Cinematic Stereotypes: Plot or Paradox?

By Neha Sheikh

“MAYBE 50 percent of the parts I was offered were terrorists, and the others were stereotypical people” recounts Tahar Rahim, the French Algerian actor, widely known for playing the role of Malil El Djebena in Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet”. A well known actor, Tahir is also known for playing the role of FBI agent Ali Soufan in “The Looming Tower”, an action packed series placed in the late 90’s that tries to unearth and outline the rise and subsequent increase in threat of Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. This series also focuses on the contentions and rows between the FBI and CIA that, if resolved, could have thwarted the 9/11 attacks. The character of FBI agent Soufan in “The Looming Tower '' presents itself to be a subdued paradox, that is also often reflected in fictitious series. As a Muslim who is fluent in Arabic and of Lebanese descent, Soufan serves to be a helpful addition to the FBI. His fluency in the Arabic language enables him to be a vital asset in translating documents and communicating with suspected terrorists. On one hand we see Soufan constantly rejecting the extremist ideals of the terrorists, trying to show what Islam is really about while on the other hand he fails to uphold the core values of Islam himself. In the “The Looming Tower” we get a glimpse of a Muslim man caught in an interesting paradox of rejecting and casting away the core values of his religion while installing himself with having the moral authority to lecture others on what ‘his’ religion is really about.

This paradox is often adopted by a lot of producers and directors in many series that revolve around terrorism and militancy. One such series that gained immense fame in India is “The Family Man”, starring Manoj Bajpayee as agent Srikanth Tiwari, who works for the National Investigation Agency and is allotted cases pertaining to national security, in specificity those that involve terrorism. The crux of the first season is to thwart ‘Mission Zulfiqar’ by finding the culprits behind a bomb blast, who turn out to be Muslims. The season continues with Srikanth arriving in Kashmir to find Sajid, the perpetrator of the bomb blast. The scenes in Kashmir again delve into the areas of militancy and ‘anti national sentiments’. In the entire series, Muslims are either portrayed as terrorists or Pakistanis. The presence of the Muslim NIA agent Pasha seems to be nothing more than tokenism and Srikanth Tiwari, the lead in this series, does not play any role in trying to combat the stereotypes perpetuated by his colleagues and family. In one instance, when a Kashmiri officer and Major Vikram get into a minor row over the officer calling the militants martyr, the Kashmiri officer’s loyalty to his duty is questioned. He says “Kitni baar apni wafadari ka sabut dena padega” (How many times do we have to provide proof of our loyalty?). Major Vikram feeds into the prevailing stereotypes by demanding “Agar dena pade toh dikkat hai kya” (Even if you have to give proof, what is the issue?). This would have not been told to an officer who hailed from a metropolitan city in India. In another scene, when Srikanth’s family visits him to meet his wife, Suchitra, and their children, viewers get to witness the unfolding of a scene riddled with prejudice. In the scene Srikanth’s mother is seen talking to Suchi’s father in a condescending tone, merely because he conversed with his grandson in his native language, Tamil. Upon witnessing that Srikanth’s mother was quick to declare Hindi the national language of India and went on to encourage that communication should be done in Hindi. Even though Suchi’s father went on to explain how India does not have a national language, the angry mother in law didn't stop. Apart from the blatant prejudice showcased in these scenes there is another point of commonality, the glaring silence of Srikanth Tiwari. The eerie similarity of how this takes place in real life is hard to miss. A privileged member of society, who comes from the majority, usually chooses to remain silent in instances of minority targeted prejudices because it does not directly affect them. They do not use their authority, power and resources, all central building blocks of their privilege, to counter the imbalance which results in the rooting of stereotypes and prejudices against the minority.

Similarly when we look at hollywood movies or english series, another paradox arises. Muslims are either featured as the ‘oppressors’ via their characterization as terrorists in 9/11 movies or as the ‘oppressed’ who are trying to escape the shackles of imposed modesty. There seems to be a contention between these two prejudiced powers themselves, who face a dilemma of choosing to either adorn the roles of educators or liberators. Even in the rare instances that Muslims are portrayed in shows and movies, the accuracy of their character tends to be very minimal. These shows perpetuate stereotypes on the grounds of ‘showing reality’ but somehow this zeal to bring reality to the audience disappears when it comes to showing how Muslims do not live in alienation of a social life or when an entity from an identity in majority commits these very crimes. These shows are often given free passes for ‘not knowing’ but that diminishes the space to take accountability. The identity and lives of minorities do not simply exist to appease cinema buffs and hence should be either accurately represented or left alone.

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