Bollywood is obsessed with Pakistan. We’d be flattered if it weren’t so nasty

If recent Bollywood films are any indication, it is fair to say that India’s film industry is obsessed with Pakistan. Obsessed. Like standing outside your apartment and trying to peek through your windows at night with binoculars obsessed.

If the films were smarter or more daring, Pakistan might be flattered. Instead, we are beginning to be mildly confused by all the attention.

Even though our common neighbour China has taken – without too much of a struggle and aided by a helpful press blackout in India – 38,000 sq km of Indian land in Ladakh, on which they are building homes and bridges, you won’t find any Bollywood films with Chinese villains or bad guys.

No, all the nasties in Indian cinema are Pakistanis, usually wearing military uniforms, and always Muslim.

Bollywood has always reflected Indian political trends; the films of the 1950s mirrored the optimism and romance of the newly independent country, the 1970s hero was a proud but disenfranchised man fighting against the powerful and corrupt. In the 1990s, there were endless films about neo-liberal yuppies who worked in Dubai, danced in London discos and drove shiny Mercedes. Since Narendra Modi and his rightwing party, the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP, came to power nearly nine years ago, Bollywood has readily embraced his menacing politics.

In 2018, the starlet Alia Bhatt headlined Raazi, a film about a woman who marries a Pakistani army officer in order to spy on the country during the 1971 war with India. In 2019, Bollywood released Uri, a military flick about Indian special forces launching a “surgical strike” on Pakistan after a supposed terror attack. Though Uri was based on a real incident that nearly brought two nuclear-armed states to war, it played fast and loose with the facts.

All this is especially unpleasant as Pakistanis have traditionally been enthusiastic audiences for Bollywood – the industry brought us songs and fun and the profound knowledge that our neighbours look and live just like us, demonstrating the incredible power of culture done right.

Close-up of Shah Rukh Khan smiling and gesturing.
Shah Rukh Khan at a media event for Pathaan last month. Photograph: Sujit Jaiswal/AFP/Getty Images

It is well-known that Bollywood’s three biggest stars, the three Khans – Shah Rukh, Aamir and Salman – all happen to be Muslim, as were many of Bollywood’s earliest stars, including Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari. Raj Kapoor, the original heartthrob of Indian cinema, was born in Peshawar and at its founding, Bollywood enthusiastically celebrated India’s many religions, histories and fables. Muslims not only acted and made music for the industry but their legends were beautifully translated on screen. One of Bollywood’s most beloved and lavish epics, Mughal-e-Azam, was set in the Mughal court of Emperor Jahangir. But those days are far behind us now. Today, it is clear that India’s fascination and anxiety over its neighbour points to darker political imaginings.

This month, Shah Rukh Khan returned to the big screen in his first film in years, Pathaan, an action film that’s smashing box office records. The film opens in Lahore, where a Pakistani general with just three years to live hears the news in his oncologist’s office that Narendra Modi’s government has revoked article 370 of the Indian constitution, which guaranteed Kashmir, India’s only Muslim majority state, autonomy and special status. The general decides to use his remaining years of life to “bring India to its knees” and immediately calls a deranged terrorist to get all this organised.

Pathaan’s plot is nonsensical, and no one wears many clothes as they dance in bikinis and shorts trying to save India and therefore the world. It is naturally unconcerned with facts – article 370 was the instrument that allowed Kashmir’s ascension into the Indian union; if it is declared null and void, then so too is Kashmir’s ascension to India, but why bother with facts or what any actual Kashmiris think or feel? There aren’t any in this insipid film anyway.

I interviewed Khan, or SRK, as he is known to his hundreds of million fans around the world, for a book five years ago and noticed even then that he straddles an uncomfortable role as the ever grateful Muslim who is really, really, really Indian. As India embraces the Hindu majoritarian politics of its ruling BJP party, high-profile Muslim figures like Khan are increasingly seen as fifth columnists. Trolls and angry protesters often beseech Muslim stars to “go back to Pakistan”, though they have no roots there. Today in India, anyone who questions the government or dissents from popular discourse is slandered as “anti-national” and told to go live in Pakistan.

Modi waves among other officials.
Narendra Modi, center, at a rally in Mumbai last month. Photograph: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images

Khan’s father fought in the Indian freedom movement against the British. Yet SRK has never said a word against Modi’s government, globally known for its anti-Muslim persecution after robbing Muslims of their citizenship; the ominous National Registry of Citizenship Act declared 700,000 of India’s Muslims to be illegal immigrants. Admirers of Modi’s BJP and its politics lynch Muslims, filming their brutal killings on mobile phones to pass around WhatsApp as viral trophies.

On the prime minister’s birthday, Khan tweeted to Modi: “Your dedication for the welfare of our country and its people is highly appreciated. May you have the strength and health to achieve all your goals.” Quite a thing to wish a man who as chief minister allegedly oversaw the murder of 2,000 Muslims and systematic rape of hundreds of women in Gujarat during the 2002 riots.

The writer Pankaj Mishra has said that Bollywood provided the “mood music” for Modi long before he took over the country.

Related: Superheroes, jazz, queer art: how Pakistan’s transgressive pop culture went global

Khan’s film Pathaan provides cover and does much needed glamour work for the Indian state and the gross abuses that the abrogation of article 370 resulted in: the longest internet shutdown to take place in a democracy, the arrest of thousands of Kashmiri protesters, the sending in of thousands of paramilitary troops and untold other human rights violations. To set up an event such as the degradation of Kashmir as a fun plot point – those who are against the revocation of article 370 are homicidal maniacs and those who defend it, such as Khan, are valiant government agents with pectoral muscles – is beyond tragic. The political project of Modi’s quasi-fascist BJP cannot be set to fun music and helicopter stunts, try as Bollywood might.

And it certainly does try. January also saw Netflix release Mission Majnu, a lazy drama about Indian spies finding out about Pakistan’s nuclear program. Think of it as a spy thriller led by Dora the Explorer. Tariq AKA Majnu AKA Romeo is a research and analysis wing (Raw) agent who finds out that Pakistan is building a nuclear bomb. He does this through a series of cunning ploys such as asking a general if Pakistan is building a bomb (the general says yes, and soon), buying books on nuclear physics from roadside stalls which apparently only sell books on how to build atom bombs, and visiting the Rawalpindi library a few times. Though it’s based loosely on real events, the history is backwards and laughably wrong. Dora was learning how to spell as she explored the world, but Mission Majnu can’t even write Urdu correctly in this drama, putting signs outside mosques transliterated straight from English into Urdu script.

Never mind the Indian assassins wearing necklaces that say LOVE in gold block letters – weirder still is the latent Israeli hero worship. A byproduct of Modi’s visceral hatred of Muslims has been a strengthening of ties between India and Israel during his tenure. In 2017, Modi became the first Indian premier to visit Israel, where he and Benjamin Netanyahu enacted the bromance of two image-obsessed prima donnas by posing barefoot on beaches. Beyond photo ops, trade between the two countries now amounts to close to $8bn, with India now the largest buyer of Israeli military equipment in the world.

The Bollywood actors Rashmika Mandanna and Sidharth Malhotra on the red carpet.
The Bollywood actors Rashmika Mandanna and Sidharth Malhotra at the Mumbai trailer launch for Mission Majnu last month. Photograph: Sujit Jaiswal/AFP/Getty Images

Many have argued, myself included, that Pakistan, burdened as it is by a failing economy, decades of terrorism and the humiliations of the war on terror is undergoing a cultural renaissance. Pakistani film-makers are making movies about trans love stories, female desire and the toxic societal power of patriarchal fundamentalists, and producing music that questions the divisions and partitions between us and our Indian brothers and sisters. And so it is doubly strange to watch what is happening across the border, where culture is no longer a medium used to extend conversation but rather a means to snuff it out.

At the same time as these ridiculous films are produced and marketed, the Indian government has ordered YouTube and Twitter to take down links to a two-part BBC documentary, India: The Modi Question. The documentary examines Modi’s role in sanctioning the carnage in Gujarat in 2002 during his time as chief minister as well as his transparently Islamophobic two terms as prime minister of the largest democracy in the world. It makes for chilling viewing, even for those of us who have followed Modi’s sinister rise, carried aloft by religious incitement and dark rage. Watching the documentary, it is hard not to wonder if Modi became prime minister not despite the riots but because of them.

It is not surprising that little has been said of India’s panicked banning of a two-hour documentary or that police in New Delhi arrested students who attempted to screen the BBC episodes. The ailing west needs India as a buffer against China’s global ambitions. But if mainstream Indian cinema is not able to put up a principled fight against this suffocating wave of hatred, then decades of Bollywood having been a medium that brought joy and wonder to south Asian audiences – rather than cycles of alternating dread and boredom – will have been for naught.