Cinematic Interpretations of Terrorism- Images, Identity and Impressions in Hindi Cinema


[Swati  Bakshi]

Hindi popular cinema is a curious mix of serious real-life issues generously laced with song and dance and other elements of mass entertainment. These different elements in right proportions have ensured super success of many films and with some variations it still continues. However in the context of world cinema, Indian mainstream is a genre of its own – entertainment gets priority here but ever so often it manages to hit the right note in terms of changing social-economic and psychological context.

On a thematic level Nationalism has found its place in many films but with a difference. But in films of recent years, it is no longer the West which is seen as a threat to native culture, the definitive villain now is the Terrorist who threatens the very existence of the nation. Thus through the survey of a few representative films I want to establish three basic points here-

1) Resurgent nationalism in films based on the theme of Terrorism

2) The explicit naming of and focus on Pakistan as a source of terrorism with a simultaneous focus on Indian state as oppressive and inefficient in eradicating the root cause.

3) A search for global Muslim identity – post 9/11

The first important film in this regard is ROJA (1992), director Mani Ratnam’s first film from his trilogy on terrorism. This is also interesting to note that the first Hindi film to talk about the issue of terrorism did not come from Bollywood. Mani Ratnam actually dubbed the film in Hindi to reach out to a wider audience.

In the movie, Arvind Swamy plays Rishi Kumar, a cryptologist who works for Indian government. He gets married to a Tamil village girl Roja under strange circumstances when Roja’s sister asks him to say no to their marriage as she is in love with someone else. Immediately after marriage, Rishi has to go to Kashmir on an assignment accompanied by Roja. There Rishi is abducted by the Kashmiri Jihadis and the story revolves around Roja’s struggle to get her husband back. The film represents the ideological conflict between the nationalist victim and the separatists. But if you look at the dialogues given to the characters you can clearly understand the ideological supremacy of the Indian state that prevails throughout the film.

Roja doesn’t clearly name Pakistan as a breeding ground of terrorism but makes references like ‘bagal wale desh’, ‘sarhad paar’ etc. The film while dealing with the ideology and conflict never goes beyond the nationalistic agenda. The director initiates a
dialogue but takes it to a very predictable path where ultimately the (Indian) nation and love for nation has to supersede.

The dialogues of Pankaj Kapur as Liaquat- the jihadi, do not appear strange to the audience but merely confirm the conventional image of a jihadi – a fanatic, brutal being. Did you ever think why his side of story never comes on screen, his logic is never elaborated? The reason is that the whole agenda of making such a film is to establish a particular line of thought – the nation has to emerge as logical, benevolent and humane vis-a-vis a jihadi. So right from dialogues to music, every aspect works in the direction of enthusing the phenomenon of nationalism. So in Roja, there is no introspection, no internal scrutiny of reasons leading to the current situation and the audience returns with one memory ‘bharat humko jaan se pyara hai’ with Arvind Swamy protecting the tri-colour by risking his life against fire.

In Mani Ratnam’s next film Bombay, the story unfolds in the backdrop of 1993 Mumbai blasts and the theme of inter religious marriage here becomes a strong message of communal harmony. The leading lady of the film who happens to be a Muslim elopes with a Hindu guy and they live as a happy family until communal tensions break out in Bombay in the aftermath of Babri Masjid demolition. Thus it places the responsibility of terrorism on reactionary violence.

This film does not deal with cross border terrorism but with internal conflicts and explores the human cost of violence. This film also ends on a positive note but after posing many questions regarding society and religion. It places an individual in the turbulent conditions to show how shallow are these concepts before love.

Mani Ratnam’s triology on Terrorism concludes with Dil Se. Once again dealing with the
humane side of terrorism. Mani Ratnam tries to explore the possibilities of love in the heart of a hard core terrorist played by Manisha Koirala but ultimately establishes the inclusive and sacrificing nature of the Indian state represented by the character played by Shahrukh Khan as an All India Radio employee.

A clear inkling of change appears on the Hindi silver screen with Gulzar’s Maachis. Gulzar, who himself is filled with the memories of partition and riots that followed, takes up the issue of militancy in Punjab during the 80’s. Maachis is a tale of youngsters being pushed into terrorism. The story takes off on Kirpal’s (Chandrachur Singh) anguish over the detention and torture of his dear friend Jassi (Zutshi) on the suspicion of his links with the assassination of a politician in Delhi. A bitter and angry Kirpal who is also the fiancée of Jassi’s sister Veeran(Tabu) meets a gang of militants. These militants are from across the border and there are other youths who, like him, have been victims of police high handedness and tragic events in Punjab. What makes Maachis important is that for the first time we see a film which places the responsibility of making terrorists on the unjust, corrupt and oppressive state, which forces young people to resort to violence when their voices go unheard. Thus Maachis tries to engage in a dialogue and establishes that a terrorist is not a terrorist by birth – society is also somehow responsible for it. So Gulzar has gone a step further in exploring the psyche of a terrorist rather than dismissing him as a fanatic. But another important factor that goes with Maachis also is the reference of Pakistan and its role in promoting militancy and instability in India.

From 1999 onwards we have a complete shift in the political culture of Hindi cinema. You can clearly notice the saffron nationalism coloring the cinematic vision, opening a floodgate for super nationalistic films where the tone and texture of cinema confirms to the popular sentiment and at the same time to the dominant political ideology. Post-Kargil emotions were clear. India had recently conducted nuclear tests so the sense of power and protection of nationhood figure prominently on silver screen. There is an increasing focus on Pakistan as a major source of terrorism. The film makers do not find the need to go beyond this belief and search for more dimensions or explain the complexities involved.

Sarfarosh- where Aamir Khan plays ACP Rathod – goes many steps further in overtly identifying Pakistan as a source of instability, both on maps used in the narrative and in dialogues. It also weaves a number of real life events- the links between Mumbai underworld dons and Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI, weapon smuggling and so on. The film tries to construct a complex tale of art, law-enforcement and international crime. Sarfarosh is significant because it also tries to capture the Muslim minority and its sentiments through the marginalized figure of Inspector Salim played by actor Mukesh Rishi. Police establishment is doubtful about his commitment to his job/nationalism, while his own community mocks at his allegiance to Islam. Naseeruddin Shah who plays Gulfam Hassan and who is a Muhajir in Pakistan is at last abandoned by ISI while Salim is apologized to by Rathod. The implicit message is that Indian Muslims still have possibilities of acceptance than ethnic minority Muslims in Pakistan. In simple words it seeks to establish that Pakistan still suffers from the insecurities of Partition while India has moved on.

The year 2000 marks yet another shift in the Pakistan-centric discourse in Hindi cinema with the release of Mission Kashmir and Fiza within months of each other. While Fiza presents Muslim marginalization and militarization as being a result of the rise of Hindu nationalism (in specific pinning the blames on the Mumbai riots of 1993 following the Babri Masjid demolition); Mission Kashmir is a more complex tale. It takes place in the backdrop of militancy in Kashmir in the 1990’s and depicts how a state oppression leads a young orphan to militancy. The film as most of the Hindi films does, locates the conflict within the family as a symbol of the Indian nation. It revolves around a composite Kashmiri family with a Hindu wife and a Muslim husband, Inayat Khan, (Sanjay Dutt), a police officer. As the story unfolds Inayat Khan kills a band of extremists and along with them a Muslim family (where the terrorists had taken shelter) while the sole survivor of the family, 9 year old Altaf watches the masked Khan destroying his entire family. Wife Nilima (Sonali Kulkarni) persuades Khan to bring home the boy, especially since the duo recently lost their only son in an accident. A little later the boy, Altaf (Hrithik Roshan), realizes that the man he has come to call his ‘abba’ is in fact the man who torments him in his nightmares, and flees to become a terrorist. Altaf swears vengeance against Khan, and instigated by the Afghani terrorist Hilal Kohistani (Jackie Shroff) who conceives of Mission Kashmir to disintegrate India, he almost succeeds in this. Till, of course, love wins over hatred or, Kashmiriyat over Azaadi.

The family and thereby the nation is shown traumatized by the extremist violence and the
reciprocal violence throughout the film. However, Mission Kashmir again ends on a forced reconciliation where the state once again shows its liberal nature and embraces a terrorist whose lost sense of judgement seems to be back. Mission Kashmir is noteworthy in a sense that it gradually shifts the focus from Pakistan centric source of instability to globalised terror networks as the film includes a shadowy figure distinctly reminiscent of Osama bin Laden.

Another major change in the realm of representation of terrorism comes post 9/11. United States war on terror and its implications for Asians have completely changed the paradigm of Hindi cinema as far as dealing with terrorism is concerned. The focus is not on internal turmoil and oppression anymore but on the misunderstanding about Islam and a search of global identity for Muslims. Films like New York, My Name Is Khan, A Wednesday etc. deal with the Muslim insecurities in a globalized world.

The most striking thing about the film New York is the placing of Muslim characters in a global context. They are comfortably integrated global citizens rather than nostalgic NRI’s of post globalization era. But things suddenly change for them as they become the victims of 9/11 attacks. Their religious identity becomes the root cause of suspicion, hatred and destruction as the world around them becomes Islamophobic.

In My Name Is Khan. Shahrukh Khan’s dialogue as Rizwan Khan ‘My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist speaks for the Muslims of the world, their insecurities, their dilemma. Rizwan says his prayers in public, wears his cap, derives his identity from his religion, but rises well above it and thus this character holds a mirror to the world. My Name Is Khan depicts a strong desire and urgency on the part of the Muslims to erase misunderstandings about Islam and its message across the globe. So it is a search of an identity in the world without borders and this search would end only when the world realizes in the form of a US President in the film who declares before the world that “his name is khan and he is not a terrorist”.

A Wednesday by debutant Neeraj brings the stupid common man on silver screen – who wants to get rid of terrorists in this country. This common man is not recognized by his religious identity but the terrorists that he wants to kill are all Muslims. This film knowingly or unknowingly validates reactionary violence. It is the same logic by which a Samjhauta express explosion or Malegaon blasts are sought to be validated.

Undoubtedly there is a shift from Pakistan centric and partition based construction of identities as films began to talk about hi-tech global terror networks but it never tries to go deep down and bring out the realities of everyday life in a terror stricken society, the human cost of terrorism is far more than we can imagine. Films like My Name Is Khan and New York attempt to bring out post 9/11 insecurities of the Muslims across the world but the point here is that while dealing with the issue of terrorism Hindi cinema never moves beyond political ideologies and conflicts. We all carry the image of a terrorist in our minds even if we have never come across one in our lives, thanks to the films of course. But do we have any idea about how children are growing up in such circumstances, how their ideas about life and the outside world are formed and what impressions do they carry about human nature and humanity.

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