In 1915 a film called “The Birth of a Nation” was huge commercial success and broke technical records with its size and scope. The film was also extremely racist, unintelligent and portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic force. It led to the  formation of the “second era” Ku Klux Klan in Georgia, and the trial and lynching of black men across the US. Sadly, it was also the first American motion picture to be screened inside the White House, viewed there by President Woodrow Wilson, oxymoronically the defender of liberal morality and humanitarianism. The African American population, now free from slavery for over half a century, never recovered from the fallout from such popular movies and racist tropes.

Portrayals of the dangerous “other” continued in the US, maintained though art, the dominance of the white/American identity over all other ethnicities, painting all others as threats to American whiteness and values.

In the 1970s and after, in American war films, Vietnamese soldiers and civilians were portrayed as cunning, cruel, sadistic, ambivalent, and irresponsible. Earlier movies showed Asian participants as pawns in a chess game between the superpowers, the post-1975 ‘’Vietnam syndrome’’ genre saw the Vietnamese as devious - a manifest Orientalism, symbolised by the stereotype of the ‘‘Yellow Peril’’. Up until 2002’s ‘‘We Were Soldiers’’, there was no depiction of Vietnamese characters as genuine people. It took decades for the industry to even give lip service to the fact that America’s war in Vietnam was a disaster, and so it took even longer for the population believe it as so (if they believe that today at all).

But we all know about American exceptionalism - that American values are the best and American freedoms and lives come first, but mostly for one type of American, preferable white. American shows that we grew up on in Pakistan, like Small Wonder, Full House, and Cheers, hardly featured people of colour - even when the non-white population in the US stands at about 40 percent. Even recent shows like Friends and How I Met Your Mother had all white casts. Though these shows were not racist, like the movies suggested above, my claim is that films and television have enough of a say in society, to alienate people and populations.

Right at our doorstep Hindu exceptionalism has reared its ugly head in the form of Padmavat. The film is aesthetically beautiful, just like Birth of a Nation was ground breaking. Both have vile messages.

My point here is that art can drive real life events, thus it is truly disappointing to see Padmavat pass the censor boards in Pakistan while a movie like Padman could not. One demonises Muslims, the other talks about female health and community solutions. Portrayals of mindless Muslim savagery are more acceptable to the men on our censorboards, than the mere mention of a sanitary napkin. And mind you, Padman is a film that can be watched with the family, Padmavat (and a lot of other Indian exports) are not. Sure, dads will be awkward for the first ten minutes about the subject of female hygiene, but maybe they’ll learn a thing or two about how to deal with wives and daughters. One wonders what Padmavat teaches anyone? That suicide is better than losing one’s “izzat” (and can be imagined as honour killing if we change the context)? And that Alauddin Khilji, the ruler who saved the Indian Subcontinent from a Mongol invasion was a debauched savage almost foaming at the mouth?

If a man can sit through belly-shaking item numbers and on-screen PDAs with his family, he can certainly sit though a tale about providing women with better health hygiene products.

But I digress. If anyone thinks that anti-Muslim sentiment won’t sky rocket after Padmavat they are mistaken. The Hindu right wing calls every Muslim ruler ever an invader, doesn’t matter who was born in India and who died in India. Art can reinforce and create prejudice better than one can expect. There is a reason why Hamza Ali Abbasi is uncritically followed by people - he starred in a major film that glorified Pakistan and the military. He stands in for the soldier/hero, regardless of his real life immaturity.

My personal opinion is that nothing should be censored. Let us see these offending films and learn how India sees us and how women navigate a hidden terrain of monthly pain and distress. But if we really have to ban something, let it be the Padmavats and the Birth of the Nation-like garbage.

Film and television can offer audiences thoughtful critical stories, but there a cornucopia of them out there that don’t or won’t. Minorities and vulnerable groups like women often don’t have a say in what the masses see on their screens. Sadly, we the majority, whether in the US, India or Pakistan, lap it all up without realising we may have just been brainwashed.

 

writer is studying South Asian history and politics at the Oxford University and is the former Op-Ed Editor of The Nation.

 @saadiagardezi