Zaira Wasim's decision to quit Bollywood 'for faith' stirs debate

Kashmiri teenager's decision to stop acting in films since it clashes with her Islamic faith sparks social media debate.

    Wasim at the 19th International Indian Film Academy festival at the Siam Niramit Theatre in Bangkok [File: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP]
    Wasim at the 19th International Indian Film Academy festival at the Siam Niramit Theatre in Bangkok [File: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP]

    New Delhi, India - A teenage Muslim actress's decision to quit Bollywood, saying she was not happy with her work since it was taking her away from her faith, has triggered a social media debate in India.

    On Sunday, Zaira Wasim, 18, wrote a long post on Facebook, which she later shared on Twitter and Instagram, saying she was bidding adieu to what many referred to as a "promising" career in the Indian film industry.

    "This field indeed brought a lot of love, support, and applause my way, but what it also did was to lead me to a path of ignorance, as I silently and unconsciously transitioned out of 'imaan' [faith]," Wasim said in her post.

    "While I continued to work in an environment that consistently interfered with my 'imaan', my relationship with my religion was threatened," the teenager, who has acted in two films so far, wrote.

    Wasim, who hails from Srinagar - the capital city of India-administered Kashmir - rose to fame in 2016 when she made her debut in "Dangal" (Wrestling Match), which also starred superstar Aamir Khan.


    "Dangal" was inspired by the real-life story of two successful wrestling sisters from Haryana state in India's north. The teenager played one of Khan's two daughters in the movie, which became a mega Bollywood hit and grossed nearly $300m worldwide.

    Wasim won widespread praise and several awards for the film, including the prestigious National Film Award for best supporting actress in 2017.

    "Five years ago, I made a decision that changed my life forever. As I stepped my foot in Bollywood, it opened doors of massive popularity for me. I started to become the prime candidate of public attention, I was projected as the gospel of the idea of success and was often identified as a role model for the youth," the 18-year-old said in her post.

    "However, that's never something that I set out to do or become, especially with regards to my ideas of success and failure, which I had just started to explore and understand."

    Wasim said she had "struggled" to become "someone else" for a long time. "… though I may fit here perfectly, I do not belong here," she wrote.

    In Wasim's second film, the 2017 runaway hit "Secret Superstar" starring Khan again, she played a burqa-clad Muslim teenager, who dreams of becoming a singer but faces opposition from her conservative father. Undeterred, she follows her passion by anonymously posting her songs on the internet.

    Al Jazeera's calls and messages to Wasim, asking for her response to disappointment and questions over her decision to quit films, went unanswered.

    Support and criticism

    "I don't know what made you take this tough decision, but I am feeling sad," a fan named Khushboo Kapoor commented on Wasim's Facebook post, which had more than 17,000 comments and was shared over 13,000 times.

    Former Bollywood actress Raveena Tandon suggested Wasim could have exited "gracefully" and kept her "regressive views" to herself.

    Many felt Wasim's departure from films would make it harder for other Muslim women in India to pursue a career in cinema.

    Actor Mohommed Ali Shah told Al Jazeera that while Wasim's decision to quit acting because of her religion "should be respected", she could have done it "quietly".


    "She should have left quietly and not made it public as it sets a wrong precedent for other Muslim actresses who have worked hard to earn their name in the field," he said.

    Twitter user Ifra Jan said Wasim's post has made it "difficult for every Muslim woman to choose an unconventional career". "As if our society wasn't enough!" she posted.

    "But please don't leave spitting at an industry, audience that gave you so much," she added.

    However, in an article for The Quint website, Hiba Beg questioned the "messiah complex" behind "saving" Muslim women.

    "We must stop using Muslim women as victims to make ourselves feel better about our own choices," she wrote. "Stop playing saviours to a community that did not ask for your help - it is quite simple."

    Debates on religion

    Since Wasim belongs to the disputed Kashmir region - India's only Muslim-majority state - social media debates tended to weigh in on how "permissive" Islam was towards Muslims acting in films, especially women.

    Delhi-based Islamic scholar Ali Ahmed Qasmi told Al Jazeera that working in films was prohibited in Islam for both men and women, as he welcomed Wasim's decision.

    "Women, according to Islam, are not even allowed to speak or meet people from outside their family. How can it be right then to work in films where they have to expose their bodies?" he said.

    Barkha Dutt, India's leading TV journalist, said she was "deeply disturbed at the indoctrination of religious conservatism" behind Wasim's departure from films.


    "Choice is sometimes a complicated word," Dutt posted, leading to a spirited discussion, in which many Muslims also came to the actress's defence.

    Omar Abdullah, former chief minister of the Jammu and Kashmir state, questioned the people criticising the teenager's decision.

    "Who are any of us to question Zaira Wasim's choices? It's her life to do with as she pleases," he said. "All I will do is wish her well and hope that whatever she does makes her happy."

    Film critic Stutee Ghosh told Al Jazeera it was normal for people to be surprised and shocked because Wasim was a "role model, not only for the Kashmiris but even otherwise".

    "At a time when religious fundamentalism is on the rise, choice and agency, especially for women, becomes complicated," she said.

    "One can hope that Zaira has taken the decision on her own and not under any duress."

    Wasim's third film "The Sky Is Pink", alongside Priyanka Chopra and Farhan Akhtar, is set to release later this year and could be her last appearance in Bollywood.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News



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