Bollywood’s Soft Power

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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.

The Middle East is Bollywood’s third-largest overseas market and growing so rapidly that many Bollywood movies now hold premiers in Dubai on opening night. Dubai is even erecting a Universal Studios-like Bollywood theme park. But the Muslim country most in the grip of Bollywood mania is Pakistan, India’s cultural twin in every respect but religion. As with the Beatles under communism, the more aggressively Pakistani authorities have tried to purge Bollywood from their soil, the more its popularity has grown.

During the country’s four-decade ban on Indian movies, Pakistanis smuggled VHS tapes and installed satellite dishes. When the ban was finally lifted in 2008, the Bollywood scene in Pakistan exploded. Bollywood movies have been playing to packed houses, and Indian movie stars–despite Islam’s taboo against idol worship–are treated like demigods. The latest fad among Pakistan’s urban nouveau riche is Bollywood theme weddings.

It is not possible to emulate–and adulate–a cultural form while simultaneously rejecting its message. And Bollywood’s message is as profoundly at odds with the strictures of Islamic extremism as rock ‘n’ roll’s antiestablishment message was with the diktats of Soviet totalitarianism. At the simplest level, women who don Bollywood outfits–even when they’re adapted for more modest sensibilities–are clearly resisting the Islamic strictures that would shroud them in a burqa. But at a deeper level, Bollywood movies offer a compromise between the values of tradition and the demands of modernity that is appealing to ordinary Muslims–and subversive of Islamist designs.

Take, for example, romantic movies. One would have thought that Hollywood’s sexually explicit treatment would pose a far bigger threat to the puritanical strictures of sharia than Bollywood’s tamer approach. That, however, is not the case.

Both Hollywood and Bollywood idealize true love that conquers all. But the obstacles that Hollywood’s lovers face–affairs, commitment phobia, children from previous marriages–have nothing to do with the concerns of people in traditional Muslim countries. They can relate far more with Bollywood’s paramours whose chief impediment is familial objections, given that arranged marriage is still a revered institution in that part of the world. Bollywood certainly encourages young lovers to follow their heart–but by persuading their families of the rightness of their cause, not by turning their backs on them.

A typical Bollywood movie ends with lovers returning home after tying the knot. They fall at their parents’ feet, begging for their blessings, which the weeping parents, moved by the power of their love, finally bestow. In short, Bollywood seeks to realize romantic love not outside the broader family structure but within it, at once reforming and affirming a key social institution–a resolution that legitimizes Muslim reformers against Islamist reactionaries. Bollywood is at once progressive and conservative.

There’s another reason for Bollywood’s appeal to the Islamic world. Since its inception, some of Bollywood’s biggest stars have been Muslims. Currently, the industry’s three highest-grossing male leads are Muslims–all with the last name Khan. Bollywood’s most respected music composer, A.R. Rahman, who won an Oscar for his Slumdog Millionaire score, is also a Muslim, as are many of Bollywood’s best lyric and script writers.

The success of these Muslims has profound implications for the emergence of a moderate Islam. They have a very different attitude toward their faith from the one prescribed by radical Islamists. Some of them are more observant than others; movie gossip circles are always abuzz over which member of the Khan troika is most serious about his faith. But ultimately their faith is about their personal spiritual elevation, not their subordination to a medieval-style religion.

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.

America has so far relied mostly on hard power to defeat the Islamist threat. This strategy depends on killing more Islamists than are produced. If its calculus of attrition does not pan out, however, it won’t mean that there is nothing left to resist Islamism anymore. Softer forces such as Bollywood will sap this ideology–slowly but surely.

Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at the libertarian Reason Foundation and a columnist at The Daily. A version of this article originally appeared at The Daily. Excerpted from Reason (Feb. 8, 2011), a libertarian magazine of politics and culture.

Have something to say? Send a letter to This article first appeared in the January-February 2012 issue of Utne Reader.

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