4 August 2008

CONTRACT (Dir. Ram Gopal Varma, 2008, India) - Racial stereotyping in Bollywood cinema

Having returned to form with ‘Sarkar Raj’, the follow up to ‘Sarkar’, his 2004 hit film starring Amitabh Bachchan, Bollywood’s most controversial filmmaker comes undone with his latest feature, ‘Contract’, another underworld film that is an example of xenophobic exploitation cinema which for some strange ignorant reason spends an obscene amount of narrative time telling us about how terrorism today within Indian society is largely the result of radical Islamic extremism and anti-Indian sentiments. It is deeply surprising why a filmmaker of such calibre and intelligence would want to go through a dreadful catalogue of offensive stereotypes and cultural misrepresentations associated with the Muslim community, perpetuating a vein of underlining racism that has been present within a great deal of mainstream Bollywood films dealing with the issue of terrorism.

Terrorism is such a sensitive and topical issue that very films have been able to successfully tackle such a subject in a rational and impartial manner, but the films that have tried to remain objective in their treatment are the ones which have steered clear of preaching to the audience and placing a far greater emphasis on the moral uncertainty and ambiguity that exists on both sides. (Gulzar's devestating exploration of terrorism in his film, 'Maachis', comes to mind) The real problem with the racism that exists within 'Contract' is that the Muslim terrorists are represented as caricatures, taking on a cartoonish quality that stops us from taking anyone of it seriously.

Ideological prejudices aside, ‘Contract’ is a real misstep for Ram Gopal Verma; the direction is extremely frantic and chaotic, perhaps suggesting it is time he started to limit himself in terms of creative output. Later on this year, his third film to have been released in 2008 will make its way into cinemas. Though Ram Gopal Varma work rate is commendable, his body of work over the last five years has become increasingly erratic, producing and directing films that have become instantly forgettable. ‘Contract’ suffers from the lack of leading Bollywood star and many of Ram Gopal Varma’s most successful and interesting projects have been close collaborations with Bollywood stars like Ajay Devgan and Amitabh Bachchan who were able to bring an added layer of conviction and much needed screen presence.

Mainstream Indian cinema must work harder to challenge the cultural stereotypes and misrepresentation of the Muslim community because the kinds of implicit racism that surfaces in many films today is not only offensive and wrong, it seems to suggest an intolerance exists that is dangerously accepted as a natural and normal part of everyday Indian society. The crazy fanatical speeches by radical preachers cum terrorists has become almost a staple of Bollywood cinema, and if such xenophobia is permitted to continue then it only seems like suicide for an industry that was built on the principle of religious co existence.

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