March 4, 2010

The Terror of Bollywood

While American blockbusters shy away from Islamist villains, Indian films give them a showing.


Can "The Hurt Locker" win the Academy Award for Best Picture? For movie fans outside the U.S., it's a moot point—it earned just $4 million abroad. The film suffers from the bigger problem afflicting post-9/11 movies about Iraq and the global war on terror: They tend to be weighed down by their own dull historicity and obsession with America's conduct in the war, and they often fail to address the core issue: Islamic radicalism. Enter Bollywood.

Back in the carefree 1990s, Hollywood's take on terrorism—"True Lies," "Die Hard 2," "Air Force One"—was fun and spectacularly successful. These were essentially live-action cartoons, in which an evil Arab was just as script-worthy as an evil Kazakh. But even before the World Trade Center attacks, Hollywood got cold feet. Under pressure from Islamic groups tired of googly-eyed jihadi villains, it scrubbed many Muslim terrorists out of screenplays. In the name of political correctness the industry shifted from caricature to avoidance, and in the process became irrelevant.

Not so in Bollywood, however, where terrorism narratives are pursued full throttle, and where Islamic radicalism and the suffering it causes come together in extravagant form. Whereas Hollywood focuses on bumptious American bureaucrats and politicians, troubled soldiers and ruthlessly efficient superagents, India makes movies about actual terrorists, based on its long, painful history of domestic extremism.

In Indian movies, the terrorist isn't some veiled abstraction: He's your brother ("Fiza," 2000) or house guest ("Black and White," 2008) or the woman you couldn't live without ("Dil Se," 1998). Their torment—over Kashmir, or U.S. foreign policy, or killings at the hands of Hindus in Gujarat—is writ large. When it cannot be expressed through dialogue, it's expressed through song.

Over the top? Yes, some of these films definitely are. They're movies with big, bold emotions, featuring characters who care openly about their cause, whether they're extremists trying to destroy the country or vigilantes trying to save it ("A Wednesday!" 2008). Indian films tackle the big questions: What motivates someone to commit mass murder? Can a terrorist be reformed? And can even a suicide bomber love, or be loved? By contrast, even Hollywood's most engaging efforts on the subject, like the TV show "24," are more about plot and pacing and getting to the bomb in time.

Bollywood has the enormous advantage of cultural proximity. India contains a large Muslim community, people who are not just watching movies but quite often scripting them, composing their soundtracks and starring in them as well. Some stereotyping aside, to a far greater extent than Western filmmakers, Indian filmmakers know how to capture the Muslim experience and critique it.

They're not just doing this for audiences in India. Take "My Name is Khan," which is currently playing to packed houses around the world. Its star, Shah Rukh Khan—he plays a Muslim American whose life is thrown into turmoil after 9/11—is by some measures the world's most popular actor. For many moviegoers, including the millions of Bollywood fans in the Muslim world, "My Name is Khan"—not some Hollywood film—is likely to be the definitive movie about 9/11.

One of the best Indian films to have addressed the subject is "Aamir" (2008), in which the title character, a Muslim physician now living in London, is back in Mumbai visiting his family. He is a moderate Muslim, a self-made man who believes that hard work determines more than one's faith. Then, the moment he steps out of the airport a stranger hands him a cellphone and his life is upended as he is thrust into a jihadi plot against his will.

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