22 November 2009

KURBAAN / SACRIFICE (Dir. Renzil D'Silva, 2009, India) – Regressive Politics

Problematic in many different ways, the latest from Karan Johar, 'Kurbaan' raises a number of ideological points:

1. It makes for regressive cinema.

re·gres·sive - opposing progress; returning to a former less advanced state.

2. Godard was right about mainstream popular cinema and its film makers. (April 1959)
‘Your camera movements are ugly because your subjects are bad, your casts act badly because your dialogue is worthless; in a word, you don’t even know how to create cinema because you no longer even know what it is…’

‘And we attack you for your betrayal, because we have opened your eyes and you continue to keep them closed. Each time we see your films we find them so bad, so far aesthetically and morally from what we had hoped, that we are almost ashamed of our love for the cinema…’

The above quotes are used in ‘The Altering Eye’, Robert Kolker, Oxford University Press, 1983 but are taken from ‘Godard on Godard’, Tom Milne, New York: Viking Press, 1972, pp. 146-47.

3. Advocating religious and racial tolerance whilst subscribing to the dominant point of view is a social and political contradiction. Here is what writer George Monbiot had to say about Ridley Scott’s xenophobic representations of Somalis in the 2001 film ‘Black Hawk Down’:
‘The Somalis in Black Hawk Down speak only to condemn themselves. They display no emotions other than greed and the lust for blood. Their appearances are accompanied by sinister Arab techno, while the US forces are trailed by violins, oboes and vocals inspired by Enya. The American troops display horrific wounds. They clutch photos of their loved ones and ask to be remembered to their parents or their children as they die. The Somalis drop like flies, killed cleanly, dispensable, unmourned…’
Both saviour and victim, George Monbiot, The Guardian, Jan 2002

What is the difference between the xenophobic representations of Muslims compared to that of Ridley Scott’s racial stereotyping in ‘Black Hawk Down’? Very little, if any, would be my conclusion. 'Kurbaan' backs away from showing us the context of terrorism; instead it asks us to simply listen to the absurd sentimental banter of fanatics who relay their stories with tears and predictable Sufi chants. Though the Islamic terrorists may be victims themselves, we are offered no physical representation or narrative time to explore their resentment. In the end, it is the Americans who we see bloody and wounded, victims of an unchecked fanaticism.

4. Ritwik Ghatak was right about the state of mainstream Indian cinema:
‘People are changing. Things are changing. Times are changing. If you on showing some kind of trash ad infintum, there is a limit after which people will not go with you. Besides this, people are having experiences in their own lives and they cannot be satisfied with the old hash for long now. So either, one should get rid of set formula of hoodwinking the people, which is extremely difficult for unimaginative producers and risky too, or one should come clean, striking harmonious chord with contemporary urges, which can only be done by really creative and conscious artistes…'
What ails Indian film making, Ritwik Ghatak, Cinema and I, 1987, Ritwik Memorial Trust

5. Film reviewer Taran Adarsh had the following to say about the film 'Kurbaan':

‘On the whole, Kurbaan is the most powerful film to come out of the Hindi film industry in 2009, so far.’


Not only is this misleading in my opinion, it simply proves that Internet websites like India FM/Bollywood Hungama are inextricably tied to the very fabric of populist cinema and repeatedly fail to be critical of major film releases each week. Unfortunately, vital journalistic imperatives like impartiality, autonomy and independence become invisible when faced with tent pole films – to write ‘critically’ would inevitably mean limited access to the glamorous world of Bollywood. (Is 'Kurbaan' a critic proof film?) However, a little honesty and pluralism might attract much needed credibility for film reviewers like Taran Adarsh who can shape populist audience opinion. The other thing that makes me suspicious of IndiaFM/Bollywood Hungama is its increasing acknowledgement in the opening titles of major Indian releases; it is merely an extension of Bombay cinema’s metamorphosis into a hegemonic corporate entity.

6. Exploitation or serious social concerns?

Is it right to merely keep exploiting the sensitive and prescient issue of international terrorism for mainstream commercial purposes or do films like ‘Kurbaan’, ‘New York’ and ‘Faana’ realistically and convincingly debate such concerns? Indian cinema seems to have had more critical success with exploring domestic terrorism in films like ‘Dil Se’, ‘Aamir’ and ‘Black Friday’ then one’s which deal with 9-11. Part of me feels that films like ‘Kurbaan’ are merely exploiting an issue that has largely been made prominent by the media and offering very little in terms of concerted ideological engagement. Producer Karan Johar is merely reacting to the idea of topicality which in essence is what most producers tend to do but this does not seem to answer the crude and dominant stereotyping.

In the film, the terrorist Ehsaan (Saif Ali Khan) hails from Pakistan and the film seems to suggest that 9-11 was carried out by Islamic extremists from this region yet this historical engineering obscures the reality that most of the hijackers who orchestrated and carried out the twin towers atrocities were in fact of Middle Eastern origin. (Michael Moore argues this point endlessly in his documentary polemic ‘Fahrenheit 9-11’) Karan Johar argues that his film is a ‘love story’ and merely entertainment yet this does little to prevent the misleading representations of Muslims in the film from affecting the dubious ideological intentions of those involved.

7. The absence of secularism.

‘Kurbaan’ promotes a very dubious, if not reckless, political message by demonising Muslims and it subsequently rejects secularism for a culture of fear and religious anxiety. I’m not sure if such a slighted message fits in with the progressive and liberal attitudes of film makers who have tended to exist on the fringes and margins; Ritwik Ghatak being an illustrative example.

‘There can be little doubt that it was Jawaharlal Nehru, more than any other political leader of the Congress, who fought for secular principles in post-independence India. His triumph was complete, or so he thought, when India adopted a new constitution and declared itself a republic on 26 January 1950. Its new constitution was the longest in the world, but more importantly it was totally secular in character. There was no state religion; there was a complete separation of state from religion; schools were to be run on secular principles; there were to be no taxes to support any religion. All citizens were equal before the law and anyone could hold the highest offices of state; religious liberties were guaranteed to individuals as well as associations. The preamble had a distinctly social-democratic flavour. It promised all its citizens: ‘Justice, social, economic and political; liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; equality of status and of opportunity…’
The Nehru’s and the Gandhi’s, Tariq Ali, 2005, Picador, pg 83.

If religion is a form of repression and an instrument of social and political control then it is not good enough for films like ‘Kurbaan’ to continue examining the affects of international terrorism without providing a graphic and contextual exploration of how American hegemony and imperialism creates poverty, subjugation and daily humiliation for the millions of oppressed who do not have a platform or voice with which to articulate their frustrations.


  1. Haven't seen the film, but this one is a superb piece of criticism. Especially this observation:

    "that films like ‘Kurbaan’ are merely exploiting an issue that has largely been made prominent by the media and offering very little in terms of concerted ideological engagement"

  2. Thanks for the comments. I think it is exploitative but then one could argue most mainstream films are. However, the representations of Muslims in the film points to something much deeper - this failure to truthfully depict those who are often marginalised in mainstream society, not just Muslims but women, working classes, those minority voices who are often exploited for easy cinematic consumption.

  3. Also Godard is right when he says 'that we are almost ashamed of our love for the cinema…’ - this is how I felt when leaving the screening of the film. It was very disheartening because so many talented people were involved, many of whom have some degree of credibility.