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During partition Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were set against each other as their country was abruptly and arbitrarily cleaved in three (India, West and East Pakistan). As families of all three religions were forced to move between India and Pakistan terrible violence erupted in the streets in the form of religious riots. Many people were brutalized and murdered by angry mobs and many women were raped in a tragedy that personally affected millions of members of the diaspora. Because Pakistan was created to be the homeland for the Muslims of India the conflict was defined along religious lines and many psedu-religious militant political factions appeared and began to spread messages of religious bigotry and hate. These messages pervaded much of Indian culture in the years following partition and indeed many still exist today. Despite the fact that the Indian constitution is decidedly secular there is still tension between the various religious groups of India, particularly between Hindus and Muslims. These tensions manifest from time-to-time in the form of isolated religious riots which are usually fueled by politicians who often exploit religion and stereotypes as means to get elected.
Due to the religious nature of partition, Hindu values encoded into mainstream films unintentionally perpetuate religious discrimination and stereotyping against Indians who are not members of the Hindu majority. In this paper I will argue that rape is used in Bollywood films to undermine the 'Indian-ness' of Muslim women while promoting a gendered nationalism through ideals of the Chaste Hindu women in Bollywood's depiction of the 'imagined Hindu-nation.'
To start, it is important to state that Bollywood as it is used in this essay does not refer to the entirety of Indian film. Bollywood refers to a very specific type of narrative and mode of presentation that has only been in existence since the 1990s. Bollywood exists for, and prominently caters to an audience of metropolitan and diasporic Indians. It refers to the predominately a genre described as "feel-good, all-happy-in-the-end, tender love stories with lots of songs and dances." One might also say that they often center around 'family values' and that they often have a palpable, if not entirely self-evident, investment in 'our culture'." (Rajadhyaksha 4-5) It is this 'Hindu-nationalism' that simultaneously defines Bollywood as a genre and creates problems for non-Hindu Indians.
There is a significant non-resident Indian (NRI) population that also influences the production of Bollywood films. These NRIs often have an idealized image of India as 'homeland.' The Indian government estimates that 20 million people of Indian origin reside outside of the subcontinent spread across at least 48 countries. (Mohammad 3)
Many of these NRIs were displaced as a direct result of partition or other religious conflict such as the territorial disputes over Kashmir. Many were unskilled or semiskilled labor from rural regions, seeking economic betterment in the West. They saw their immigration abroad as a temporary; therefore they did not abandon their Indian cultural values. In practice, however, only the professional classes who immigrated for advanced study would return to the subcontinent while the unskilled and semiskilled laborers remained abroad. Eventually many more families left India and to join their husbands, brothers and sons abroad and thus NRI communities who still identified with the 'motherland' were seeded. A generation later, it is these immigrants and their children who become a large portion of the Bollywood target audience and constitute much of the 'imagined Hindu-nation'. Bollywood becomes a crucial mediator between these NRI communities and the 'homeland' especially for the NRIs who are oppressed and marginalized abroad, such as many of those that settled in the UK. Bollywood makes possible reimaginings of the 'homeland' and identification for both the first and subsequent generations. For the first generation, it "mediates the cleavage between an estranged diasporic culture and 'integrative' home-culture [while] for youths it functions as a mode of legitimizing one's own existence in a culturally hostile nation-state'' (Mohammad 4)
Targeting the metropolitan Indians and the NRI populations abroad gave birth to the Bollywood genre of today. A number the biggest Hindi film producers in the 90s (ex. Yash and Aditya Chopra, Subhash Ghai, Karan Johar, and Farhan Akhtar) actively manipulated the diaspora's desire and longing for belonging for profit. They sought to 'remind' South Asians of their 'out of placeness' within their country of settlement or to focus on the 'pull' of the `homeland' to unsettle diasporic rootedness. Many film producers forsook rural Indian audiences altogether in favor of these more profitable diasporic and metropolitan communities. (Mohammad 4)
The prioritization of the metropolitan and overseas markets over rural India has occurred within the context of a rightward shift both economically and politically and with the rise of Hindutva (Hindu-nationalist) values. The 1990s saw the emergence of the modern Bollywood genre which erased from the screen concerns with social issues, social justice, feudal oppression, class conflict, and labour rights. Post-1990s films celebrate capitalist, conspicuous consumption and cosmopolitanism. (Mohammad 4) The feel-good cinema of the 1990s acts as a vehicle to showcase a 'shining, dynamic, 'new' post-Nehruvian India to the world*, cultivating in its audience a sense of pride and renewing their identification with the 'homeland.' (as many [Gillespie, Kaur, Munshi] have argued). (Mohammad 4)
Hindu cultural themes and stories directly based on the Ramayana are staples of Bollywood film. Films such as Raavan (2010) and Raajneeti (2010) take their premises straight out of the Hindu epics. Ram is also present in popular culture among the Hindu majority in novels and plays and attractions.
Phyllis Herman argues that these representations are often used as propaganda. In his article Remaking Rama for the Modern Sightseer: It's a Small Hindu World after All Herman describes a new attractions like 'Ram Darshan' in the village of Chitrakut in northern India which Herman describes as "a multimedia extravaganza featuring animatronic figures, dramatic dioramas and elegant wall paintings, all designed to celebrate the life and ideology of Rama in an atmosphere that is more than a little reminiscent of Disney World." Herman explains that among the depictions of Ram are stories from popular literature including scenes in which Rama is portrayed-"together with his brother Lakshmana and their mentor Vishvamitra-standing before a crowd of very well-formed, semi-naked women in postures of supplication and grief." No such story exists in the epics but one realizes that these portrayals serve as veiled calls to action when viewed in a post-partition Indian context. Underneath the scene, the caption read:
To rape women was the common sport of the demons. There was no place for these women in society or in their homes. Rama was in agony to see these distraught women. He made them realize that this is not their fault. Rama punished those demons and gave the brutalized women a proper place in society. (caption under scene at Ram Darshan) (Herman 2-3)
Hindu radicals point to scenes like these to legitimize the demonization of Muslims in film and society and promote the 'Hindu-nation': free from demons and embodied in the chaste Hindu women that remain.
The mytho-political instrumentation of Rama and the 'Ramayana' is, in itself, nothing new in Indian history. A real political symbolism of the 'Ramayana' probably began around the eleventh or twelfth century, when the dichotomisation of the righteous Hindu versus the demonic Muslim is expressed in inscriptions and literature but these sort of depictions are beginning to appear with increasing frequency. (Herman 4) These political parties explicitly name Muslims as the demonic 'other,' further stratifying and polarizing society.
As Chakraborty points out in her article, The sexual lives of Muslim girls in the bustees of Kolkata, India, chastity is a value that is not exclusive to Hindus. Ideals of "the Good Muslim Girl" exist just as the 'chaste Hindu woman' exists. Zina, or premarital sex between men and women, is haram in Islam for both men and women. (Chakraborty 1) It is purely 'Hindu-nationalism' that sees Muslim girls cast as promiscuous in Bollywood film.
Because of India's characterization as 'mother' and the resulting gendered nationalism the female body has a significant symbolic meaning in Bollywood. As Robina Mohammad puts it: "The feminine corpus represents the nation as (hetero)sexualised, pure, and solidly bounded yet highly vulnerable to foreign penetration, rape, and racial impurity." Gayatri Gopinath (1997, page 468) insists that women's bodies are "crucial to nationalist discourse in that they serve not only as the site of biological reproduction of national collectivities but as the very embodiment of this nostalgically evoked communal past and tradition. As women become the embodiment of nation, so the nation in turn is feminized and rape takes on new political meaning.
In light of a feminized nation, the defense of national territory is also a symbolic defense of the racial purity of the nation. Gendered metaphors of rape are often used to signify the penetration and domination of the land of the nation. Through the symbol of the mother, men can be hailed as sons to save the honor and virtue of the nation, to lay down their lives for it. Like the body of the beloved, the nation's territory becomes an object "to love and possess, to protect and defend, to fight and die for'' (Mohammad 7) Raped women who are not redeemed serve as equally powerful metaphors. They are forced outside the ideal and once again cast as the demonized 'other.'