One of Bollywood’s latest outing, a major film titled “Panipat” has ignited a serious debate among Afghans and Bollywood which deserves attention. Panipat is based on the historic 1761 battle between an Indian empire and an Afghan army, led by Ahmed Shah Abdali. Veteran actor Sanjay Dutt is playing the role of Abdali while Arjun Kapoor is also seen in a pivotal role.
With the release of the film’s poster and teasers, it seemed highly probable that the film will be maintaining stereotypes against the Afghans which led to an outburst of criticism more specifically by Afghan users of social media. One of the major concerns which was highlighted was how Sanjay Dutt’s character as Ahmed Shah Abdali has been misconstrued.
Sajay Dutt’s character is portrayed as vicious and he wears kohl. “From the way Sanjay Dutt’s avatar dresses to the way he speaks; it’s not even Afghan, he’s portrayed as an Arab” Elaha Walizadeh, an Afghan blogger, told the BBC.
This is not the first time, an Indian film has caused an uproar among the audiences. There have been other films which have misrepresented the image of the Afghanis.
Another Bollywood film, a 2018 epic Padmaavat which was also based on Alauddin Khilji, a Turko-Afghan ruler who invaded and ruled Delhi in the 12th Century, provoked the sentiments of both Afgans and Hindus. Although the film was critically acclaimed and reaped tremendous success worldwide, however it was subjected to a lot of debates and protests. The portrayal of Khaliji as a cruel and brutal ruler offended many Afghans.
Similarly Kesari, a 2019 period drama about an epic battle between 21 Sikh soldiers from the British Indian Army and more than 10,000 Afghans, was criticized for stereotyping and vilifying Afghans as invaders who forcibly took land.
It is normal for Films, based on historical events to become a cause of debate and concern as there are varying sentiments involved. However, perhaps film makers ought to draw a line between employing a cinematic liability and misrepresenting facts. It has become common for Indian films to misrepresent Muslim characters.
“In history, it is a principal that historical events should only be judged at the time of their occurrence. Sentiments distort history over time, in majority of the cases.” Wrote one Afgani twitter user wrote.
Following the film’s trailer release, it has been reported that the Afghan consulate in Mumbai reached out directly to the Indian Information and Broadcasting Ministry.
“Ahmad Shah Abdali holds great regard in the hearts and minds of Afghan people,” said Naseem Sharifi, Afghanistan’s consul general in the city. “When the film was being made we requested to watch it without exposing the plot. Despite our constant efforts, we didn’t get any response from the filmmakers.” said Naseem Sharifi as reported by BBC.
Critics have also raised concerns regarding the rising number of films with negative Muslim characters. This has been hinted as an attempt by Bollywood executives to align the industry with India’s ruling party led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
So is the ruling party of India really steering the content of Bollywood films?
“We have a Hindu majority party which is quite conscious of exploiting the soft power of Bollywood. Whether that is the prime minister clicking selfies with the top stars, organising meet-and-greet events or the ruling party encouraging Bollywood to show films about nation-building, there’s an invisible incentive to make films to depict India in a positive light – and by India that means it’s Modi’s idea of India or the BJP’s idea of India, which is pro-Hindu.” said Ankur Pathak, entertainment editor of Huffington Post India to BBC. “It is a dangerous path” Pathak adds. “Misrepresentation of any community does immense damage. Given the current climate it’s something we need to steer clear from,” he said.