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.