India is a country riven with religious, linguistic, socioeconomic, and regional clashes. But the battle that split the country in two last year concerned a far more basic, existential question: Munni or Sheila?
These are the screen names of the sex sirens who danced and lip-synced in Bollywood’s two biggest hit songs not just of 2010 but likely in the Indian film industry’s entire 112-year history: “Munni Badnam Hui,” from the blockbuster Dabangg, and “Sheila Ki Jawani,” from Tees Maar Khan. No sooner had the movies hit the silver screen than a cultural civil war broke out in India, Pakistan, and portions of the Middle East. Fans took to Twitter and Facebook to duel over which of the two dancers could undulate more gracefully to the melodies. Which woman had better captured the sexuality of the lyrics? The earthy, ethnic Munni in her backless blouses? Or the urbane, Westernized, English-spouting Sheila in her stringy outfits? Thanks to the songs, the opening weekends of these otherwise execrable movies were Bollywood’s biggest of all time. The Times of India, India’s equivalent of The New York Times, declared Munni and Sheila to be India’s Women of the Year.
Not everyone was amused. Bollywood’s suggestive eroticism has always pushed the boundaries of a sexually prudish country, rubbing traditionalists of all stripes the wrong way. But Munni’s come-hither bawdiness and Sheila’s saucy paean to her “too-sexy-for-you” body were just too much for some conservatives to endure, prompting the wife of one prominent civil servant to petition the courts to ban the songs on the grounds of indecency and immorality. Islamists in particular had reason to be offended: The woman who plays Sheila—Katrina Kaif—is Muslim. So is Salman Khan, the star actor who danced raunchily with Munni. As if to add insult to injury, a Muslim woman, Farah Khan, choreographed both of the racy dance numbers.
Islamic fundamentalists have long worried about the threat that Bollywood poses to their puritanical demands. Of late, they have even taken to making videos—rap videos, no less—condemning Bollywood movies as being the product of an infidel culture trying to brainwash Muslims against their own religious values and duties. They have ample reason to be worried: About 3 billion people, or half the planet, watches Bollywood, and many of them live in the Islamic world. By depicting assimilated, modernized Muslims, Bollywood—without even trying—deromanticizes and thereby disarms fanatical Islam. If you can have Munni and Sheila in this world, why on earth would you want to strap bombs to your waist and blow yourself up for the sake of 72 theoretical virgins?
For a decade now, America has been fighting the scourge of Islamist terrorism by deploying its considerable hard power. Washington has launched wars in two allegedly hostile countries, launched drone attacks in allegedly friendly countries, tortured countless terror suspects, and unleashed Transportation Security Administration inspectors to grope and fondle its own citizens. But with the debt and deficit spiraling out of control and with civil libertarians up in arms over the loss of liberties for a war that has no conceivable end, American hard power is arguably maxed out.
Not that hard power is all it’s cracked up to be anyway. It is widely recognized that the West won the Cold War in at least some significant part because its music and culture won the hearts and minds of Eastern Bloc youth. But the kind of Western soft power that proved so crucial in bringing down the Soviet empire—jazz, Hollywood, the Beatles—is arguably less relevant in the struggle against fundamentalist Islam. American culture, despite its alleged ubiquity, doesn’t have the same resonance in Eastern countries that don’t share the West’s ethnic, religious, and cultural background. While hip hop and heavy metal have helped inspire some of the street protesters demanding more freedoms across the Middle East and northern Africa, outside of the hardcore early adopters these cultural subgenres remain more voyeuristic than aspirational. Their popularity arguably stems more from a curiosity about how exotic people in alien countries live than from an inclination to emulate them.
That isn’t true of Bollywood. India’s flamboyant, campy, kitschy film industry is rooted in heritages, values, aesthetics, and geographies shared with much of the Muslim world. The Middle East is Bollywood’s third largest overseas market. Many Bollywood movies now hold their premiers in Dubai. Dubai Infinity Holdings, a media company, is even erecting a Universal Studio–like Bollywood theme park that is expected to be a major draw for regional tourists—although its completion, originally scheduled for next year, has been delayed two years by the global financial crisis.
Like the huddled masses behind the Iron Curtain, disaffected youth throughout the unfree Muslim world see in Bollywood a glimpse of the pleasures, colors, and riches available in a world with more liberty. Among the first businesses to open after the Taliban fell in Afghanistan were movie theaters showing Bollywood films. Even at the height of the Taliban’s repression, shopkeepers kept a secret stash of undestroyed film star posters that they would barter for food and goods, just as Soviet youths would trade Beatles bootlegs pressed on discarded X-ray film.
The Muslim country most in the grip of Bollywood mania is Pakistan, India’s cultural twin in every respect but religion. The more aggressively that Pakistani authorities have tried to purge it from their soil, the more Bollywood’s popularity has grown. During the country’s four-decade-long ban on Indian movies, Pakistanis watched them via satellite dishes and smuggled VHS tapes. When the ban was finally lifted in 2008, the Bollywood scene in Pakistan exploded. Not only have Bollywood movies been playing to packed houses, but Indian movie stars are treated like demigods, despite Islam’s taboo against idol worship. The latest fad among Pakistan’s urban nouveau riche is Bollywood theme weddings in which the bride and groom dress in outfits worn by a particular movie’s stars and hold their wedding reception in elaborate tents constructed to resemble movie sets.
It’s hard to emulate—and adulate—a cultural form while simultaneously rejecting its message. And Bollywood’s message is profoundly at odds with the strictures of Islamic extremism. At the simplest level, women who don Bollywood outfits, even when adapted for more modest sensibilities, are resisting the Islamic strictures that would shroud them in a burqa. At a deeper level, Bollywood movies offer a compromise between tradition and modernity that resonates with ordinary Muslims while subverting Islamist designs.
Take romantic movies. You might have expected Hollywood’s more sexually explicit romances to pose a bigger threat to puritanical Shariah law than Bollywood’s tamer approach. You’d be wrong. Both Hollywood and Bollywood idealize true love that conquers all. But the obstacles that Hollywood couples face—previous lovers, infidelity, commitment phobia, baggage from broken marriages—have little to do with the concerns of people in traditional Muslim countries. They can relate far more with Bollywood’s paramours, whose chief impediment is familial objections, given that arranged marriage is still a revered institution in that part of the world.
Consider Veer-Zaara, the tear-jerking megahit of 2004. It involves a romance between a Hindu-Indian Air Force officer, Veer, and a Muslim-Pakistani woman, Zaara. (In a role reversal, Veer is played by a Muslim, Shah Rukh Khan, and Zaara by a Hindu.) Zaara and Veer meet when the bus she is taking from Pakistan to India overturns. Zaara is making the journey to fulfill the dying wish of her Indian caregiver by scattering her ashes in her native village. Veer, whose name means brave, rescues Zaara from the wreckage and invites her to spend a day in his ancestral village, where she meets his parents. Both Veer and his parents are totally charmed by the Pakistani. But she is already engaged to someone her parents have selected for her and therefore returns to Pakistan.
But Veer and Zaara are unable to forget one another. Veer quits his prestigious Air Force job and goes to Pakistan to bring her back. Zaara’s mother begs him to go away, since her husband is a high-profile Pakistani politician who would be ruined if it ever became known that his daughter was in love with an Indian officer. Heartbroken, Veer gives in to her plaintive pleas. But Zaara’s fiance is deeply outraged and frames Veer as an Indian spy. Veer remains imprisoned in a Pakistani jail for 22 years until a Pakistani human rights lawyer, also played by a Hindu-Indian actress, takes up his case and, after a huge court battle, gets him released. Veer returns to his village where, it turns out, Zaara moved after Veer’s distraught parents died, starting an all-girl school there. The two are finally reunited.
Veer-Zaara portrays the tension between the possibilities of modernity and the demands of tradition, offering a resolution that accommodates both. It affirms the right of young men and women—not their parents or families—to decide their own romantic fate. But it does so without demanding the wholesale jettisoning of religion, tradition, or family. Zaara’s original journey to India to dispose of her caregiver’s ashes conveys her piety, love, and deep respect for her elders, all prized virtues in traditional, religious cultures, Islamic or Hindu. What’s more, Veer and Zaara don’t simply thumb their noses at Zaara’s family and run off to Las Vegas. That would have delegitimized their cause. They pursue a much harder balancing act. Zaara does not dishonor her family or reject its claims on her. But she breaks away from her husband, choosing instead to be single.