Bollywood vs. Bin Laden

The soft power of Indian films takes a hard line against extremism.


Ten years and two wars after 9/11, America's struggle against Islamist terrorism is nowhere close to succeeding. And there is no better admission of failure than new airport security procedures to grope and fondle Americans. But if a superpower like America can't vanquish this scourge, is there any force in the world that can?

There might well be: Bollywood, India's flamboyant film industry. Just as the Beatles and Rock n' Roll helped bring down the Kremlin, similarly, Bollywood might yet prove to be the undoing of Osama bin Laden and his noxious brand of Islamic fundamentalism.

Conventional wisdom holds that communism collapsed because America forced the Soviet Union into an economically ruinous arms race. But the truth is that the West won the Cold War less because it pointed nuclear missiles at the Soviet people—and more because it won their hearts and minds. And in this it was aided by its music and pop culture, which gave it unrivalled soft power. It made the Soviet youth feel that while they were huddled behind the Iron Curtain in a world of drab conformity, next door one helluva of a party was going on.

Beatles in the '60s were an even bigger phenomenon in the Soviet bloc than in the West despite—or perhaps because of—an official ban on Western rock. No less than Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged to Paul McCartney that the Beatles paved the way for perestroika and glasnost—his vain attempt to save communism by reforming it. Likewise, Hungarian ambassador Andras Simonyi admitted that Western rock swept up a whole generation of youth living under communism's yoke, planting ideas that later brought down the Iron Curtain. And in How The Beatles Rocked the Kremlin, a recent documentary, one Russian cultural commentator observed: "The West spent millions on undermining communism but it had less impact than the Beatles."

But can Western pop culture do the trick against radical Islam? Unlikely. American culture, despite its alleged ubiquity, doesn't have the same transformative power in eastern countries that don't share the West's ethnic, religious and cultural background. MTV and Hollywood are certainly watched in the Arab world—but their appeal is more voyeuristic than aspirational; it stems from a curiosity about how exotic people in alien countries live, not out of any inclination to live like them. But Bollywood's allure, rooted in a shared heritage, values and issues, is different. And India's recent economic success makes its pop culture even more compelling.

The Middle East is Bollywood's third largest overseas market and growing so rapidly that many Bollywood movies now hold premiers in Dubai on opening night. Dubai is even erecting a Universal Studios-like Bollywood theme park that is expected to be a major draw for regional tourists.

But the Muslim country most in the grip of Bollywood mania is Pakistan, India's cultural twin in every respect but religion. As with the Beatles under communism, the more aggressively Pakistani authorities have tried to purge Bollywood from their soil, the more its popularity has grown. During the country's four-decade-long ban on Indian movies, Pakistanis smuggled VHS tapes and installed satellite dishes. 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—despite Islam's taboo against idol worship—are treated like demi-gods. The latest fad among Pakistan's urban nouveau riche are Bollywood theme weddings in which the bride and groom dress in outfits worn by a movie's stars and hold their wedding reception in elaborate tents patterned around the movie set.

It is not possible to emulate—and adulate—a cultural form while simultaneously rejecting its message. And Bollywood's message is as profoundly at odds with the strictures of Islamic extremism as Rock and Roll's anti-establishment message was with the diktats of Soviet totalitarianism. At the simplest level, women who don Bollywood outfits—even when adapted for more modest sensibilities—are clearly resisting the Islamic strictures that would shroud them in a burqa. But at a deeper level, Bollywood movies offer a compromise between the values of tradition and the demands of modernity that is appealing to ordinary Muslims—and subversive of Islamist designs.

Take, for example, romantic movies. One would have thought that Hollywood's sexually explicit treatment would pose a far bigger threat to the puritanical strictures of sharia than Bollywood's tamer approach. That, however, is not the case.

Both Hollywood and Bollywood idealize true love that conquers all. But the obstacles that Hollywood's lovers face—affairs, commitment phobia, children from previous marriages—have nothing 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. Bollywood certainly encourages young lovers to follow their heart—but by persuading their families of the rightness of their cause, not by turning their backs on them. A typical Bollywood movie ends with lovers returning home after tying the knot. They fall at their parent's feet, begging for their blessings, which the weeping parents, moved by the power of their love, finally bestow. In short, Bollywood seeks to realize romantic love not outside the broader family structure but within it, at once reforming and affirming a key social institution—a resolution that legitimizes Muslim reformers against Islamist reactionaries. Bollywood is at once both progressive and conservative.

But there is another reason for Bollywood's appeal to the Islamic world. Since its inception, some of Bollywood's biggest stars—both male and female—have been Muslims. Currently, the industry's three highest grossing male leads are Muslims—all with the last name Khan. Bollywood's most respected music composer, A. R. Rahman, who won an Oscar for his score in Slumdog Millionaire, is also a Muslim as are many of Bollywood's best lyric and script writers.

The success of these Muslims has profound implications for the emergence of a moderate Islam. They have a very different attitude toward their faith than the one prescribed by radical Islamists. Some of them are more observant than others (movie gossip circles are always abuzz over which member of the Khan troika is more serious about his faith). But ultimately their faith is about their personal spiritual elevation not their subordination to a mediveal-style religion that the Taliban peddle. For example, Slumdog's Rahman, a self-described Sufi, has used his love of Sufism to compose songs and qawwalis (Sufi devotional songs) of truly unsurpassed beauty. Arguably, the best Sufi music now is coming not from the Mideast, but the Indian subcontinent and that's partly because of Muslims in Bollywood. By showcasing these artists and their work, Bollywood demonstrates to Muslims everywhere that the demands of modernity don't require them to abandon their faith and traditions.

America has so far relied mostly on hard power to defeat the Islamist threat. This strategy depends on it killing more Islamists than producing. However, if its calculus of attrition does not pan out, it won't mean that there is nothing left to resist Islamism anymore. There are softer forces such as Bollywood that will sap this ideology—slowly but surely.

Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at Reason Foundation and a columnist at The Daily. A version of this article originally appeared at The Daily.

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  1. Disclaimer: That is NOT a photo of Shikha Dalmia, so please don’t ask.

  2. (Stops staring at picture for a moment)

    I’m sorry, what?

  3. “But can Western pop culture do the trick against radical Islam? Unlikely. American culture, despite its alleged ubiquity, doesn’t have the same transformative power in eastern countries that don’t share the West’s ethnic, religious and cultural background.”

    How many hijackers (and midnite tally whackers) spent time getting lap dances? To paraphrase Sara Lee, ‘everybody doesn’t like something, but nobody doesn’t like big lucious boobies”
    A bush in the hand is worth 72 virgins later.

    1. +72 virgins

  4. But if a superpower like America can’t vanquish this scourge, is their any force in the world that can?

    Giant bees.

    This might be my supervillain aspirations talking, but I can get a demo together for less than the cost of one measly aircraft carrier. Send inquiries to

    1. What are they, the size of Dobermans? I’ll bite. E-mail

  5. My wife and I eat at a restaurant called the Bollywood Cafe. The food is good (Indian, of course), and they run Bollywood videos in the restaurant and Bollywood films outside on certain nights.

  6. This strategy depends on it killing more Islamists than producing.

    It did work against the Germans and Japanese.

    1. All the Nazis and Shintos are gonna “Blowback” the hell out of us any day now.

    2. They wore uniforms and fought fair.

      1. WOrld War 2 was practically a soccer match with lots of pushing and shoving!

  7. “Ten years”

    [citation needed]

  8. “Ten years”

    [citation needed]

  9. seriously, when Bollywood discovers nudity, it will be the most powerful force on earth.
    When those girls are wiggling around, I almost dehydrate myself – if they were merely topless I would lose all my precious bodily fluids.

  10. I’m going to repeat my comment from the thread from the first time Reason linked to this silly article in The Daily.

    Why they need to pimp it twice I have no idea. I doesn’t get any better the second time-

    From the first post-…..tcontainer

    “I agree that western culture undoubtedly played a role in collapsing the Iron Curtain. But to say that it was “more” of a factor than the military arms race that essentially bankrupted the Soviet Union is to disregard the evidence.

    Both the influence of western culture and the military buildup were factors. But they were dependent upon each other, and I think it’s a bit arrogant to say that the culture part was more of a factor than the military/diplomatic aspect.

    Dalmia also creates a straw man in her article by stating that- “America so far has relied mostly on hard power to defeat the Islamist threat. This strategy depends on it killing more terrorists than it is producing.”

    No one has ever seriously argued that we just need to “kill all the bad guys and go home”. Even if less than .01% of all Muslims were Islamic Fundamentalists who wanted to murder non-muslims for not submitting to Allah, you’re still looking at several million people, and no one has ever argued that we just need to kill them all and be done with it.

    1. What if we could lure them over a trap door?

      1. No, no, you lure them under a large suspended weight.

        1. The ACME catalogue has these for sale.

  11. Currently, the industry’s three highest grossing male leads are Muslims?all with the last name Khan.

    I think I can guess what William Shatner would say to them.

  12. Great article Sikha. I hope this effect takes hold. You mentioned what I believe to be the strongest force against it here:

    “(movie gossip circles are always abuzz over which member of the Khan troika is more serious about his faith).”

    As long as people accept something as the ideal, it is the most consistency with(not the most compromise against) that ideal that will be admired. To the extent that Bollywood gets pulled away from its romantic individualism to try to be less offensive by Islamic standards, it will lose its appeal.

    I hope that the young people get a taste for Bollywood romanticism before they learn to submit all passions to religious scrutiny. If they recognize individualism as the ideal and religion as the secondary factor that needs to be cut to fit with the first, Bollywood and a new generation might just bring peace to the middle east.

  13. Insightful article. Even though I find Bollywood films to be tooth-achingly awful, I take pleasure in watching them because they provide a window into the beliefs, habits and values of a billion plus living in the Indian subcontinent.

    Ms. Dalmia reminds us why our politicians and voters should do the same. Who knew a trifling filmi flick like DDLJ (so progressive and conservative at the same time) could be such a thorn in the side of radical Islam?

    I truly doubt the filmmakers intended this happy side-effect, but audiences across south Asia seem to get the underlying message of human freedom. And that may be the source of the film’s enduring appeal.

    1. i watch them for the gorgeous babes wiggling.
      Seriously – It seems they are showing more and more skin – and that means freedom wins! Hard to wear a veil and be taken seriously when your also wearing a thong.
      And just like being a pious Christian is tough when your worth millions and millions, being a fantabulously wealthy movie star has a tendency to make one ignore certain religous tenants.

  14. I want to have sexual relations with many of the women in that picture.

  15. This strategy depends on it killing more terrorists than it is producing.”

    I would ask her if that exact strategy killed more Germans and Japanese than it produced.

  16. This is going to sound completely crazy, but Bollywood can one day even surpass Hollywood (think Japanese car company entering USA in the 1960’s). While Hollywood is still far ahead, seeing some of the newer Bollywood movies one cannot deny they are not bad at all.

    1. While Hollywood is still far ahead…

      [citation needed]

      Contemporary Bollywood films have big budgets, good production values, and busloads of talented performers. In what sense is Hollywood still “far ahead”?

      1. They are miles ahead in smug.

    2. It does sound completely crazy and silly. 80% – 90% of bollywood movies story line goes like this – Rich girl falls in love with poor guy and they will have to fight off everything in their path. Their parents, ugly looking uncle, shameless guy who was somehow promised the girl etc etc. Just 5 minutes of watching 90% of Bollywood movies, you can pretty much predict how the movie is going to end. Bollywood movies have no creative elements. Most movies have story line enough for a 30 minute sitcom and the rest are padded with songs after songs and silly comedy clips that most of the time has nothign to do with the story line. Point is, Bollywood is even close to Hollywood movies. Take Inception, Benjamin Button, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, LOTR, Harry Porter, Marvel movies etc etc. I think we have a higher chance of living in Mars than Bollywood movies surpassing Hollywood.

      1. Correction: Bollywood will not ever close to Hollywood movies.

  17. Great! So now we’re gonna fight wars with movies, really? Gee, I guess our Airforce should be bombing Afghanistan with “Girls Gone Wild” and “South Park.”

    Now I’m not against cultural “imperialism” as the left calls it, but in the end you have to destroy the enemy either militarily or financially, the USSR did not collapse because their was a black market for blue jeans and other American goods, it took more than that.

    1. The USSR ultimately collapsed because communism doesn’t work. Western culture pulled them toward freedom and individualism. Once the wheels started coming off, our military superiority deterred the communist government from going out with a nuclear bang.

      All three forces were essential.

  18. Have we tried leaving their region of the world alone, not interfering with regimes that we support v. those we don’t, etc, as a way to “defeat” this enemy? It seems like they only really began to dislike America en masse once we appointed ourselves as World Cop.

    1. Nope they allied with Hitler before that. They only started hating Western ideas 1400 years ago and started hurting us when we let them have crazy governments.

      1. I would replace, “let them have crazy governments” with, “helped to impose crazy governments on them which happened to suit our purposes at the time”.

        1. I would replace, “let them have crazy governments” with, “helped to impose crazy governments on them which happened to suit our purposes at the time”.

          No shit. If it wasn’t for the Western imperialist running dogs (or whatever we do nowadays), they would all have models of peaceful and enlightened governance.

  19. “Bollywood demonstrates to Muslims everywhere that the demands of modernity don’t require them to abandon their faith and traditions.”

    christians need this kind of Hollywood because the aim of popular culture right now is to destroy religion, tradition, and everything else that liberals for some reason don’t like, such as a belief that children and fathers need each other, or any western nation should have an identity, and other things that liberals regard as conservative.

    the tendency of popular culture has been to destroy traditional restraint. so the mullahs are right to be wary of it. each step of the way we were told things would go so far and no further and each time the envelope was pushed and now we have Skins advocating sex by children, nudity at any time of the day on TV, blasphemy, and many things that muslims don’t want to see. so we will all see if Bollywood can restrain itself. I hope it can. If it can, we can.

    1. Well, technically speaking, as a fan of TV, I find that a lot of the stuff on TV today isn’t all that different compared to what was on in the nineties. Things have stayed about the same.

  20. No one seems to point out the fact that MOST of these bollywood movies are financed by UNDERWORLD MUSLIM MAFIA who mostly live and operate from Pakistan.

    In conclusion to Sikha Dalmia’s article, the simple but un-noticed truth is that just like the Heroin trade is a tool for the Taliban, the Bollywood is also a tool for the Muslim extremists, who use it as they see fit.

    No wonder the biggest paid actors are also Muslims. The Muslim bosses are never going to truly trust and pay the Hindus to carry out their dirty work!

    The comparison with Cold-War should be more along the lines of, if the Soviet KGB had control of Hollywood and all the big Hollywood actors were Russians!

    1. Given that Muslims in India are only 13.4% of the population, it seems unlikely that Bollywood would produce movies that do not appeal to the Hindu majority. But I agree with you about heroin and the Taliban.

  21. Very interesting read, I was totally unaware of Bollywood’s influence in the so-called “Muslim world”. Thanks.

  22. Thank you, Ms. Dalmia, for this article, which I think is bang on the mark.

  23. “Arguably, the best Sufi music now is coming not from the Mideast, but the Indian subcontinent and that’s partly because of Muslims in Bollywood.”

    Sufism was never big in the Middle East, and many Sufis were persecuted in the region. The subcontinent has always been the most important center of Sufism. Also, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan of Pakistan was arguably the best known Qawwali singer of the 80s and 90s; no Sufi music of note ever came out of the Mideast.

  24. How ironic that the Neocons have to use hard power instead of soft power because American culture lacks the family values that Muslims would respect. Maybe the US needs more Mexican immigrants.

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