Bollywood’s Muslim Heroines: Of Love and Hate

I have been wanting to write about this for a looooong time. As a South Asian who grew up in Canada, Hindi films (aka Bollywood films) were always a way to stay connected to the my South Asian heritage. However, I have always known this to be a problematic connection, for a number of reasons: 1) I was born in Canada so have never actually lived in South Asia, making the connection distant and the culture often irrelevant to my own realities, 2) I’m Pakistani, not Indian (the cultures are very similar but not the same – again, a little irrelevancy here) and 3) I’m Muslim and the majority of characters in Hindi films are Hindu, despite the large number of Muslims in not only India, but also the Hindi film industry. It is this last point which leads me to ask the question: What happened to the Muslim heroine in Hindi films?

The influence and presence of Muslims in Hindi films is indisputable. From the use of Urdu dialogues and lyrics written by Muslim writers and lyricists, to Muslim music directors, directors, producers, and of course male and female actors, Muslims have always been a part of the industry. There was a time, a while ago, when one would see strong Muslim women characters in Hindi films. Over the decades, this particular character has changed. In the black and white days of the ’50s, when a great number of the top Hindi film actresses were Muslim, the Muslim heroine could be seen every now and then. In fact, some of the greatest hits of the decade revolved around Muslims characters but whose Muslim-ness was just a feature of their character as opposed to central to the storyline. Apart from the typical reciting of Urdu poetry, the main characters were simply main characters who just happened to be Muslim, including the heroine.

For analyses of the role of Muslims in Hindi films throughout Hindi film history see here, and here.

So where is the Muslim heroine today? From what I’ve seen, things don’t look so good for the Muslim heroine in Hindi films. Despite Muslims being the largest religious minority group in India and having a large presence in the Hindi film industry, strong Muslim characters are rarely seen. And when they are seen, they seem to fit into certain roles.

It seems that in the past 10 or so years, it has been difficult to find a film in which the Muslim aspect of a main character’s identity was simply just an aspect of their identity, as was the colour of their hair. Hindi films in which the central characters (i.e., hero and/or heroine) are Muslim maintain Muslim-ness as central to the storyline and the storyline is usually somehow political – either in severe (terrorism) or romantic (inter-religious love) ways, or both.

Terrorism and turmoil

Image via Movie

Image via Movie

Films such as Fiza, Fanaa, and Mission Kashmir depict Muslims within the backdrop of violence. Real original.* Fiza is the story of a young Muslim woman who, after her brother leaves home to join a rebel group, searches the country to bring him back. Fanaa is a love story of two Muslims – the hero a terrorist from Kashmir and the heroine a blind girl. The two fall in love, her unaware of his violent intentions toward his country. Mission Kashmir tells the story of a young Kashmiri Muslim man, who after losing his family as a child, joins a local rebel force to help him find and exact revenge on those who killed his family. The heroine, also a Kashmiri Muslim, is his childhood friend.

In all three the films the heroine, a Muslim woman is, as Amit Rai describes in his article, the force which reigns in the wayward and destructive Muslim male. In his analysis, Rai speaks of the Muslim heroines of two films – Mission Kashmir and Fiza. In the film Mission Kashmir, she plays the educated and modern journalist who “functions as a foil for Altaaf’s [male protagonist] extremism. She provides him with a non-traumatic mooring to his past and, through their romance, to another future.” Similarly, in the film Fiza, the main female character, Fiza, searches for her brother who has left home to join Muslim militants, in hopes of reforming him and bringing him home. I would add to Rai’s analysis the film Fanaa. In Fanaa, Zooni, the heroine, is a calm, sweet, and innocent young woman who helps the hero understand and appreciate love even among the world of hate he inhabits. She tempts him away from the life of violence he has embraced. And all this without knowing about this part of his life.

However, in these films the heroine is not only the reigning force, but she is also the patriotic in contrast to her unpatriotic male counterpart. In Fanaa, Zooni demonstrates a love for her country (as depicted so aptly in the song Des Rangila in which Zooni sings the praises of India). In Mission Kashmir, Sufiya, the heroine, plays a journalist. She does not desire to destroy the nation but rather to serve and educate it. Finally, even in Fiza, Fiza demonstrates her patriotism when she is challenged by a Hindu politician about her sympathies with Pakistan, an assumption he bases simply on her Muslim identity. She retorts by saying that those Muslims who wanted to go to Pakistan went in 1947. Those who remained are Indians. Thus, she establishes not only her own loyalty to India, but also addresses a common suspicion among right-wing Hindus in India that the loyalties of India’s Muslims lie with Pakistan, and not their own country.

Of these three films, the character of Fiza is unusual in Hindi films as she is the rarely seen independent Muslim woman whose Muslim identity does become central as a result of the plot of the film, but who nonetheless remains devoid of the stereotypes of Muslim women. The strength of the character may in large part be due to the fact that the director and writer of the film was Khalid Muhammad, noted Indian film critic and a Muslim himself. Another one of his films, Zubeidaa, based on the life of his own mother, had a strong Muslim female character whose Muslim identity rarely played a role in the storyline and who did not fit neatly into a stereotype. This phenomenon seems unique to Muhammad’s films. (See also Mammo and Sardari Begum.)

Inter-religious Love

Image via Planet Bollywood.

Image via Planet Bollywood

Forbidden love between a Hindu/Sikh and Muslim pops up on the Hindi film screen occasionally, and more likely than not the heroine is the Muslim. Films such as Veer-Zaara and Gadar depict this struggle. In Veer-Zaara, not only is the heroine, Zaara, Muslim but also Pakistani. She falls in love with Veer, an Indian Hindu only to end up being separated from him for years. However, unlike Veer-Zaara, the anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan sentiment in Gadar is clear and obvious as Hindus are presented as the poor victims of blood-thirsty and ruthless Muslims. This film was so anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan that a Sikh friend of mine told me even she and her mother were offended by it. The Muslim heroine, Sakina, meets the Sikh hero of the film, Tara Singh, when he rescues her from a Sikh mob who is out for her blood. (Their anger at her is depicted as a revenge killing for Muslim aggression toward them.)

Salvation of the heroine by the hero is common in Hindi films. The “damsel in distress” narrative is as common in Hindi films as it is in Disney cartoons. However, when the heroine is a Muslim, this narrative takes on whole other tone and sends a very different message. In Veer-Zaara, the hero and heroine meet in this manner. During her visit to India, her bus overturns and it is the Indian soldier, Veer, who saves her. In both films, the Muslim heroine is indebted to the Hindu/Sikh hero for saving her life. One cannot help but wonder these films are trying to create a mentality of gratitude among Muslims, thus maintaining their position of subjugation.

Additionally, in both films, the heroine is loyal and devotes her life to the hero, not wanting to have anything to do with her old life with her Muslim family. She prefers to live her life among those who are not her co-religionists. This films seem to be telling their Muslim viewers how to be good Muslims.

Maybe there is some hope (?)

There are some films which do give me some hope that Hindi cinema is capable of making films with Muslim heroines in a nuanced and non-stereotypical manner. Film such as Saawariya, Zubeidaa, Tumko Na Bhool Payenge and Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal depict Muslim women as simply Muslim women whose presence is not to make any political statement, but simply to be. Not that political films are not great. They are. However, without addressing the inequalities, discrimination and oppression faced by India’s Muslims, including and especially women, these films are incomplete and inaccurate commentaries.

Although films which try to promote harmony between Muslims and Hindus, and which address the complexities of terrorism (if they indeed do) are necessary, with the number of Muslims that exist in India who just live their lives as any other citizen, depicting Muslims in such “normal” roles more often and regularly is also necessary. The arts are a powerful way to propagate culture and including Muslims in this will be necessary in ensuring that the Muslims of India are seen as just as Indian as the Hindus and Sikhs are. (See here for a discussion on this.)

* Sarcasm. In case you didn’t catch it.

  • Nida

    Yes I agree with you! It is interesting how they always tend to portray Muslims in a certain way as to make some kind of a political statement. Recently there have been so many bollywood movies about ‘terrorism’. i.e. Black and White, Mission Istanbul and etc. But I kinda tend to stay away from those movies since I know surely for a fact that it’s sole propaganda! Even the love triangles – Muslim women always seem to fall for the Hindu guy, never the other way around?!? That really says something. I am neither Indian or Pakistani, but Bollywood is the only kind of movies I watch because untill recently they have been prity much G rated. Now even that is changing, so I end up not seeing much of anything. But yeah, I think you are right on target with your post!

  • s.c.

    Great post, I grew up on Bollywood :). I’d be really interested to see what you think of “Dor” with Ayesha Takia and Gul Panag. If you haven’t watched it, do so (but don’t look it up on Wikipedia or anything b/c it’ll give away the story, you really gotta watch it without reading about it!). It’s one of my favorites because it really does not fit the mold of typical Bollywood stereotypes. I was pleasantly surprised at how it dealt with such complex issues such Desi guest workers in the Middle East, gender roles and Muslim and Hindu women, and of course the absolutely beautiful views of Kashmir and Rajasthan!

    I’ll be waiting to see what you think :)

  • Mish

    Excellent post. I was just thinking about this yesterday, with regards to Fanaa and then Bollywood as a whole – about how lately, the only times being Muslim is actually important to a plot/character, it’s depicted in a bad light. I still like the movies though, because I’m cheesy like that, and Saawariya is my favorite movie, but you’re right in that the characters being Muslim isn’t very important. The only time it stands out is during the song Yoon Shabnami.

  • sadhia

    Interesting and well-written article. Now I’m not a fan of Bollywood and hence don’t follow it that much but I saw this video from a film called “Anwar”. I haven’t wacthed the movie but in the end of one of the songs, the lead actor and actress (Both protrayed as muslims) are depicted as Radha and Krishna….I really liked that idea because it suddenly blended two religions together kinda like the way India is actually….However I only watched the song so I don’t know how the film itself is

  • Mariam

    Interesting to note that they never have a Muslim man and Hindu woman together as a couple.

  • Sobia

    Thanks for your comments :)

    I’ve heard of those films but haven’t seen them yet. I had wanted to see Black and White just to see how they handled the issue of terrorism. I remember with the film Dil Se some of the causes of terrorism were addressed a little. But in that film the terrorist were not Muslims. Their religion was never mentioned but it was clear they weren’t Muslims.

    I haven’t seen Dor but will definitely check it out. I’ve actually been wondering if any Bollywood films touched on the subject of guest workers in the Middle East. Thanks for the recommendation :)

    @ Mish:
    I must confess I really did enjoy Fanaa. And I just saw Saawariya the other day. I’m not much for love stories but I thought it was a very cute film. I loved the way it was filmed. Very fairy tale-ish. And I’ve always been a fan of Anil Kapoor so enjoyed seeing his daughter’s debut film.

    @ sadhia:
    I haven’t seen Anwar but a friend of mine has highly recommended it to me. If I’m not mistaken I believe the film is not as mainstream as some of the others. I’m not sure who is in the film either. But I’ve heard it is good. And what you describe sounds very interesting. I’ll have to check it out. Thanks for mentioning it. :)

    @ Mariam:
    It rarely happens but I think there are a few examples. Jodha Akbar is one. And I think Shabd was one – I didn’t see the film but for some reason I remember when reading the plot Sanjay Dutt’s character having a Muslim name, while his wife, played by Aishwariya Rai, had a Hindu name as did Zayed Khan’s character. I’ll have to double check it. But you are right – it rarely happens the other way.

  • eternal_llama

    The only film that comes to mind is Earth by Indo-Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta which involves a love triangle between two Muslim men and a Hindu woman during the partition of India. I don’t think it counts as a Bollywood production though.

  • Jamerican Muslimah


    I don’t want to distract from the subject but one of the things that has made me stop watching Bollywood films is the way that darker-skinned Indians are portrayed in the films; as comic relief, the evil character, a maid/servant or in the background. I started asking how I could support films that only want to show fair-skinned Indians even as the majority of Indians don’t look like that…

  • Sobia

    @ eternal:

    You’re right – Earth is not Bollywood, but it does show two Muslim men in love with a Hindu woman.

    @ Jamerican:
    This is off topic but I’d like to address it anyways. In South Asia being light skinned is definitely a sign of beauty. The vast number of skin-lightening creams is a testament to that. Even Bollywood stars are seen promoting these creams. (ahem, ahem…I’m looking at you SRK). And its open and the people are blunt about it. How many songs have we heard from the region singing about a “gori” (fair skinned girl)? And its usually the girl who is expected to be fair-skinned – not the guy.

    However, it depends on how dark you mean. Shah Rukh Khan, Rani Mukhkerjee, Bipasha Basu, Ajay Devgan, Kajol, Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan, Abhishek Bachchan, Priyanka Chopra are all relatively dark skinned and huge stars (Shah Rukh Khan isn’t called King Khan for no reason.) I don’t think one could call anyone of them fair-skinned, without some enhancement of course (lighting, make-up etc.) However, the fact that some of them are lightened for the camera is problematic no doubt.

    Although a huge number of Indians are dark skinned, a huge number are also light skinned. In fact, if you’re from the Punjab region (Akshay Kumar, the Kapoors) you’re probably going to be relatively light skinned. And if you have Pathan roots (Aamir Khan, Saif Ali Khan) then you’re also probably going to be lighter-skinned.

    And also remember. Bollywood is Hindi cinema. Meaning that it would be depicting people in a certain regions of India – mainly Mumbai and north. This may also impact who is shown on screen.

    Hollywood is just as much about showing beautiful people on screen. How many leading ladies and men in Hollywood would people consider un-attractive? So Bollywood is going to do the same thing. Fair or lighter skin is considered to be beautiful in South Asian culture therefore Bollywood shows beautiful people too. Just the standards of beauty are different. Some of the people considered beautiful there may not be “good enough” for Hollywood.

    But I know what you’re saying and it is a cultural issue as opposed to Bollywood itself. The superiority of light skin is common in many colonized cultures.

    Now back to the topic at hand :)

  • bollyviewer

    Great write-up. I’ve often wondered why normal Muslim people seem to have disappeared from the Bollywood canvas, too! Till 1980s there were lots of “Muslim socials” where the characters’ Muslim background provided the excuse for some grand sets and pageantry as well as some great Urdu dialogues and poetry. However, in recent years there have been very few films where the characters just happened to be Muslims and their religion was not an important feature of the film. Can recall only two such examples – Iqbal where the main character is a cricket-crazy deaf mute who just happens to be Muslim, and Tehzeeb that focuses on a troubled mother-daughter relationship in a Muslim family. The only instance of Muslim man + Hindu woman I recall offhand is Pinjar, where the Muslim man kidnaps the Hindu woman and she is forced into marrying him (he does do a penance for this crime and redeems himself by the end).

    As to why Muslims dont ping on the Bollywood radar, I am sure the reasons are economic. Bollywood had a big market in the Middle-East and Far-East where there was a sizeable Muslim audience. These days, Bollywood’s most lucrative market is among the expat-Indians in North America and Western Europe. Even within India, Muslims constitute only about 12% of the population. So probably, there isnt a big enough market for normal Muslim characters in big-budget movies.

  • s.c.

    Sorry to get back on this, but also don’t forget Rekha! Who herself is actually from southern India (I believe she’s of Tamil origins) and is without a doubt, one if the finest and accomplished actors in Bollywood. She looks pretty brown to me! (She is as legendary in Bollywood, as Elizabeth Taylor was in Hollywood)

    “Although a huge number of Indians are dark skinned, a huge number are also light skinned.” This is so, so, true. My family is from the north, and while Desi people don’t think its weird that we look the way we do, I get the most ridiculous and absurd reactions from non-Desi people when I tell them where I’m from. But this also points to the ridiculous-ness of rigid “racial” binaries and for the most part, how they put people from West, South and Central Asia in a very strange position, including those people who are of mixed European and non-European origins.

    But what Sobia says is right, Bollywood is dominated by actors originally from the northern areas of India (you can include pre-partition Pakistan here as well, depending on the film and the year it was made), where skin colour tends to be lighter. The northern part of the Indian subcontinent has often been part of various Western Asian empires, as well as the place of arrival for other ethnic groups that tend to have lighter skin (ie Scythians, Greeks, Persian and Turkic peoples who came and mated with the local populations). Alot of this also has to do with language too, because Hindi and related languages (Urdu, Punjabi) are from northern India and Pakistan. Also, India is home to many other film industries, such as Tollywood, Kollywood where the actors languages and skin colours are generally representative of the dominant ethnic group of whatever region.

    Colonization playes a big (but its not the only) role in playing up these north-south divides. Many north Indian castes and tribes were favored by the British military because they were eugenically and racially (because of their supposed European ancestry – ie the Aryans) considered to be “martial races” (ie – warriors) and enlisted to fight in various wars. While it is true that the northern regions of Punjab and Kashmir have historically been home to people who descended from the warrior castes (Gujjars, Jatts, Rajputs), the way imperial powers used these groups of people to rule the subcontinent means that those from Jung-jo Jati’s or Jung-jo Zaat’s (what Desi’s call martial races) have more societal clout than those not coming from castes that were classified as martial races, even today. Caste meetings or ‘clubs’ in northern India and Pakistan (Bradri meetings, for all those Desi’s who know what I’m talking about) play this warrior aspect up, sometimes in a really demeaning and racist way.

    Watching some of the newer Bollywood flicks, I think the bias towards lighter skinned actors is actually on the decline. But maybe its just me.

    Re: Dil Se – I think this was about some regional independence movement in Assam or another north-eastern region of India where there’s a lot of violence over this issue. At first I thought it was about the Tamil tigers, because it showed the assassination of some politician, so I thought immediately it was about Rajiv Gandhi, but I could be all wrong.

    Muslim man and Hindu woman – I know I’ve seen a few of these, but I can’t remember the name off the top of my head.

  • sadhia

    Hi Sobia and all the rest,

    Here is the story line for Anwar:

    Note that regarding the muslim heroine it says: “Nauheed Cyrusi as Mehru
    Mehru is the love of Anwar’s life. Through the film, her constant effort is to battle the status quo placed upon Muslim women- manifested most clearly in her desire to leave India for a better life. She, of all the characters, best represents the generation of middle-class Indians caught between tradition and the irresistible onset of globalisation”

    I guess I need to see the movie first in order to assess the characters but atleast the link gives some sort of insigth to the movie

  • Zara

    Can I co-sign everything that S.C. wrote? :)
    I love that this site really does tackle issues that affect Muslimahs from all over the world, and I was absolutely ecstatic to see a post on Bollywood.
    A couple of things I want to touch on:
    -I understand where you’re coming from Jamerican Muslimah. Bollywood does like to cast fairer skinned actresses, often without any regard to their acting skills. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that only darker-skinned actresses are representative of what the average South Asian looks like – mainly because there is no such thing as the average South Asian. My family and I are often mistaken as hailing from the Mediterranean (I once had a man come up to me speaking rapidly in Italian. When I tried to tell him I wasn’t Italian, he thought I was lying). My parents were born and raised in Bangladesh. Like others have mentioned, Bollywood is one of many film industries in India, and it mainly represents the Mumbai region. I’m not denying that Bollywood has a skewed conception of what ideal beauty is. In fact, certain movies are beginning feature actresses tanned to an orange crisp (similar to Hollywood actresses). I can’t help but wonder why directors didn’t simply cast naturally duskier actresses.
    -Even though there is an overall lack of Muslim heroes/heroines, I do think Bollywood does a better (and more realistic) job of depicting Muslims than Hollywood does. Hollywood “attempts” to portray Muslims in a positive light, but falls into the trap of attaching some terrorism-related plotline to the character, which defeats the entire purpose. Bollywood often does this as well (Mission Kashmir, Fanaa), but some movies do seem to acknowledge that is possible for a person to have Islam as an aspect of their identity, but have other aspects as well. I loved Dor for this reason. This movie tackled so many misconceptions about Muslims in a beautifully subtle way.

  • Sobia

    @ sadhia:
    Thanks so much for the link. I’m totally checking this film out now. The storyline sounds very interesting and intelligent, and I love Manisha Koirala. :)

    @ s.c. and Zara:

    Very well said and described. South Asians are EXTREMELY diverse. Hell, just within India there is so much diversity – probably more than there is in other parts of the sub-continent. I’ve had Lebanese people think I was Lebanese, and just the other day had a Syrian woman think I was Persian. (Though South Asians ALWAYS know I’m one of them, and many can even figure out I’m Punjabi. :) )

    And Zara, you’re right about the fact that Bollywood does do a better job with Muslim characters than does Hollywood. This is expected since Muslims are a much larger part of not only the Hindi film industry, but also of India, than they are in the US. And in some ways that actually disappoints me about Bollywood. Especially considering that the biggest stars in Bollywood are Muslims – Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, Saif Ali Khan (no relation to each other). And this has been the case historically right from Dilip Kumar and Madhubala to today. So one would hope for better from Bollywood. But how often have we even seen these top grossing actors play Muslim characters?

    I’m going to have to check out Anwar and Dor and maybe do another post on them. They seem like they will have strong female Muslim characters. :)

  • Ethar

    Great post, Sobia! I’m a bollywood fan and I’ve always wondered how come the Hindu-Muslim relation isn’t discussed all that often. I came across an interview with Firaaq’s director Nandita Das I thought you might all enjoy:

    [The film "highlights a problem that is not often enough (except for now) discussed outside the country: the acute tension between Hindus and Muslims. Using an exciting (albeit sometimes melodramatic) rhythm of cross-sectioning, the film follows different families in the northern state of Gujarat -- Hindus and Muslims -- during the tense period of curfew that followed the 2002 massacre of Muslims."]

  • Kalimaat

    South Asains are diverse but some of the actresses mentioned here i would say are brown to light brown complexion and defintely not what i would describe as a dark skinned asian. To me a dark skinned would be someone like Ajay Devgan or even darker,how many actresses are out there who play the role of a heroine and have a dark complexion? I have not come across one so far.

  • s.c.

    I can’t wait for the one on Dor! I watched half of Anwar, I liked the Radha Krishna thing too, but I have to say, the depiction of a Muslim woman in Dor was much more…open. I mean sure, the director knew that he was going to cast one woman as a Muslim, and one as a Hindu, but he never played up stereotypes about each of these women and their faiths. Where you do see some “Traditional” roles, its thrown back on the culture, and the region of the area, not the religion. I’m not saying culture is a problem, just saying we can’t always say “muslim culture” b/c it doesn’t exist, many times, muslim culture in south asia is more like “hindu culture”, than say another muslim majority culture. This makes sense to me, alot of desi’s are descended from converted Hindu’s and the fact that we pretty much retained our castes, atleast in Punjab, says alot (even though caste has been associated with some pretty nasty things, it does serve an organizing function in desi society).

    I don’t know if you also thought this Zara, but remember the main character’s male friend (broopia)? I loved how it showed women and men can just be friends, and that the woman can be Muslim! I’ve also been told I was lying when I told people where I was from, one racist even had the guts to think I was joking and say in a mocking tone “it’s not nice to make fun of paki’s like that”. I actually find it really annoying for people to have assumptions about Desi’s, and how we “should” look.

    Another thing about the actors in Bollywood, alot of Bollywood dynasties are made up of mixed Hindu-Muslim families. intermarriage between the two communities is not a big deal when you become a celebrity, all of the above mentioned have been married to, or involved with non-muslim women, and Muslim women in Bollywood have also been involved with non-Muslim men, and no one cares.

    re: Sobia, Punjabi’s can sense out other Punjabi’s b/c we all have a secret sensor that lets them know when a Punjabi (religion no bar) walks by. Then, according to Punjabi law, you must ask, in kuttar Punjabi, how the person is doing, and the status of their grandmother/mothers knees (godiya, as we call em), as loud as possible…just kidding…or am i?!

  • Zara

    S.C., thank you for reminding me about that! I love movies, and I think it’s funny that of all the movies I’ve seen from various countries, this small independent Indian film had one of the best depictions of a purely platonic relationship between a man and a woman.

    And, I totally see where you’re coming from about the racists – I’ve had many people who didn’t know I’m Muslim tell me horrible things about “those terrorists”, expecting me to agree with them. It’s always strangely entertaining to watch them squirm around and try to “explain” themselves after I tell them I’m a proud, practicing Muslim.

  • Rchoud


    I agree with Jamerican Muslimah’s reservations about Bollywood. I understand that Bollywood traditionally catered predominantly to Northwestern Indian audiences (like from Kashmir and Pujab for example). However since it is trying to internationalize its audience (by attracting more Westerners to watch its films) I think it’s very important that Bollywood show India’s diversity in terms of appearances, cultures, etc. It would be educational for all involved to see how culturally and physically diverse India is. While there are regional film industries around (Kollywood, Tollywood) they are not known about at all by outsiders and besides they are not looking to internationalize their audience like Bollywood.

    As for how they portray Muslims (women in particular) it would be very good if Bollywood had movies that showed the complexities involved in life for all Indians, including Muslims (that means having to cut down on the fun “love conquers all” storylines as well as the lengthy song and dance routines!) Right now I think Bollywood is being no different in its portrayal of Muslim women, especially with regards to inter religious love. I’ve seen alot of movies come out recently depicting Muslim women in relationships with non-Muslim men like Jews and Christians. The Hindus want to get in on this trend too! I think it’s just an attempt to once again portray Muslim women as passive victims of their religion who need to be saved from it by other men! Frankly I’m getting mighty annoyed with this portrayal!

  • Farah

    Sobia, have you seen Bombay? It’s a bit old, but the two main characters are a Muslim woman and a Hindu man. I haven’t watched it in a while but its probably one of the better ones. And you liked Fanaa? And was it just me or did the scene where Tabu (the policewoman) is trying to convince Zooni to kill Aamir Khan (she says something like “You have to kill him, do it for your country” or something like that) grate on your nerves? I guess I like my movies a bit more subtle, and the nationalist sentiment in that scene was choking (Kashmiri girl, living in a disputed territory, killing her rebel husband ‘for her country’).

    Anyway, good post. Out of the hundreds of Bollywood movies I’ve watched I can probably name only 5 that I actually like.

  • Sobia

    @ Farah:

    I have seen Bombay. It was older so I didn’t include it, but it also “used” Muslims to make a political statement. And, again, as I said such movies are great, but I felt the movie didn’t really talk about how it was Hindu fundus who sort of started the whole problem by demolishing the mosque. Both Muslims and Hindus were blamed equally which I thought was a tad inaccurate. But overall, it was a good film and the depiction of Muslims was not problematic.

    I did like Fanaa. I especially liked the part where Tabu’s characters says something to the effect of if Kashmir had been given the referendum they were supposed to be given by the Indian government maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess. I liked that the film made mention, even if the one time, of the fault and role of the Indian government in the creation of the Kashmir issue.

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  • Asin

    All those mentioned films are great to watch.My favorite is Fiza.

  • Faith

    So glad you wrote this piece Sobia. I liked Fanaa too even though I found some aspects of it to be troubling.

  • SouthIndianMuslim

    Maybe you should watch Rang De Basanti – it has a Muslim character. Bollywood doesn’t cater to the Northern and Kashmiri regions – it was created for middle India- where people largely speak Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani. And if you look at films made in South India – Malayalam cinema (superstar Mamooty is a Muslim),Tamil cinema, Kannada cinema, there are many Muslim characters. I think you should come and live in India for some time. Muslims though large in number aren’t a majorrity in India and movies are made for entertaining, so they use most common names, which are Hindu names. I don’t think you should care so much whether Muslims are protrayed in Hindi films or not. And a lot of actors aren’t very fair skinned. They just look like that on TV and on screen. And there are and always have been actors from the South acting in Hindi films.

  • Mugatu

    So you’re looking for gender and religion quotas? Is that your point?

  • Sobia


    My issue is not with how many Muslim stars there are or how many Muslim characters there are. My issue is with the way in which Muslims are portrayed in Hindi films. I do not understand any of the languages from the South so I do not watch any films from the region and am therefore not familiar with how Malayalam, Tamil, and Kannada films portray Muslims. I cannot therefore speak to those films.

    However, in Hindi films Muslims are usually depicted in very stereotypical ways. Lots of Hindi films have Muslim characters but the majority of those characters are secondary – the loyal sidekick, the nosy neighbours, the wise neighbourhood shopkeeper/chacha (uncle), or worse, the villian (ie the underworld). Having Muslim secondary characters many times is not good enough.This says that Muslims are not important. That Muslims lives and experiences occur only in relation to Hindus. Muslims are there only to suppor the Hindu without lives of their own. That Hindu is the norm and Muslim the abnorm.

    And we should care whether or not Muslims are portrayed in Hindi films. Muslims may not be the majority but they are the largest religious minority. And the way the media of a country portray people in their country has a huge impact on the way people see that group. Media is a massive tool for propagating culture. You leave Muslims out and you are leaving Muslims out of the culture.

  • amreen

    As salaam alaikum,

    I just wanted to say that I really like the style in which you wrote the article, I have to say that I pretty much agree wtih your sentiments. It does really annoy me when I am watching bollywood movies especially one’s where there is an inter-religious love story going on because I know all the stereotypes will be used to show Muslims, oppressed and weak women, evil muslim men who hate hindu’s and all the rest. Great work!

    BTW did you see Jhoom barabar Jhoom? I think that too had a Pakistanti/Muslim girl who falls in love with Abhishaik Bachan (I can’t spell his first name) ?

    Allah Hafiz

  • Sobia

    @ Amreen:
    Thanks so much.

    I had heard that in Jhoom Barabar Jhoom the heroine is Muslim. In fact, it seems both heroines are Muslim and Pakistani ( is half Pakistani) (Wikipedia). Interesting…I’ll have to check it out. Thanks!

  • Suresh

    I do believe that muslim character representation has reduced in bollywood movies nowadays. But still in no where else in the world you can see mixture of all religions in entertainment industry as india. I do understand that most of the writers here have not seen south indian movies. But i have to say we had a tamil movie where a song sung by movie hero goes like this ‘ la illaha illa allah. mohammed ullah suralla(may be my wording are incorrect’ but it had that muslim prayer in that first line of the song and was famous. No where in the world you can hear that happen. no where. Just in india.

  • Sana


    Great post! Very interesting perspective. The portrayal of Muslims in Bollywood, and especially of Pakistanis, is definitely kinda absurd. Like someone else stated, I just ignore those movies and stick to the rest.

    I’m currently working on an article discussing the Bollywoodization of the Indian culture – something which is extremely concerning, I find. Indian culture itself is being undermined and lost thanks to the fast-paced evolution of the film industry within the past 10 years, as they seek to reach out more the Diaspora populations in the Western world.


  • Sobia

    @ Sana:



    That sounds like a really interesting article. I’d love for you to share your ideas. Also, I’m wondering if you’ll be looking at the Bollywoodization of Pakistani culture too. I’ve noticed this is a HUGE trend in Pakistan, especially in Punjab and I think this is especially interesting considering the relationship of the two countries.

  • Sobia

    @ Suresh:

    You make some great points. I do agree that there is a diversity of religions in Indian films and the efforts that are made to include Muslims in films as “normal” characters should be appreciated. However, the occurrence seems far less than it should be considering the size of the Indian Muslim population. Additionally, the issues that Muslims deal with, such as discrimination, are rarely dealt with.

  • SouthIndianMuslim

    There is a Kannada film called ‘Gulabi Talkies’. The main character is a Muslim woman. Maybe if you can get the movie with subtitles, you can watch it. Its a wonderful movie.
    You are right in saying that Muslim charcaters are stereotypical. But the fact is that educated Muslims are few and far between. The general image that a non-Muslim sees of a Muslim is guys with beards and women with burkhas. So they base their concepts of Muslims on that. Schoolmates and college mates refused to believe I was a Muslim – because I seemed too “progressive”, “well educated” and I didn’t wear bling-bling clothes. The stereotypes that are propagated, and funnily enough Muslims seem to adhere to those, are those of a backward community.
    So its natural to protray the Muslim community from the most visible images that non-Muslims see. I am talking from experience because I live in India. At the same time, without visible external symbols, people cannot identify Indain Muslims because we are after all like any other Indian. So how do people diferentiate a Muslim in a movie except from visible symbols like surma in eyes and the keffiyeh around one’s neck, etc. People see Muslims that way – like shy coy girls with a dupatta on their head, and brazen youth etc. Its been this stereotype ingrained in the indian psyche for so many generations that its hard to break away from this image.

    And you know, Hindi movies are always full of “masala”.
    You simply cannot have Muslim main characters in a film who fall in love, dance go out..I mean there would be protests, I am so sure of this. And probably a fatwa or two from some seminary to say that these are bad influences on Muslim youth.

    You should realize that having at least secondary characters as Muslims affirms to the fact that filmmakers also want to include Muslims in films and say that we are a secular country.
    I know its odd that many successful film makers in Hindi cinema are Muslims themselves, so it might seem odd they don’t make films based on Muslims. I only think its the commercial viability of a film that matters to most, and we as Muslims are a conservative community, and it would be very hard to depict us in films given the track record of Bollywood for making films solely for entertainment,PDAs and not with messages. At least with Rang de Basanti, the Muslim character was finally portrayed like any other normal educated guy from college.

    You are talking about films as a medium that showcases a particular communtiy in a certain light. I wouldn’t agree because, it is because of some stereotypes already existing in society that Muslims in films are portryaed in a certain way. So it will never make a difference if a film has villians who are Muslim or if Muslims are left out. It will make a difference if the news media (print and television) portrays Muslims -vely or leaves them out, because these have a huge influence here.
    I agree media is a huge tool for propagating culture, but the problem is that every region in India has its own culture. The entire country has Muslims who speak different languages, wear clothes ehtnic to their region and their food is different. It is next to impossible to define a Muslim in a movie, so they go by the most visible signs. Like you cannot portray a Tamil Muslim, or a Rajasthani Muslim. So culture is something that Hindi movies do not showcase. Like I said before, the Muslim community is conservative. It just isn’t possible to base a film specifically on Muslims. If you look at current films, like Fashion, or Dostana, or even Rab Ne Ban Di Jodi, there isn’t scope or even a story for Muslim characters, even though we are the largest minority. These are such times where it is hard to pinpoint or base anything on any specific community. We’re all just “globalized” – neither here nor there.

    As for issues that Muslims have to deal with..well, a lot of Muslims don’t have to deal with issues like discrimination. They are very happy with their lives, and not miserable. It is there, yes, like it is there in every country, where all people deal with all kinds of discrimination against their language, ethnicity, religion, food, even castes. But its not a big issue, or such a big issue that anyone would need to make a movie out of it.

  • SouthIndianMuslim

    I read some of the comments above.
    “film made mention, even if the one time, of the fault and role of the Indian government in the creation of the Kashmir issue.” – if you read history, it was the British who created the Kashmir issue, not the Indian government.

    “portray Muslim women as passive victims of their religion who need to be saved from it by other men” ..
    - It is not passive victims of religion that a film is portraying, rather the pathetic state of wome themselves. If the image of Muslim men as wife beaters persists, then you will have films that show Muslim women being “rescued” by other men. I have never seen a Hindi movie that has ever depicted Muslim women as victims of their religion Islam. Victims of their cruel men folk.., yes, not of our religion.

  • Shams

    India is a Hindu majority country, rapidly becoming a Hindu country. It is already that in fact, if not in theory. And this India has wholeheartedly accepted the US view that the world’s biggest problem is what they call “Islamic Terrorism”.

    To compound this, a substantial portion of educated Hindus in India are quite obsessed with India having been ruled by Muslims dynasties, or “Muslims” as they put it, for hundreds of years.

    It is natural for the Indian film industry to want to conform to the views of the overwhelming majority of its audience. And this audience does not want to see Hindu women with Muslim men.

    Instead, it relishes the idea of Muslim women falling in love with and marrying Hindu men. Sad as it is to say, it gives the audience a sense of getting even with the past.

    I predict that Indian movies will show such relationships (Muslim woman, Hindu or Sikh man) more and more frequently in the coming years.

    If Muslims, or at least those not from or in India, do not like this trend, they should support movies originating from other Muslim countries.

    Iran and Turkey have great movie industries. So does Egypt, I believe, though I haven’t seen any Egyptian movies myself. And there is no reason why Pakistan, with essentially the same culture as North India, cannot have a movie industry rivaling India’s.

  • Sobia

    @ Shams:

    I too have heard of an effort to limit the Muslim culture in India which is very unfortunate considering Islam and Muslims have been a huge part of Indian history regardless of what many Hindu Indians may choose to think. And I’ve never really understood this whole “Muslim as invader” thing. I understand that Muslims did invade India, but first, that was a very, very long time ago, and secondly, most of the Hindus in northern India are not native to India either. They also were invaders at some point. The only native Indians were the Dravidians in the South.

    Anyhow, I don’t think watching movies from Muslim countries is necessarily the answer. Those films should be promoted if those are the films one chooses to watch, but personally, I don’t understand Turkish or Farsi so I’d be at a loss. I do understand Hindi and, I have to admit, I love me some Bollywood songs and some Shah Rukh Khan. (I’m watching Shah Rukh Khan songs as I type :P)

    As for Pakistani films, the budgets are WAY less than those for Bollywood. They don’t have nearly the amount of money Bollywood does and so cannot put on the productions that India can. If they had the money and resources that India did then indeed their films would be pretty much at the same level as India, and would probably look the same except with Muslim characters. Additionally, Pakistan and Pakistanis do not seem to value arts and culture nearly as much as Indians do. This is also why their film industry has not grown – their actors don’t get any respect (which hinders people from entering the field) and the arts get very little funding.

    I think there needs to be more critique of Indian media and their portrayal of Muslims. This is a problem not only in their films but also on their TV shows. People like us should keep critiquing and hopefully one day they’ll get a clue.

    Speaking of which, and speaking of Shah Rukh Khan, his latest film called My Name is Khan, yet to be released, is about racial profiling of Muslims in the West in which he plays a Muslim man detained on suspicion of being a terrorist. We have still to see this in mainstream Hollywood. Anyhow, I’ll definitely be keeping a lookout for it.

  • vinit anand

    the original theme in my perception is that more about patriotism. stories do are fictious but gives us a good lesson. love is the most eternal thing which is not visible but can be felt if the heart is reverred.

  • Farheen

    Wow this is a AMAZING article, and i actually ended up using it for my big project on Bollywood for World History (10th grade). I found it very true because i too am Muslim, and because of the way Muslims (esp Muslim women) are depicted in most Indian movies, i feel like i have lost an interest in there movies. But i’m hella glad somone has finally written about this esp from a women’s point of view. :) Thank you!

  • Pingback: Bollywood’s Muslim Heroines: Of Love and Hate - at MMW « Sobia Ali()

  • henna

    hey Farheen I couldn check ur link. can u paste it here. Also do read my post below.

    I am just confused that what was wrong in Mission Kashmir and Fanna? both female protagonists were patriots. Is that wrong? I have explained in my mail why Indian muslim is suspected and so such movies actually increase cohesion.

    all the best for ur history project.

  • henna

    Hi Shams,

    why so much anger? yes there are angry sentiments in many hindus but that does not mean rest of population hates muslim or muslim characters. Check my mail below and see all those films, they are all past 1990′s films. there are so many films with hindu girl muslim boy.
    btw Iranian movies are awesome and I am there big fan!!

  • henna

    Hi Sobia, u talking about Jhoom Barabar Jhoom? Heroines are Prety Zinta( a hindu girl) and Lara Dutta (half hindu half christian) girl. both are Indians.

  • henna

    This topic interested me so much that I began to recollect what all movies I have seen where main character is muslim. Before I delve into it I want to tell blog audience who are neither Indian nor Pakistani that Bollywood represents or influences not everyone in India. Though Bollywood movies have huge funds and reach a wider audience but they are more “Masala” /commercially viable movies. Other themes are being experimented these days as who is regular movie watcher would know but still Bollywood is out an out commercial cinema.

    There are movies made in almost all states with state language but the one’s that are common are: Tamil, Telgu, Kannada, malyalam, Bengali, Punjabi, Oriya, Bojpuri, Assamese, Marathi. U will find more issue based movie in regional cinema whether it is muslim/non muslim character.

    Now talking about commercial bollywood and muslim way of life. In earlier film periods there were more movies on muslims potrayed as “Nawabs”(princes), Teachers, Tavaif (dancer and prostitute), Kings, Lucknowi Language.

    Now all these characters were Central North Indian (Delhi, UP, Bihar, Punjabi) societial potrayal. That is how society was and even today such society is found in UP. But all times changes society changes, though everyone wants to remember old culture things do change. Then came intermediate period of 1980′s when there was a sense of unity felt in all religions. Movies like Amar Akbar Anthony came at that time. Also movie like Nikaah came at that time which spoke about ill effects of triple Talak.

    As we progressed into new decade, the society looked like same for Upper class and upper middle class hindus, muslims or christians. Except different religious practices, they all in Upper class and upper middle class dress, eat , get entertained in similar way depending upon region they belong to. So chanracters of upper class/upper middle class had more Hindus in them because the movies changed to more love/romance, breaking free from home etc which even if accepted by upper class society of muslims still the lower class would have created problems. So, noone wanted to risk there projects.

    Now 90′s and 2000 onwards has also seen a rise of extremism, terrorism etc in India. So,more movies which show solidarity of muslims with India and not with Pakistan came into being. These movies were made to change growing perception of Indian non muslim population “that all muslims are united in terrorist activity because of universal brotherhood phenomenon.” . these movies said muslims are nationalist first, plz dont be biased. Also such movies were very good for common muslims in India also who saw non muslims getting suspicious over them.These movies gave them sense of relief.

    Now coming to social way of life, barring upper and upper middle class, and middle middle class muslims, other muslim societies in India do follow social identity things, like burkha, abaya, dupatta on head(which is common in hindus also), wearing loose garments(common in hindus also), men wearing caps etc. Ofcouse Burkha has increased in last 10 years on Indian roads. Infact I read other day in one blog that lot of Wahabi money is coming in India to educate Indian muslims to dress, maintain a different social life. Quran is being used as reference for maintaining different social life than non muslims. I really dont know whether that is for any good or will only create problems in India because if one grp becomes polarised. If we see from independence till now, Hindus have also changed as a society, ofcourse each region has its own influences but Hindus have changed towards diff society than in 1947. Now if muslims want to go back to old society or dont want to maintain their current state I really have no clue whether that would be good or bad for country as a whole.

    Now coming to social life again, the lower class hindus and muslims don’t find much mention in bollywood movies because audience does not want to see that. Bollywood audience likes fun, entertainment and relaxing movie. These characters can always be side roles like Washerman, Maid etc. If lower class characters are potrayed as lead then ofcourse first movie would have less glamour, less entertainment and more seriousness. Audience is not ready to pay for serious movies. A small bracket of audience likes serious movies but not all.

    Also, as mentioned by SouthIndianMuslim the movies of today in bollywood are more westernized in concept and outlook, like Dostana, a gay movie. Such westernized movie do disturb right wing Hindus, christians, sikhs etc but they will at max do stone pelting but won’t stop screening. If same movie has muslim character movie can be stopped from screening. The westernization of India is also responsible for less muslim characters.
    Also Urdu and Hindi is language of only Delhi, UP, MP, Bihar. Rest in all states muslims, hindus have regional languages and regional cultures.

    On leaving note I want you guyz to watch these two movies also alongwith long list I have given in earlier post!! Aamir, a movie about Indian Muslim treated badly by US airport authorities.
    And Mr and Mrs Iyer where a married Hindu woman falls in love with Muslim photographer during her travel.

    Plz do post replies to my post so that I can understand ur viewpoint.

  • henna

    Hi Galz,

    do watch following movies:

    Movies without any Muslim Issue:

    Iqbal, Chandni Bar, Tahaan( though backdrop is issue but not central theme), Dor

    Movies with issues I would like u to watch are

    Roja, Mumbai, Naseem(1992 riots), Mammo, Shauraya, Rang De Basanti, Chak De India!,Sarfarosh, A wednesday , Newyork, Veer Zara, Border, Refugee, Gadar, Mission Kashmir, Yahaan, Fiza, Faana, Parzania(gujraat riots), Anwar, Firak(gujrat riots), And the world remained silent(a documentary showing plight of Kashmiri Pandits)

    Movie that have been released yet with muslim central character

    My Name is Khan, Dastaan, Lamhaa

    I think people here have not seen movies where Hindu girl fall for Muslim man. There are lots of such movies but I remember only following as of now:
    Hasina(it has english subs I guess ,originally in Kanada language), Jodhaa Akbar, Phir Milenge. Also u watch Pinjar though that movie is on partition but see it from a woman’s perscpective not from region/religion.

  • Farheen

    Thanks Henna! Yeah my history project went very well and i definitely got to speak out on Bollywood’s portrayal of Muslims. I love your explanation also about the Bolleywood movie industry and how Muslims have progressed in their movies. :)

  • Sobia

    Thanks Henna but I meant the characters in the film, not the actresses themselves.

  • Sobia

    I’m glad I could help :) And glad to hear the project went well.