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Devoted fans of the Bollywood movie industry packed the Watson Institute for International Studies Tuesday to listen to Rachel Dwyer, professor of Indian cultures at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, give a talk entitled "Islamicate or Islamophobic?: Muslims in Hindi Cinema." Dwyer was invited by the Brown India-Initiative, in collaboration with other departments including the Office of International Programs and the Department of Religious Studies, to speak on one of her many research interests in her field of expertise: Hindi cinema.
Lina Fruzzetti, professor of anthropology, said she invited Dwyer to speak because Dwyer was concerned over the lack of a "good Indian Muslim citizen" in Bollywood cinema. Dwyer is an expert in the field of Hindi cinema with a bachelor's degree in Sanskrit at SOAS. She has written books on the subject for the British Film Institute and is currently completing another book entitled "Bollywood's India: Hindi Cinema as a Guide to Modern India."
Most of the audience consisted of students from Fruzzetti's undergraduate and graduate classes and were well versed in Bollywood terminology and Indian history. As a result, Dwyer was able to delve straight into the topic at hand - the representation of Islam not only as a religion, but as "Islamicate" - "a socio-cultural complex, found amongst Muslims and non-Muslims." This abounds in the music, architecture, clothing, dialogues and the very essence of Hindi cinema.
Dwyer charted the changes in portrayals of Muslims in Indian cinema through its almost 100 year history. She began by acknowledging that though India is home to one of the largest Islamic populations - 17 percent of India's total population - Muslims are still a minority community. Even though a large proportion of this minority community has been influential in shaping the Hindi film industry, today the role of Hindi movie hero is still occupied by the North Indian male.
The real influence of Muslims in Hindi cinema became apparent when films began to incorporate sound in 1931. Urdu, a language spoken primarily by Muslims had an effect on the language of the films and their dialogue and songs, Dwyer said.
Urdu was the language of the Islamic  court at a time when Muslim rulers controlled a large part of India, Dwyer said. It was romantic and elegant, and, as a result, made the "image of Muslims bouncing poetry at every opportunity part of popular imagination in India cinema," Dwyer said. This was one of the many manifestations of Islamicate in Indian cinema, in addition to the melodic Bollywood songs that drew from Sufi influences - though the video clips accompanying these songs often included wine and other images that do not match traditional Islamic beliefs.
As directors sought to reach a broader audience with their films, they replaced the Urdu with the more colloquial Hindi language, but retained those Islamicate components, such as themes from the Arabian Nights, which were "exotic even within India." Around the time of 1947 when India was rife with communal violence, movies used the Islamicate to promote national unity. Some historical movies highlighted the Hindu-Muslim relationships of the subcontinent, to prove that "India's past doesn't belong to any one community."
Dwyer focused the latter part of her talk on how the portrayal of Muslims in Hindi cinema had changed in the 2000s after 9/11. She pointed out that a film would not gain popularity if it showed Muslims in India as terrorists - as a result, several movies told stories of Indian Muslims who became terrorists outside of India. Movies in this time frame portrayed Muslims as either evil or meeting their demise. She concluded her talk by noting that Muslims in Hindi cinema today are not properly represented - they are only shown to fit a stereotype.


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