Mehwish Hayat 1
Mehwish Hayat stirs controversy with anti-Bollywood comment Image Credit: Supplied

Pakistani actress Mehwish Hayat has accused popular cinema of fueling the rise of Islamophobia, especially India with its massive film industry making “countless films showing Pakistanis as the villains”.

As this incendiary comment has landed right in the middle of a political stand-off over Kashmir between the two neighbours from the Sub-continent, social media has gone ballistic.

What did Mehwish Hayat do?

Hayat was speaking at an event in Oslo, Norway where she was awarded the Pride of Performance award by Norway’s Prime Minister, Erna Solberg.

During her acceptance speech, she said: “Our neighbours have one of the largest film industries in the world. And in a time where they could have used the power they wield to bring us together, what do they do? They make countless films showing Pakistanis as the villains. I have lost count of the number of films even in the last year that Pakistan has been shown in a bad light.

“I understand that given our history our upbringing and the politics of the region, it is very difficult to be neutral and in being so can be seen as unpatriotic. However, if we want any semblance of peace for future generations we as artistes have to see beyond nationalism and take a stand. So what is the answer?

“I think that the first thing is that we as the Pakistani industry have to be less insular. We have to realise that through our films we can get a more nuanced picture of our country across to our international audiences ....”

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She then went on to criticise Hollywood and demanded that it “has to acknowledge the damage they’ve inflicted on my country [Pakistan] with the way they have been portraying us. I don’t ask for more positive respresentations but at least can these representations be more balanced. There’s more to us than gun wielding terrorists or subjugated women. Come on, that’s so cliched. Let’s move on from that.”

Hayat also went on to name a few shows like Homeland, Zero Dark Thirty and The Brink that according to her, portray Muslims negatively.

But, she was not done with Bollywood, placing the onus of regional stability on it.

The actress concluded: “As for our neighbours. They really need to decide what is it that they want - nationalistic fervour or a peaceful future? If they really want to work towards peace like our Prime Minister Imran Khan said if they take the first step, we are ready to take ten more. I pray that common sense prevails and within this lifetime we are able to witness real peace in the region.”

Social media users react

Many netizens from Pakistan agreed with Hayat’s thoughts and appreciated her for speaking out for what she believes in.

Twitter user @WajSKhan shared his thoughts on Hayat’s comments and about a recent exchange between Indian actress Priyanka Chopra and Ayesha Malik, a Pakistani woman who confronted Chopra about allegedly encouraging India-Pakistan nuclear war.

He wrote: “Both Bollywood and Hollywood could’ve done better with representations about Pakistan and Muslims, says @MehwishHayat. Critical, brave speech from Oslo, especially considering what happened with @priyankachopra and @Spishaa.”

@nadiajqureshi agreed: “I’m no expert but this is probably what peace ambassadors should sound like. Mehwish Hayat deserves every award she recieves.”

However, there were those who highlighted the times Bollywood has incorporated Pakistani artists in its productions and that Hayat’s message failed to recognise that.

User @Suyashjolly611 tweeted at Hayat and wrote: “@MehwishHayat Bollywood has always supported artists from Pakistan, Pakistani dramas and music. Ustad NFAK [Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan], Salamat Ali Khan Sahab, Mehdi Hassan, Ghulam Ali and Abida Parveen are known quite well in India. Actors from Pakistan have worked in many films in India.”

In the past, Hayat has expressed her disinterest in working outside of Pakistan. During an interview with BBC Asian Network, the actress talked about rejecting a lead role in Bollywood movie Fanney Khan.

“It was a conscious decision that I wanted to stay here in my country and work for my Pakistani cinema,” she said.

@kesar_akankasha tweeted: “Is she criticising movies because they tell the truth? Madam, if you want to change the protrayal of Pakistan in films, change the reality of Pakistan, portrayal will change on its own.”

Indians and Pakistanis in the UAE comment

Aqsa Adil is a Pakistani who has grown up watching Bollywood movies. The 23-year-old lawyer appreciated that Hayat encouraged actors to take responsibility for the content they are involved in.

“The masses in countries like Pakistan and India really look up to celebrities, even more than their leaders, so people will listen to her and give her credit for it,” she said.

Adil believes that some Bollywood films have “shown Pakistanis and Muslims in a bad light”.

However, she said that there are Bollywood movies that portray a more balanced view and helped spread peace. “Movies like Bajrangi Bhaijaan showed that Pakistanis and Indians can co-exist and people on both sides of the border ultimately want peace,” she noted.

Movies like Bajrangi Bhaijaan showed that Pakistanis and Indians can co-exist and people on both sides of the border ultimately want peace.

- Aqsa Adil, Pakistani national in the UAE

Pakistani national Mahnoor Malik, a 24-year-old freelancer based in Ajman is also a Bollywood fan.

She believes that sometimes movies are made to please the masses. “Bollywood movies portray Pakistanis in a certain way because that’s what the public wants.

“If an Indian actor chose to speak out about something like that people will dislike him or her,” Malik said.

However, Malik noted that there are movies in Bollywood that are both neutral and positively portray Pakistanis.

“Movies like Amir Khan’s PK and Salman Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan have portrayed Pakistan well,” she said.

Movies like Amir Khan’s PK and Salman Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan have portrayed Pakistan well

- Mahnoor Malik, Pakistani national in the UAE

Indian national and Dubai resident Kashif Merchant believes that it is unfair that Hayat chose to focus on the negative side of Bollywood. “It’s not that Indian movies haven’t shown Pakistan positively and she is just focusing on the negative,” he said.

“The image sometimes portrayed in Indian cinema of Pakistan is not entirely true and we all know it but the news tells us of the activities taking place there [in Pakistan] and it makes the other country wonder,” he added.

[Hayat's comment] fuels hate because it fails to appreciate the good side of Bollywood and focuses on the negative.

- Kashif Merchant, Indian national in the UAE

Merchant believes that comments like Hayat’s will further divide and fuel hatred between the two nations. “It fuels hate because it fails to appreciate the good side of Bollywood and focuses on the negative,” he said.

Indian national Rajeev Rathisan added: "I completely disagree, I have seen many Bollywood movies that portray Pakistan and it’s people in a good light, quite contrary to what Mehwish Hayat said in her speech. While she is right to say that movies can do a lot more to propagate peace, this comment about portrayal of Pakistan in Bollywood is not fair. The only movies that have cast a negative light are the ones that are based on true incidents of terror which cannot be factually denied. They represent reality and history."

Indian and Pakistani filmmakers weigh in

As actress Mehwish Hayat demands better representation of Pakistanis in Bollywood and not demonising them as gun-toting villains, there’s a large segment of filmmakers in Bollywood who believe that films rooted in ‘life imitating art’ philosophy rules.

Namrata Singh Gujral, who directed National Award-winning actor Rajkummar Rao in 5 Weddings, believes content-based films are usually steeped in reality and that they have seen a rise in demand in Bollywood.

“If you look at what Bollywood now calls ‘content films’ - they are nothing more than films rooted in the philosophy of life imitating art. There was much dialogue recently that questioned if the Khans era has come to an end.... More and more content based films that shed light and nurture thought on current socially relevant content seem to be ratcheting up the numbers,” said Gujral in an interview with Gulf News.

“Let’s look at the trajectory of biopics and documentaries over the last 15 years. Not only has their value risen in the awards arena; but also the box office numbers worldwide are far higher today for ‘Life imitates Art’ based films,” she added.

Last month, top Pakistani producer Momina Duraid of Pakistani Eid release Superstar - featuring Mahira Khan and Bilal Ashraf in the lead - spoke about her decision to rope in Indian singer Sunidhi Chauhan, despite objections.

“Art should not have any boundaries and it should never be politicised,” said Momina Duraid at the press conference last month in Dubai, as she defended her decision to hire an Indian talent for a Pakistani project. Her decision was made before tensions escalated between the two nations over the abrogation of Article 370 in Indian administered Kashmir.

While Sehmat is convinced that Pakistanis are unfairly portrayed in Bollywood films and Hollywood dramas like Homeland, there are several Indian filmmakers who have succeeded in a fair, balanced representation.

In an earlier interview with Gulf News tabloid!, award-winning actor Alia Bhatt and director Meghna Gulzar had categorically denied Pakistan bashing in their hit spy thriller Raazi.

In an earlier interview with Gulf News tabloid!, award-winning actor Alia Bhatt and director Meghna Gulzar had categorically denied Pakistan bashing in their hit spy thriller Raazi.

The blockbuster revolved around Sehmat (played brilliantly by Bhatt), a young Kashmiri woman who marries a Pakistani army man for intelligence gathering. While the film may evoke patriotic fervour in Indians, it will never turn jingoistic — a point that director Gulzar and her team including actor Vicky Kaushal, who plays Sehmat’s on-screen Pakistani husband, swore on at that point.

“In no way have we bashed Pakistan in this film. That’s not the point of the film. The point we are trying to make is that sometimes you have to make sacrifices for your country...,” said Bhatt

“We are not here for rabble rousing. Apart from being a story about a spy who decides to do it for her country, the film also has to do with human emotions and humanity as a whole,” said Gulzar, adding that the intent of the film was always to remain noble.