Panipat trailer highlights the myopic portrayal of Afghani characters in recent Bollywood films, from Padmaavat to Kesari

Priyanka Sinha Jha

Nov 11, 2019 13:05:32 IST

'Aye mere pyaare watan,' the song by Manna Dey in the film Kabuliwala, picturised on Balraj Sahni looking forlorn in a land far away from his country, is among the finest and fondest renditions of the ethos of the upright noble, loyal, affectionate, emotional Pathans from Afghanistan. Over the years, given the changing geopolitical alignments, no doubt, the Afghan in Indian cinema’s collective imagination has crystallised into someone very different from the virtuous one in Kabuliwala, or even the gentleman Pathan villain Sher Khan, immortalised by Pran in the film Zanjeer.

However, Bollywood’s penultimate tribute to the magnanimous, masculine nobility that Pathans from Afghanistan stood for, would have to be Amitabh Bachchan’s outing as the strapping hero Badhshah Khan in Khuda Gawah.

From all accounts, the shooting of the film was nothing short of a momentous event. Even though the country was undergoing political turmoil in the wake of the vacuum left behind by Russian troops, the film crew had no trouble filming. Big B in a blog had even shared details of how the red carpet was rolled out for them with the local administration and how people went to great lengths to make their stay pleasant and memorable.

If anything, the incident highlighted the fact that Afghans have been ardent fans of Hindi movies.

In fact, I witnessed the Indo-Afghan warmth first-hand in Delhi when I attended Express Adda — a live fireside chat with a celebrity, organised by The Indian Express where Amitabh Bachchan was the Chief Guest for the evening. An Afghan gentleman from the audience got up and for many minutes, recounted his memory of Bachchan’s visit to his country. Bachchan, ever avuncular, chatted with the gentleman at length sharing his own fond memories. The warmth in this cordial exchange of anecdotes was unmistakable. Cinema had obviously created a bridge between the two countries with different cultures and ethinicities, an emotive connect that government protocols often fail to muster.

Of late though, with the growing emphasis on the assertion of a nationalist identity, that luminous powerful bridge seems to be collapsing under the strain of acknowledging non–Hindu identities (read Muslim) as anything but unjust, unfair and villainous. It is almost as though the new villains in Hindi cinema after smugglers, drug lords and terrorists, are the invaders from the hoary past. The Pathans of new Hindi cinemas have few shades other than black. The messaging is plain to see — black is the colour of their clothes, the kohl in their eyes and the colour of the hearts that beat in their chests.

 Panipat trailer highlights the myopic portrayal of Afghani characters in recent Bollywood films, from Padmaavat to Kesari

Arjun Kapoor and Sanjat Dutt in a still from the Panipat trailer.

The film Panipat’s trailer just dropped on the world-wide-web and the one notable and striking part of the trailer was Ahmed Shah Abdali being essayed by Sanjay Dutt on-screen. The film, a period drama based on the third battle of Panipat, had the striking visual of Dutt kitted out in threatening black as he marches towards a much smaller army headed by Sadashiv Rao Bhau (Arjun Kapoor), a Maratha general sporting pristine white.

Dutt, as Abdali, looks every inch the villain, complete with gnashing teeth and a devious attitude, a continuum of the single-note character we saw as Alauddin Khilji in the film Padmaavat, who was attributed every shade of debauched villainy, or the Machiavellian Pathans in the film Kesari.

That according to history, Abdali slaughtered thousands of warriors and defeated the Maratha forces, is likely to be picturised in myriad ways to reinforce the dastardly machinations of the Invader. According to history, the Marathas were routed in the battle. Showcasing a defeat in a film can only be meaningful if the victor is shown as conniving and evil, one not deserving of the victory. Only this manipulated villainy can ensure that the hero emerges with his halo intact even in a defeat. Panipat: The Great Betrayal in all probability aligns with this cinematic wisdom.

Large-scale Indian Cinema, the commercial kind, unfortunately rides purely on the sensational simplification, not on nuance. Despite Bollywood’s attempt at being “woke” and nuanced, binaries are still profoundly missing in our characters. To circle back to the earlier examples—in Kabuliwala, Abdul Rehman Khan is accused of murder (it is never proven) but he is also shown as a gentle soul yearning for his daughter in a foreign land. Sher Khan of Zanjeer is a powerful outlaw who mends his ways. But these are examples from the past. In present times, Hindi cinema seems to find just one slot for Pathan characters—villains from history.

But the malaise is not just in Bollywood. Hollywood for instance has often been accused of being largely patriarchal, and putting the white male at the center of all proceedings. The non-normative issues and relationships being side-lined even in Hollywood films is common. For long after 9/11 the only Afghan one would see in a Hollywood film would be a fanatic or a terrorist. Although, with greater consciousness and sensitivity some of that has begun to change. Popular shows on television and films are now breaking some of the ethnicity and religious barriers as well as stereotypes of how Muslims, and people of colour are depicted.

Given its recent creative twist, the big question that now looms ahead is whether Bollywood cinema will continue to have its passionate fans across Afghan borders. According to news reports online, the Afghan embassy in India has already expressed concerns over Abdali’s portrayal in the film suggesting an expectation of one of their illustrious rulers not being painted a heartless villain.

It would be interesting to observe whether Panipat: The Great Betrayal serves to codify Pathans as the convenient bad guys with no redeeming virtue in period dramas or not.

Or, will Bollywoodwalas do some introspection and bring back the Kabuliwalas?

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Updated Date: Nov 11, 2019 13:05:32 IST