Written by Malikah Ebrahim.
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/Indian 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 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, also known as SRK, was the main actor, and an up-and-coming Pakistani actress was his heroine. Oh, that, and the new “item” song “Laila Main Laila” was in this movie. That’s the extent to it. 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, this is 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. The events that transpired in Islamic history in the months of Muharram and Safar, collectively known as the Tragedy of Karbala, are annually commemorated by Muslims 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 faith. 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. It did not enhance the story or movie in any way and only depicts Islam in a negative light. 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.
Apologizing for the spoiler alerts 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 with flags and banners as well. This is all accurate. SRK’s character noticed 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. Again, attributing this tragedy simply to violence and minimizing it to just that.
An entire scene showed SRK’s character fighting in a butchery as it was around the time of Eid ul-Adha and everyone was selling meat. Although the fight was not caused by the actual meat, how silly does it look 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 the explosions that occurred in the movie using this bomb material were caused by Muslims. Oh jee, great.
Oh yeah, let’s not forget how SRK’s character basically made his living off of 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 affect how people think and furthermore, 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 air of Islamophobia, all of this really hurts. Like it just sucks, to be honest. Time and time again, Muslims are highlighted in the media as those stirring violence.
With all that said, the story was nice. The movie was good and the acting was as well. I’m not saying that everything should be free from stereotypes or appropriation. 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 here.