Last month a kerfuffle erupted in the world of South Asian cinema, when the international aid agency Doctors Without Borders (MSF) announced that it was suing the producers of the Bollywood film Phantom. The thriller recounts how an aid worker (played by British-Indian actress Katrina Kaif) who works for “Medecine International”, helps a disgraced Indian soldier track down the Pakistani militants who allegedly perpetrated the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.
In the film, “Medicine International”, with its red and white logo and “no guns” sticker, appears to be a stand-in for MSF, which also has a red and white emblem, and a no guns policy.
MSF found out about the film and started legal action before the film was released as a result of an interview that Kaif gave to the Times of India, where she accidentally referred to her character’s employers as MSF (instead of the fictional “Medicine International”) and observed rather casually that, “NGO workers had ties with local fanatical groups“.
These words and the fact that she appears in the film as an NGO worker, firing a gun and rifle, prompted the lawsuit by MSF.
The aid organisation released a statement asking Phantom’s producers “to stop using our name, to issue a disclaimer making it clear that we are not associated with the film and to show us an advance copy of the film” emphasising that the organisation maintains a policy of strict neutrality and has a no-guns rule, meaning no staff members carry weapons.
The organisation described the film as “incredibly worrying”, and said it could have grave “security implications” for its workers and patients alike.
Phantom also caused a stir in Pakistan, where it was banned by a court order after a petition was filed by Hafiz Saeed, the man accused by India of masterminding the attacks, claiming that the film’s main villain – a character called “Hariz Saeed” – defamed him and Pakistan.
Phantom also caused a stir in Pakistan, where it was banned by a court order after a petition was filed by Hafiz Saeed … claiming that the film’s main villain … defamed him and Pakistan.
It’s not clear what role the Indian government had in the production or distribution of Phantom. The Indian government has long promoted Bollywood as an expression of Indian “soft power”. In 2006, a public diplomacy division was created within the Ministry of External Affairs, and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations expanded its presence in myriad countries. Indian state officials also signed a joint agreement with the British government to facilitate co-production.
The recent row has reopened a debate about Bollywood’s role in counterterrorism and the “war on terror” – touched off five years ago by the WikiLeaks affair.
In October 2007, Farah Pandith, then the US state department’s special representative to muslim communities, and Jared Cohen, then a member of the Policy Planning Staff (now at Google Ideas), visited the English town of Leicester, which Pandith would describe as home to the most conservative Islamic community she had seen anywhere in Europe.
“Despite the many positive programmes in Leicester, the isolation of some parts of the Muslim community was striking,” read one US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks. “Girls as young as four years old were completely covered.”
The diplomats would propose the idea of using Bollywood films to lure young British Muslims away from militancy. They met with a British actress named Humeira Akhter, producer Mohsin Abbas, director of Arts Versa, a film production company, and various other artists to discuss developing an “anti-extremist genre” of Bollywood films.
The effort to use art and culture for “counter-radicalisation” is the brainchild of liberal internationalists and neo-conservatives, who argue that it is ideology and a “narrative of victimhood” which causes jihadi violence (and they are countered by realists, who contend that Islamist violence is a response to US policies; and leftists, who would argue that the “isolation” of British Muslims has probably more to do with economic conditions, discrimination, and British foreign policy than the music and films which they consume).
In the mid-2000s, when the latter perspective was ascendant, the US and UK launched a “Cultural War on Terror”, mobilising art, music and film – what the state department called Public Diplomacy 2.0 – aimed at disrupting the “jihadist narrative” and spreading liberal interpretations of Islam.
Following Cohen and Pandith’s meeting with British-Muslim cultural leaders in 2007, the US embassy in London sounded bullish: “Bollywood actors and executives agreed to work with the US government to promote anti-extremist messages through third party actors and were excited about the idea of possibly partnering with Hollywood as well.”
US officials, aware of the popularity of Indian films among British Muslim communities and in the Middle East, thought Bollywood stars could “engage” young British Muslims, speak out against extremism, and also help with the reconstruction of Afghanistan.
But the plan never panned out. A couple of years after the London meeting, a number of Bollywood films – New York, Kubaan, My Name Is Khan – were released that addressed the “war on terror”, but not from the “anti-extremism” standpoint the state department was hoping for. The works generally depicted the cultural angst and turmoil caused by US policies towards South Asians and American Muslims.
The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the group’s success in using social media to recruit European and American youth has again prompted calls by US officials to use social media and art for counter-radicalisation.
Policymakers in India who recommend using Bollywood for counterterrorism seem more concerned about promoting Muslim-Hindu reconciliation in India, and in burnishing India (not the US’) image.
Advocates argue that the genre is popular in the Muslim world for several reasons, because the films reflect conservative family values and rarely have sexually explicit scenes; major Bollywood figures, like the actor Shah Rukh Khan and the composer AR Rahman, who won an Oscar for his score for Slumdog Millionaire, are Muslim; and the genre’s soundtracks often feature Sufi music, which also has a wide appeal.
Moreover, say champions of this idea, there is already an emerging subgenre that tries to use film to promote reconciliation between India’s various religious and ethnic communities with films like Mission Kashmir. In recent years there has been a spate of films like D-Day, The Attacks of 26/11, and Baby, that deal specifically with Pakistan and the Mumbai attacks.
There is little evidence that US or Indian efforts to use Bollywood actually turn youth away from extremism. The lawsuit and ongoing debate around the film Phantom may shed some light on why this policy still has supporters.
Hisham Aidi is a Harlem-based writer. He teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.