From Dharmatma to Padmaavat, everything that is wrong with Bollywood’s depiction of Afghans

It is no secret that Afghans love Bollywood films, from the streets of Kabul to the Afghan diaspora households in California, every kid knows of Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham and dances to Dilbar Dilbar. Despite having such huge and devoted Afghan fanbase, Bollywood directors have never done justice to the portrayal of Afghans in their movies. The most recent example of this was the controversial historical saga Padmaavat, produced by Sanjay Leela Bhansali who is known for historic dramas like Devdasand Bajirao Mastani. The sheer racism and Islamophobia in Padmaavat was beyond my understanding, I will not even get into the misogyny and glorification of polygamy in the movie. You can read more about it here, as the exceptional Swara Bhaskar puts it, I too was reduced to merely a vagina after watching the climax.

The first Bollywood movie shot in Afghanistan was the 1975’s Dharmatma, directed by Feroz Khan who is believed to have Afghan ancestory himself. Ranbir, who is our protagonist travels to Afghanistan and saves the docile damsel in distress Reshma from being assaulted and they fall in love, you know as they do in Bollywood movies – of course I am not expecting a strong female lead from a 1975 Bollywood action thriller but Reshma is not even an Afghan name. Reshma in fact happens to be a more common name in rural parts of India and Pakistan. Additionally, how Reshma dresses looks more Arab than Afghan and here I expected better from Feroz Khan considering his Afghan ancestory.  Truth be told, a lot of Afghans love this movie and the fact that Afghanistan even appeared in their beloved Bollywood is good enough to ignore that Reshma’s character does not do justice to Afghan women who are lionesses rather than damsels in distress.

Then came the classic Khuda Gawah, partly shot in Afghanistan. Sridevi plays an Afghan woman who is often referred to “Kabuli Mewa” by her Indian lover and the interesting part is that she is certainly not Kabuli, I do not know what part of Afghanistan they were trying to show where people dress completely Middle Eastern and belly dance (see for yourself).

Remember the famous Afghan jalebi? We do know that Jalebi is originally Afghan and not Indian but you did not need to objectify us like to prove this point.

“bandooq dikha dikha kai kya pyaar karegi?” bandooq means gun in Hindi, the line translates to “Do you express love by showing a gun?”

For your reference, we are not all gun-loving fighters, some of us are peaceful lovers of poetry and literature too.

Now let’s talk about Padmaavat; I went to watch the movie for the outfits and dance mainly but was immensely disappointed at the false representation of the Afghan culture. I am not denying that Khilji like other rulers of his time was indeed cruel and power hungry but he certainly was not uncultured. How can a man who was surrounded by creatives like Amir Khusrow and historians like Al-Barani lack culture and manners?

Although I disagree that Khiljis were not Afghan, they were of Turko-Afghan heritage. Afghanistan clearly did not exist as nation country back in the 14th century but it does not mean that what now is seen as the Afghan culture, music and food did not exist either.

The misrepresentation and fetishization of Afghan bodies in Bollywood is not new yet many Afghans seem to be happy with the fact that we are even mentioned. Afghanistan may have been at war for over 4 decades now but we too have a history that we are proud of. We are the children of Rumi, the daughters of Malalai of Maiwand, we are the country of poetry and rubab, not just the sounds of rockets and guns. We sit at the heart of Asia and will open our heart to you when you are a guest, we will make your home in our eyes, ba chashm haa, everytime you visit our war torn land because we too treat our guests like god, unlike how you choose to depict us in your films. Surely, we are not proud of the cruelties commited by our ancestors and we acknowlege the very flaws within our culture but how can we let our culture be mocked and misrepresented to this level of blatant racism?

Bollywood, my expectations are not too high because I do have a love-hate relationship with you but surely you can do better before Afghans stop watching your movies. If Afghans start boycotting Bollywood, it will mostly be your loss.

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