Bollywood movie Sooryavanshi and controversy seem to be going hand in hand these days. The internet is ripe with heated arguments around India's latest box-office success. Many have accused Rohit Shetty's latest cop film of pandering to right-wing Hindu nationalism with Islamophobic tropes.
Some reviews say that viewers should simply take the film for what it is — another Bollywood masala flick that you can skip watching if it isn't up to your taste.
For filmmaker Shetty, Sooryavanshi is a valuable addition to his cinematic "cop universe" that includes Bollywood films such as 2011's Singham and 2018's Simmba starring A-Listers Ajay Devgn and Ranveer Singh. These movies revolve around handsome Indian police officers with a gung-ho attitude towards beating up the bad guys, all in the name of defending honour and nation.
Sooryavanshi is no different from its predecessors. The lead cop, played by actor Akshay Kumar, is eager to thwart the plans of some very bad men. These bad men in question are Muslims planning to set off bombings in India post Mumbai's 26/11 attacks. The film, featuring guest appearances by Singh and Devgn, is one of the most successful films in India after the Covid-19 lockdowns were eased earlier this year.
Indian journalist Rana Ayyub, in her Washington Post article, said Sooryavanshi is a film that "stokes the dangerous 'love jihad' conspiracy, which paints Muslim men as colluding to seduce or kidnap Hindu women or girls and convert them to Islam" amongst other Islamophobic tropes. This is worrying because "its success contributes to the climate of hate and discrimination that India’s estimated 200 million Muslims must face everyday," she noted.
"The film does not even pretend to mask its agenda — which is the right-wing Hindu nationalist agenda of Modi’s government," wrote Ayyub. Sooryavanshi's release came after the bout of communal violence in Tripura state in October during which Hindu nationalists vandalised mosques and attacked Muslim homes. However, the Tripura police went after those who spoke up against the violence, filing a case against journalists, activists and lawyers.
For Ayyub, a film like Sooryavanshi being released in such times is not just entertainment, it is "dangerous".
Good Muslim vs bad Muslim
Indian publication The Quint wasn't thrilled with Shetty's film either, saying that it "criminalises normal Muslim behaviour" by associating "things that a large number of Indian Muslims feel, say or do in their daily life" with terrorists.
The movie creates an overly simplistic "good Muslim vs bad Muslim" narrative. The good Muslim in Sooryavanshi is "a retired policeman with over three decades of service" who is "clean-shaven" and has "zero religious markers". In contrast to him is Sooryavanshi's bad Muslim; a "stereotypical topi-wearing Muslim cleric with a long beard, shaven upper lip and prayer mark on his forehead". The bad Muslim runs a charity foundation and holds sway in a "stereotypical Muslim ghetto".
"The only Muslims shown offering namaz are the terrorists. The only ones engaging in religious acts, such as reading the Quran or having a tughra in their homes, are the terrorists," the article read. Shetty through Sooryavanshi is "trying to ride on the prevalent anti-Muslim sentiment and make films that reinforce these fears".
The New York Times in its review also made note of the "film’s uncritical jingoism".
"Shetty’s crusading state warriors, whose violence and vigilante tactics are played for laughs and hoots, have always seemed a bit tone-deaf, but Sooryavanshi veers into apologism: the film is rife with gleeful scenes of police brutality and pernicious stereotypes about Muslims," wrote Devika Girish.
"Whenever Sooryavanshi is confronted about Islamophobia (an increasingly urgent issue in India), he starts singing the praises of the single Muslim cop on his force as if to remind everyone what a 'good Muslim' looks like."
Closer to home, President Arif Alvi also shared Ayyub's opinion piece on Twitter, calling the film "dangerous for India". "In this Islamophobic hatred India will destroy itself, no less. I hope & pray that sane elements within Indian society prevent this," he wrote. "Milton Kandera wrote that 'the first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory, destroy its books, its culture [and] destroy its history'."
What the filmmaker has to say
The filmmaker himself doesn't, however, see an issue, saying his previous three films had Hindus as villains, so "why wasn't that a problem" as well?
Shetty also doesn't see any problem with his portrayal of Muslims in the movie. "We never thought about cast when making Sooryavanshi," he said. "When we have not thought that way, then why are people talking about it. If we are talking about a sleeper cell then why are people talking about what caste the sleeper cell is from. Why is caste being attached to a good or a bad person?"
There were others who backed Shetty's project, including OpIndia that said the movie "highlights the prevailing menace of Islamic terrorism tormenting the Indian society".
The article took the route of saying it was only "liberals" who were up in arms.
"The depiction of Muslims in negative roles has raised the hackles of the liberals, who are probably outraged because the movie attempts to draw attention towards the grim reality of Islamic radicalisation and terrorism in India," it said.
A complex issue
For The Wire, Shetty’s Sooryavanshi’s villainous Muslim characters hold a lot more complexity. The backstories that Shetty gives to his baddies hint at how they’ve suffered because of state brutality. In the film, the main villain Umar himself acknowledges “the maddening complexities of conflicts, by informing us that his son was killed by the Indian Army”.
The backstory of another villain Bilal tells us that “his house was set on fire during the Mumbai riots, and the scene allows him to own that moment”. This humanisation might make the viewers think that perhaps these people are bad because of unjust experiences, rather than being inherently evil because they are Muslim.
The writer Tanul Thakur also refers to the climax to prove the movie isn't solely there to make all Muslims look bad. "Here, the cops are evacuating a Mumbai locality, about to be detonated by RDX, which contains a temple and a mosque. Muslims rush out of the mosque; Hindus leave the temple with as much urgency. The camera then cuts to an old Muslim man looking at something — the idol of Ganesha sitting helplessly, waiting to be rescued — and, along with other Muslims, he helps carry it out. And then the song plays: 'Chhodo kal ki baatein, kal ki baat poorani (…) hum Hindustani, hum Hindustani'."
Granted that movies and TV shows can take certain liberties when telling stories but this doesn't rid the creatives behind these projects of the responsibility to keep the society at hand in mind. And in India where violence against Muslims on the basis of their faith is not a lone incident, their portrayal needs to be better than stereotypical ones.