The Ethics of Coexistence: Bollywood's Different Take on Terrorism

By Richter, Claudia | Cross Currents, December 2009 | Go to article overview

The Ethics of Coexistence: Bollywood's Different Take on Terrorism


Richter, Claudia, Cross Currents


In my final exam in religious studies, I chose to speak about religion and culture in Bollywood movies. Suddenly the examiner quoted Andrej Tarkowskij, whom he had heard at a podium discussion in Berlin back in 1984. When asked what he thought about Indian films, Tarkowskij had expressed his opinion rather bluntly: "a waste of time." It was a shock to receive this in the middle of my exam, since obviously the examiner seemed to sympathize with Tarkowskij. More shockingly, my own reverence for both Tarkowskij and the examiner was briefly called into question. (1) In any case, the provocation invigorated my desire to point out the ethical concerns and esthetic qualities I felt to be present in these films, and it continues to be the motivation for the present essay. Indeed, Tarkowskij's judgment of Indian films really encapsulates what many generations of educated people in the West and in India have thought about commercial Indian cinema, to the effect that it has become a "much ridiculed and maligned art form." (2) Narrative structures and formal conventions are very different from their Western counterparts, which is certainly one of the reasons for the degree of contempt with which Indian cinema has been met by generations of people educated under modern Western precepts of artistic ideals and values. (3) In the following, I would like to explain why Bollywood films may be worth our time and attention after all.

Terrorism in the movies: Bollywood vs. Hollywood

One of the most heavily instrumentalized topics in today's world is probably "Islamic terrorism." This has certainly been true for political discourse since 9/11 in the United States, but also in the rest of the world. India, too, has been affected by terrorism, which has enabled right-wing Hindu politics in India to exploit the issue for their purposes.

The two biggest film industries in the world, Hollywood and Bollywood, have responded to the omnipresence of terrorism in the media in recent years and discovered terrorism as a suitable topic for movie plots, even before the events of 9/11. With cinema's considerable influence on "mass consciousness," one would think that script-writers and film-directors would sense the need to transcend the argumentative cliches of war-mongering politicians who rely on simplistic constructions of conflicts with enemies (us vs. them). However, this does not seem to be the case in Hollywood. Although one can discern a growing demand for spiritually edifying messages from Hollywood, (4) the American film industry has made little effort to come up with narratives to help de-escalate the situation emotionally or "spiritually." Quite the opposite seems to be true: Hollywood has displayed tendencies to further war and military conflict to an extent that has allowed Carl Boggs and Tom Pollard to criticize Hollywood's complicity in the growing militarization of public culture in the United States. (5) Instead of attempting to interpret the world in a more imaginative way than neo-conservative politicians, Hollywood's directors and screenwriters have actively contributed to a "culture of fear." As Boggs and Pollard have pointed out in another article, terrorism has been a convenient motif for spectacular action-oriented plots in popular American cinema. (6) This has been the case even before the late 1980s, when Hollywood began to turn to the Middle East for evil antagonists as a new variant of communists and Nazis, moving conflict and combat action to a more global scale according to the paradigm of a "clash of civilizations." From this perspective, one could argue that the films have merely copied the rhetoric and logic of neo-conservative politics onto the silver screen, and perhaps vice versa? Accordingly, Hollywood productions dealing with terrorism after 9/11 caricature "the jihadic enemy [...] as irredeemably evil, the product of a deformed mentality lacking human or rational standards of behavior--its adherents perfect targets for extermination. …

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