The inaccurate representations of Islam in Bollywood movies and the banning of ‘Raees’

This Bollywood film was just banned in Pakistan.

This Bollywood film was just banned in Pakistan.

The lights, the action, countless choreographed colourful songs, and the classic plot of a hero falling in love with the heroine… the perfect algorithm of a Bollywood movie. Although changing, Bollywood has always been different than its Western counterpart. Staying true to its culture and heritage and depicting Eastern values, Bollywood films are quite integrated to the Indian household. They’re much ‘better’ and more relatable, now evolving and even assimilating; Bollywood is adopting more of the ‘Western’ ideals with more intimate scenes and modern ideology.

I recently watched the movie Raees, set in Gujarat, India. I really didn’t know much about what the movie would be, all I knew was that the Bollywood King himself, Shah Rukh Khan (otherwise known as SRK) was the main actor, and an up and coming Pakistani actress was his heroine. That, and the new ‘item’ song, Laila Main Laila, was in this movie. With all this, I was actually quite excited to watch it. My ancestors are from Gujarat, namely Kutch, and parts of the movie were based in this specific town as well.

However, within the first couple of minutes, I had already experienced a whirlwind of emotions – excitement, happiness, shock, and disappointment. Gujarat is a place where both Hindus and Muslims live side by side, so this was at least somewhat historically accurate. I was actually pleasantly surprised when I saw processions of Muharram taking place in the movie, suggesting that SRK was a Shia Muslim. But quickly, this sense of pride transformed to utter dismay.

Muslims annually commemorate the events that transpired in Islamic history in the months of Muharram and Safar, collectively known as the Tragedy of Karbala, around the world. People display their grief in a variety of ways, some personally and some culturally. The ceremonies of lamentations differ, but the core messages that Imam Hussain stood for are universal.

Within the opening scene, this movie decided to show acts of self-flagellation, often known as Tatbir or Zanjeer, and they were quite graphic in nature. Although historically and culturally accurate, this practice is widely misunderstood and misinterpreted and not even accepted throughout the entire Shia sect. I’m not here to discuss the acts and whether it’s right or wrong, but, what I am trying to say is that, in no way, shape, or form, did this need to be added to the storyline.

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It did not enhance the story or movie in any way and only depicts Islam in a negative light, and particular that of the Shia sect. Many people bring up this custom as a way to delegitimize the mourning of the Day of Ashura and tragedy of Karbala and showing such explicit scenes only further promotes this association of grief and self-harm. Many other things brought up contradictory messages about Islam, so I’m apologizing for the spoilers in advance.

One enemy of SRK’s character decided to exploit the fact that he would be partaking in Muharram processions as an opportunity to assassinate him. Chants of ‘Ya Hussain’ and ‘Ya Abbas’ were loudly echoing, alongside flags and banners as well. SRK’s character notices his assassin, and they proceeded to have a long street fight, consisting of jumping off roofs and crashing into people’s houses, in full 007 swing. However, while all of this was happening, you could hear ‘Ya Hussain’ in the background which again, attributes this tragedy to violence and minimizing it to just that.

If we pause to reflect on this scene, we realise that this procession of mourning is one that is deeply rooted in grief; I am positive that they would not have shot a fight scene with the backdrop of a funeral, as people tend to respect the dead and those in grief, so why is this procession any different? They consciously chose to depict this and religious sensitivities aside, it just isn’t respectful or cordial to the mourning which this procession represents.

An entire scene showed SRK’s character fighting in a butcher’s store, as it was around the time of Eid ul-Adha and everyone was selling meat. Although the actual meat did not cause the fight, it looks silly that a bunch of so-called Muslims are fighting at the time of Eid over some goats. They even quite literally used slaughtered goat meat as weapons at one point. Come on, really? Also, it just so happened to be that it was the Muslim don that sent ingredients to make bombs in the shipment that was supposed to just be gold, from a Muslim country to Mumbai. So Muslims caused the explosions that occurred in the movie using this bomb material. Great. Just in case we don’t already have the entire Western world and the mainstream media playing on stereotypes of Muslims, we now have Bollywood doing the exact same thing.

Furthermore, let’s not forget how SRK’s character basically made his living from selling alcohol, and at that, illegally. Although he did use his money to help others and did a lot of good for his community, this notion showed that alcohol and Islam are in no opposition. These are minor things, but it really makes you think about the subliminal messages that are perpetuated through media – whether it’s in movies, TV shows, or even advertisements.

It could be an innocent oversight, or a strategic agenda.

Whatever the case, the messages that were included do have an effect on how people think and furthermore, how they interact with others. Let’s even forget that the two main actors are actually Muslim. Although the movie did not condone creating differences between Hindus and Muslims, and encouraged the message of treating all humanity the same, these subtle notions cannot be overlooked.

Maybe I’m taking these things greater to heart because I am a Muslim, and with the current air of Islamophobia, all of this really hurts. Time and time again, Muslims are highlighted in the media as those stirring violence and it then comes as no surprise that Pakistan has ruled this movie as defamatory and has since banned it from release. The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) has not issued an official statement as to why it banned the film. However, according to BBC Urdu, one reason was that it “depicts Muslims as criminals and terrorists, and was offensive to a particular sect.”

With all that said, the story itself was nice, and the acting was good too. I’m not saying that everything should be free from stereotypes or appropriation because if that was the case, I doubt anyone could make a movie about anything. We also cannot get offended over every portrayal of our culture or religion in such mediums. Nothing is perfect. This is not the first time Muslims are shown like this, and it will definitely not be the last.

However, the timeliness of the movie and the current negative views around Islam, especially the Shia sect, really makes you wonder how such ideas don’t really help our cause. Again, I understand that I hold these views as I have a biased perspective but, I also don’t think this is a reason to be submissive over the silent defamation of my religion and beliefs.

No, I’m not boycotting Bollywood, nor do I think SRK should be stripped of his kingship. I will continue to contribute to the fiscal success of the Bollywood industry. Only this time, I’ll have a more vigilant eye.

You can learn more about Muharram and Imam Hussain at https://whoishussain.org.


by Malikah Ebrahim

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