in the modern world. The gradual advent of technology made ‘media studies’ common in 1960s-70s – which coincided with an increase in media saturation as broadcast programming spread. Shortly thereafter, media was observed to emerge as the sole effective medium of engagement and influence among audiences1 The root word here being ‘ influence ’ – which aids mass media in creation and distribution of ideologies, contributing to cultural production of knowledge.
Within the multi-faceted media segment, the electronic media has played a crucial role in influencing its audience, imagining and constructing national identity, especially in the era of globalization2 The mediums of electronic media has been able to use narratives, rhetoric, and imagery in providing its audience symbols through which a common culture is organised. Through effective adoption and appropriation, the audience insert itself into that culture which culminates into imagined communities.3 However, the role of electronic media has undergone a gradual decay, shifting from an aid to development to a ‘kind of political megaphone’.4
While media can articulate dominant social value and ideologies, it has often resulted in misrepresentation of facts to suit the propagandic agenda of the powerful. Recent years have witnessed a burgeoning trend of misinterpretation or stereotypical portrayals of minorities in majoritarian nations – case in point being media portrayal of Muslims around the globe through the lenses of religion, race and ethnicity. In a world marked by globalization and shifting geo-politics, this phenomenon was soon seen to be adopted in the content of the entertainment media i.e. cinema.
Cinema, similar to its contemporary mediums, has acted as a capacious cultural space for politicians, reactionary ideologues, and the defenders of a particular social belief system to reconstruct and reinterpret the archaeologies of the imaginary world built on celluloid, in a manner that suits their own agenda. In the process of such reconstruction, cinema is used to establish linkages between the publicly contested socio- political and historical meanings prevalent in a nation and the filmic world created by cinematography. This is done in an attempt to situate the subtext of socio-political contests within the deep spaces vacant between the lines of a film’s story.5 Usually, the presence of obvious cultural boundaries, especially in majoritarian nations, becomes a fertile ground for interpretations that are screened subtly in a film’s setting, often with an agenda to influence the audience.
Global Trends of Politicization of Information
Globally, this trend can be traced back to the Cold War era. Post the vacuum created by the collapse of USSR and ‘Red Menace’ of communism, negative portrayal of the Islamic world was a conspiracy of the American foreign office to invent a new bogy of ‘Green Menace’ (green symbolising Islam).6 Islam, often equated with holy war and fanaticism, hatred and violence, emerged as a unified threat in the West, slowly spreading towards the East. In this connection, the West used this opportunity to ‘defend itself against such a menace’, thus mobilizing all sorts of materials: military, economic, media. Including Hollywood, cultivating negative political indoctrination into the mind of the common man7 Borne out of a political agenda, Hollywood propagandized Islam and Muslims in negative light. Drawing inspiration from the Orientalist discourse, Jack Shaheen, explained that the “lack of representation of a ‘regular guy’, coupled with the existing negative portrayal of Muslims, has reinforced stereotypes about Arab Muslims in Hollywood films, altering the audience mindset and steering them away from reality.8
Discussion in Focus: Politicization of Bollywood in India
India was no alien to this trend. With globalization and open markets system reaching Indian shores in.1990s, alongside the country’s internal communal landscape, the world’s largest secular democracy too could not resist the wave of rising Islamophobia and succumbed to it. In a pluralistic society, such as India, where the media has a large role to play in constructing and shaping ideologies, cinema serves as an important tool to educate and broaden minds. However, Bollywood, often synonymous for Indian cinema, has had an intimate yet myopic relation with Muslim identity. Much of the representation has been marked by stereotypes that have swung between royalty and the extremist, from the victimized to the tyrant.
Accordingly, this paper seeks to illustrate how popular cinema has dealt with the liminality of the Muslim ‘Other’ in the nation-space by representing Muslims either in a stereotypical manner or by appropriating them into the normative Hindu self especially post.1990s, displaying sentiments of ‘ nationalistic supremacy ’. The key word here being ‘ nationalistic or nationalism ’ – a political ideology characterised by the promotion of the interest of a nation-state, especially with the aim of gaining and maintaining sovereignty over ‘home-land’; and rejecting or ‘othering’ ideologies. The rejection of the ‘othering’ ideology refers to Islamophobia, which becomes another recurring theme in this essay.
It is interesting to note that the simultaneous rise in the nationalism wave and Islamophobia is not a novel concept and can find its roots in the popular works of Orientalism’ by Edward Said. Said in his eminent works has argued how Western media projects Muslims and Islam in a framework by prejudices and political interests. This theory will be applied in the Indian context alongside the theory of media framing to comprehend the nationalistic approach to use popular cinema to disseminate the narratives resulting in symbolic violence of the minority in India.
In order to gain insight to this burgeoning trend in Indian cinema, qualitative research methodology will be employed, using a healthy mix of primary sources and secondary sources. The information from the secondary sources will set the foundation for the paper with the theoretical framework and primary sources will in building the empirics, substantiating the applied theory.
A randomly selected sample of 50 popular multi-genre Indian films dated from.1940s to the present time, will be chosen to be reviewed for the essay. The movies will be analysed for the negative portrayal of Islamic terrorism and violence post 1990s, the representation of Muslims and to identify stereotypes, through storylines and characterization. This will also try to address the question, do the Indian films actually represent the reality of Muslim community or is the portrayal borne out of centuries old theory of Orientalism that divided the ‘them’ from ‘us’.
Towards the end, employing this methodology, the essay would focus on three key themes that dominate the representational scheme in Indian cinema: the exotic other, the marginal other, the demonised other – always as the ‘ other’ – which ties back to the opening couplet that the only way an Indian Muslim can enjoy his Indian citizenship is by assimilating in the Hindu ethos to a point that his ‘Muslim’ identity becomes a seamless blur!
The Conceptual Framework
A genealogical sketch of the emergence of the ‘Other’
As mentioned above, the preliminary force of ‘ otherization ’ was evident in the treatment meted out to Russians by Hollywood. Post the World War, Russia represented as a geopolitical threat to the ideologies of the West, especially the Soviet communism. This perceived threat was soon adopted by Hollywood, making Russians the face of antagonism. However, the fall of the Berlin Wall eased off the Russian presence from silver cinema and the Islamic world became the favoured villains for Hollywood. A similar pattern was visible in India as well. The rising nationalistic politics at the roots of an existing conflict further emphasized the ethnic divide, ‘othering’ the Indian Muslim minority. This ‘ otherization ’ was then included in the narrative by the mainstream print and electronic media, which was followed by the big silver screen of cinema powered by Bollywood movies.
However, a noteworthy point is that this imagery, narratives and ideas about Muslims and Islam, globally, have their roots in Orientalist visions that the ‘West’ has constructed for centuries. These visions were soon adopted by the post-colonial India to promulgate the spirit of a ‘ Hindu rashtra ’ or a Hindu nation, despite it being a former British colony. In order to further analyse the Orientalist visions, it’s imperative to briefly understand the notion of Orientalism.
Orientalism: A Brief Introduction
Edward Said’s Orientalism is a multifaceted post-colonial theory that questions the very foundation of Western construction and representation of the ‘Orient’ as the ‘other’ in history, politics, art, literature, music, and pop culture.
Emerged in the late eighteenth century and nineteenth century, Orientalism was an influential academic discourse that portrayed contradictory images of the East by the West. In Said’s words, Orientalism could be defined as a “way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on Orient’s special place in European Western experience.”9 It was a style of thought based on an ontological and epistemological distinction made between the Occident and Orient, that depicted western culture as superior to eastern ones in order to justify the colonial shackles, imperial ambitions and economic ambitions. Thus, it is this marked distinction in the postcolonial era that took form into the concept of ‘ self’ and ‘other’ or ‘us’ and ‘them’. 10
Subsequently, Said argues that the study of Orient is not about geographical inclusivity of cultures, ideas and histories of how West perceives it; but the examination of their power configurations. The Orient was Orientalized by the Western world not because it was found to be Oriental but also because it could be made Oriental. This lopsided manifestation of a discourse without significant counter-discourse from the Orient’s side was a sign of Western power over the Orient. Thus, one can infer that the antagonistic relationship between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is one of power and hegemony; and Orientalism is nothing but a form of cultural hegemony11
Over a span of years, Said produced a body of work that involved the European representation of Arab Middle East societies in stereotypical ways. However, in a globalized era, the Saidian Orientalist theory could be applied to other parts of the Non-Western World, such as India.
Orientalism and India: the Hindu-Muslim Divide
Orientalism in India, though occasionally referred to by Said in his work, contributed to the reinforcement of Hindu-Muslim opposition. With the construction of a unified ‘Hindu’ cultural by the colonial Orientalists, the two groups (i.e. Hindus and non-Hindus), were essentialized and later institutionalised in nationalist political representation12 Thus, one can infer that communalism in India was a product of British colonialism and Orientalist framework, which resulted in a double-edged sword of Hindu nationalism and a lost Muslim identity in the shadows of nationalism.
Parallel to the manner in which Western cultural canon otherized the Arab Middle East cultivating its own hegemony; the interventions by Orientalist13 in India constructed the concept of ‘ Hindu ’ as well bounded distinct cultural category. Thomas Blum Hansen, a leading commentator on religious and political violence in India, argued that the Muslim otherization in India, too, was a consequence of the Orientalist ideas that began to be constructed in 1700s. In his work he argued that “in order to codify Hinduism or Hindu culture, the early Oriental scholars attempted to abstract an intelligible core of central tenets and scriptures from their encounter with vast corpus of religious images, myths and practices in the subcontinent.”14 This resulted in the construction of classical Hinduism as a unified religious civilization which was borne from the supposition of a common ancient text (Vedas), followed by a common caste culture (Aryan race), knit together by a common language (Sanskrit) and sanctified by a sacred geography inscribed by centres of pilgrimage all over the subcontinent.
By the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, these ‘ indigenous Orientalistic’ ideas rapidly spread across the country due to the burgeoning British educational system and revered British ideology, which was accepted and adopted by the educated Indian Brahman elite. For instance, in the pre- independence era, during the socio-political reformation (Independence struggle and Hindu Renaissance), these Indians collectively turned to the Orientalist rendition of Indian text15 as the core of uniting India and to evoke the national self-identity, forming Indian nation. However, in the post-colonial India, this ‘ internal Orientalism ’ became problematic in politics, further concretizing the Hindu-Muslim conflict16
Analysing the Muslim otherization from Indo-orientalism perspective, author Jukka Jouhkin explained that while Orientalism was supported by colonialism; in India, the Brahmanical authority and Indo- Orientalism worked hand-in-glove in upholding the Hindu cultural superiority as a common denominator for all Indians. He further explained that “Brahmanism informed Orientalist discipline and created an unchanged written canon to replace various oral traditions in Hinduism. Cyclically (author insertion) Orientalism helped to create the concept of ”decline of Hindu society” by emphasizing the Aryan (Western) and Vedic past that was almost destroyed by foreign Muslim invasion17 This ideology, in post- colonial India, became a part of Indian nationalistic politics where group differences were viewed as dangerous separatisms. This was entrenched to the point that in contemporary India, a social or political group constituting itself on basis of shared interests would be viewed suspiciously as a disguise for ulterior religious, caste or sectarian interests.
Today, Hindu nationalists in the country demand that the ‘othered’ groups such as Christians and Muslims in India accept the tolerance of Hinduism, shed their ‘foreignness’ and submit to the inclusive Hindu identity. Thus, Orientalist discourse has helped to essentialize Hindu ideology as the foundation of India, and otherize Muslims (and Christians too), who are seen as outsiders, and not culturally fit for India.
The Muslim ‘Other’ & Media Framing
At this point, it is important to note that although India degenerated from its glorious ancientness (as constructed by the Orientalist), the ethos of monolithic Hindu identity remained the same as always. Under the Nehruvian era, India may have adopted principles of pluralism and secularism as the foundation of nation-building; however, the country never actually shed its identity of a nationalist Hindu ‘ rashtra ’ or nation. This theme of an unchanging India was used as means of propaganda throughout the twentieth and twenty first century in academic circles and popular culture to retain the nationalistic fervour among Indians. Manipulation of this propaganda tool, especially in modern India, resulted in misrepresentation of ‘other’ or ‘ framing ’, by presenting a lopsided narrative and imagery. This has become especially prominent since the Hindu right-wing government came into power in 2014.
To better comprehend the stereotyping of minorities in popular culture, one must first discuss the concept of ‘ Framing ’ or the Framing Theory. This theory was first posited by renowned sociologist, Erving Goffman in 1974. In his seminal work, “Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organisation of Experience”, Goffman theorized that frames are a set of concepts and theoretical perspectives that organize experiences and guide the actions of individual18 In other words, the Framing Theory analyses how a medium constructs a specific issue in a particular manner to manipulate the public opinion.
The Framing Theory is multi-disciplinary in nature and in contemporary times, has become one of the most popular areas of research. However, with respect to the essay, this theory will be viewed from media studies perspective since media depictions are effective in shaping mindset of its viewers, successfully telling them what to think about. In media studies, American journalist, Walter Lippmann, was the first scholar to introduce the concept of how media constructs simple frame through which audiences interpret events19 More specifically then, media framing can be described as the process of organizing and structuring a story together using ‘frames’ that tactfully steers the audience as to how to understand the issue presented.
The ‘frames’ play a large role in how media framing is undertaken. Borne out of cultural construct of pre- conceived ideas, frames allow audiences to view the world through familiar frames and makes new information fit into them. For instance, in Indian movies, certain regional characters such as Sikhs are subject to such framing. This is because media builds a certain narrative and imagery around them with costumes and mannerisms that resonates with the audience who may have encountered the depicted characteristics in their respective day to day interactions. Appropriation of Sikh characters can be seen in movies such as Love Aaj Kal, Jo Bole So Nihaal, Rocket Singh, Singh is King, Patiala House, Son of Sardar, where men are portrayed donning turban marked by excessive and meaningless jocularity and boisterousness. Further to the above illustration, authors, Gail Fairhurst and Robert Sarr, in their book “The Art of Framing”, too argue that media outlets utilize framing using popular techniques to disseminate new information. These popular techniques include the use of metaphors, jargons, traditions, stories (narration), artefacts, contrast and spin20
For the argument of this essay, the aforementioned frames are replaced by the Muslims in India and their representation in popular culture, especially cinema. However, unlike the tolerant Sikh appropriation in Indian cinema, the Muslim portrayal reflects hatred and bigotry against the community as a whole in India. So, while the Framing Theory is of extreme significance in understanding how Bollywood depicts the community; it is the turbulent communal history and Muslim identity in India that can explain why they were subjected to such grave appropriation in Bollywood.
1 Coviello, Kehley. 2018. “Media Influence.” Salem Press Encyclopedia.
2 Jaiyan Mi. 2005. “The Visual Imagined Communities: Media State, Virtual Citizenship and Television in Heshang (River Elegy).” Quarterly Review of Film and Video,22 (4),327-340.
3 Kellow, Christine L., and H. Leslie Steeves.1998. “The Role of Radio in the Rwandan Genocide.” Journal of Communication 48 (3):107.
4 Ibid. Kellow, Christine L., and H. Leslie Steeves.
5 H.M., Sanjeev Kumar.2016. “Metonymies of Fear: Islamophobia and the Making of Muslim Identity in Hindi Cinema.” Society and Culture in South Asia 2 (2):233-55.
6 Trinka, James A. 1995. “The New Political Face of Islamic Fundamentalism.” Strategic Review,2, 23: 81.
7 Sciolino, Elaine. "Seeing Green; The Red Menace Is Gone. But Here's Islam." The New York Times. January 21,1996.
8 Shaheen, Jack G. “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 588, no.1(July 2003):171-93
9 Said, Edward W. 2003. Orientalism. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin,2003.
10 Jouhki, Jukka. 2006. “Orientalism and India.” Directory of Open Access Journals,8,4(August):1-20.
11 Edward Said draws heavily on Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, a form of cultural leadership, to understand Orientalism’s strength and durability.
12 Ibid. Jouhki, Jukka. 2006
13 Orientalists in India could be dated back to 1700s when scholars, missionaries and early colonial administrators began to travel in a quest to understand the Indian subcontinent
14 Hansen Blum, Thomas. 2001. The Saffron Wave: Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India. Oxford: India Paperbacks, 2001. P 68.
15 Bhagvat Gita by Charles Wilkins in1785, Rig Vedas by Ralph Griffith in 1896, are some examples of the Orientalist renditions of Indian texts
16 Veer, Peter van der. 1994. The Foreign Hand. Orientalist Discourse in Sociology and Communalism. In Breckenridge, Carol A. & Veer, Peter van der (eds.) (1994) Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press
17 Ibid. Jouhki, Jukka. 2006.
18 Goffman, Erving. 1974. Frame analysis: an essay on the organization of experience. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
19 Lippmann, Walter. 1992. Public opinion. New York: Harcourt.
20 Fairhurst, Gail Theus, and Robert A. Sarr. 1996. The Art of Framing: Managing the Language of Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.