Bollywood Cozying up With Israel Is Heartbreaking for Palestinians

Palestinians have a near-total love for Hindi films starring Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan.

5 min read
Hindi Female

After years of reading and listening, my recent trip to Palestine taught me the cruelty of Israeli occupation and apartheid first hand. Among the shocking experiences were moments of welcome surprise. The abiding faith in India and the near-total love for Hindi films being one of them.

Almost every person that I met, upon knowing that I was from India – Hind - would exclaim along the lines of ‘India! Bollywood! Shah Rukh Khan! Amitabh Bachchan!’ Not used to such a line of association, I tried to mutter some incoherent responses initially. Eventually I gave up, realizing how happy it made everyone to meet one person (from a country of over 1.3 billion) who came from the same place as their beloved ‘Bollywood’ movies.

This association reached a point where people started to take selfies with me because, you know, Shah Rukh Khan. There are satellite channels dedicated to Hindi movies and shows that are relayed in occupied Palestine. It is irrelevant if a film is old or new, it just is good because it is from ‘Bollywood’.

Whenever I brought up Netanyahu’s selfie with Bachchan and others, back in occupied Palestine, I would see dismay and disappointment. Many knew about it already and were quick to point out the film stars that weren’t there. Seeing the Hindi film industry cozying up with Israel, is heartbreaking for Palestinians as well as for all of us in India and across the globe who know about Palestinian suffering.

Netanyahu’s famous selfie is just the surface of a concerted effort to build an image of Israel that can help whitewash its crimes. Here comes into picture the Brand Israel strategy - a massive state funded PR campaign aiming to whitewash Israel’s reality and ‘improve Israel’s negative image overseas’.

As a part of this political propaganda campaign, several Hollywood celebrities were approached to visit Israel and thus endorse it. This PR effort backfired as pro-Palestine activists urged artists to #SkipTheTrip, and no one showed up in Israel.

Roger Waters, Indian-origin director Mira Nair, director Ken Loach, musician Lauryn Hill, writer Alice Walker are some of the names in the long and growing list of artists boycotting Israel, much like artists boycotted apartheid South Africa.

Most recently, Natalie Portman refused to travel to Israel and receive the Genesis Prize from Benjamin Netanyahu.

My decision not to attend the Genesis Prize ceremony has been mischaracterized by others. Let me speak for myself. I chose not to attend because I did not want to appear as endorsing Benjamin Netanyahu, who was to be giving a speech at the ceremony. By the same token, I am not part of the BDS movement and do not endorse it. Like many Israelis and Jews around the world, I can be critical of the leadership in Israel without wanting to boycott the entire nation. I treasure my Israeli friends and family, Israeli food, books, art, cinema, and dance. Israel was created exactly 70 years ago as a haven for refugees from the Holocaust. But the mistreatment of those suffering from today’s atrocities is simply not in line with my Jewish values. Because I care about Israel, I must stand up against violence, corruption, inequality, and abuse of power. Please do not take any words that do not come directly from me as my own. This experience has inspired me to support a number of charities in Israel. I will be announcing them soon, and I hope others will join me in supporting the great work they are doing.

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An Indian theatre artist recently declined the offer to participate in Israel Festival noting,

“As I read about the history of the State of Israel in using culture as a tool to distract from the violence in Palestine, I asked myself how I could stand for freedom and justice on one stage, and promote quite the opposite on another? How can this bring about a peaceful society?”

Indian academics and artists came together in 2010 to launch the Indian Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Nayantara Sahgal, Aijaz Ahmad, Arundhati Roy, Anand Patwardhan, Saeed Mirza and several other artists, writers and academics that initiated the call demanded that India’s pro-Israel policies be reversed, vowing to build a struggle for the same, and reaffirmed their solidarity to the Palestinian struggle for freedom.

Take this context and now think of what the Hindi film industry is getting into. Israel is offering tax incentives, providing government sponsored trips to Indian filmmakers to scout shooting locations. Last December, when it took five filmmakers and producers on this trip, there were protests going on at the very same time against Trump’s decision to shift US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

While Palestinian protesters were being brutally repressed this Indian delegation was being shown Israel as hip and liberal shooting locale.

This should be our glimpse into how the film industry is being sold propaganda and being used for Israel’s cynical aim to whitewash its crimes.

That Israel is able to make such headways is enabled by India’s pro-Israel foreign policy. Last July, Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel, and a number of deals were signed to take forward this new ‘friendship’.

Palestinians have a near-total love for Hindi films starring Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi being received by the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, on his arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, in Tel Aviv.
(Photo: PTI)

Then in January 2018, Netanyahu visited India on a diplomatic trip that entailed many more deals and agreements. It was during this trip that Netanyahu, along with the Israeli consulate, organised Shalom Bollywood, a PR event in Mumbai inviting many big names from the film industry.

Netanyahu, and before him Michael Oren (Deputy Minister in Netanyahu’s office) have said openly that they are looking for Bollywood to fight BDS (the Palestine solidarity movement promoting Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions).

In the wake of Nakba Day on 15 May, 70 years since the foundation of Israel by ethnically cleansing Palestinians, these protests have intensified. And so has the massacring of these protesters by the Israeli forces.

These are the same people who find beauty and meaning in Hindi films. In the face of unimaginable violence, Hindi films offer pockets of joy, of beauty, of life itself to them. No amount of tax breaks and incentives can be more important than the meaning these films hold for the Palestinian people, the importance Indian film artists occupy in their lives. And absolutely no amount of business benefits can justify standing with their oppressor.

The industry ought to listen to their Palestinian fans and not just the agit-prop agents of Israel.

It is now for the members of the film industry to decide how they want to be remembered in history - as those who stand by their fans, the struggling, courageous people of Palestine, or those who become a tool for the regime that brutalises them.

(Apoorva is the South Asia Coordinator of Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)


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