Bollywood’s Soft Power

India’s hugely popular films wage a cultural war on extremism


| January-February 2012



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Tees Mar Khan

Ten years and two wars after 9/11, America’s struggle against Islamist terrorism is nowhere close to succeeding. 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, Bollywood might yet prove to be the undoing of the most 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 unrivaled soft power. It made Soviet youth feel that while they were huddled behind the Iron Curtain in a world of drab conformity, one helluva of a party was going on next door.

The 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.

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 curiosity about how exotic people in alien countries live, not out of any inclination to live like them.

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.

M Ahmed
2/2/2012 9:46:51 PM

One not-so-minor quibble with this paragraph: "For example, Slumdog’s Rahman, a self-described Sufi, has composed songs and qawwalis (devotional songs) of unsurpassed beauty. Arguably, the best Sufi music now is coming not from the Mideast but from 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." Qawwali is a distinctly South Asian devotional art form, and I'd be surprised if any qawwali came out of the Mideast, at any point in time and especially now (unless the diaspora's been busy singing it up out there).