Bajrangi Bhaijaan and the Erasure of Borders

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Salman Khan stars as Pawan in Bajrangi Bhaijaan

There are few Bollywood movies these days with the power to move me. Bajrangi Bhaijaan was one of them. Salman Khan played Pawan, aka Bajrangi, an Indian Hindu man hellbent on getting a 6 year old Pakistani girl (Munni/Shahida) back home after she was lost in India. Spoilers abound- beware!

I’m a sucker for stories that deal with India/Pakistan and Hindu/Muslim relations. When I was younger, I knew little about the long history between India and Pakistan, and let my Hindu parents’ prejudices rub off on me- a story that is probably relevant to many South Asian children. Pakistan and Islam went hand in hand, and they were the enemy. As I got older, I gained knowledge about a history grounded in colonial relations. I watched movies like Veer Zaara, read books like A Train to Pakistan. All signs pointed to one thing. These boundaries and histories were fabricated, meant to tear us apart. We were all the same. The overcoming of internal prejudices that took me years was portrayed in a 3 hour movie.

A map of India and Pakistan
A map of India and Pakistan

Hindus make up 78% of India, while Muslims are a minority at 14%. Similar numbers can be found in Pakistan, a state created for India’s Islamic population: 96% Islamic, 2% Hindu. Prejudices run deep and strong in Indians and Pakistanis, and especially run deep in Pawan. For the most part, it was his learning through Muslim bodies that helped him overcome the differences we’ve been taught to see in each other. These tender moments had me bawling like a baby!

Munni when she first sees Pawan.
Munni when she first sees Pawan.

Getting Munni back home wouldn’t have been an issue had it not been for the fact that she was unable to speak. Pawan had to get her home based on the way they learned about her story and identity. When he loses her as she heads into a mosque, he learns that she is a Muslim and not a Hindu as he first suspected. When he has to go into the mosque, he reveals his own outdated Hindu stigma- he acts as if he is in a place defiled, and says that Munni has cheated him. A grown man says that a 6 year old girl cheated him. I rolled my eyes too. Rasika, his Hindu Brahmin love interest played by Kareena Kapoor, shames him for his thoughts. She calls his prejudices garbage, saying that castes and classes mean nothing. Munni reveals her innocence and dSalman-Harshaali-Malhotraemonstrates love and equality when she runs straight to Pawan once she is finished praying. As she hugs his waist and smiles one of her adorable smiles, you can see the breakdown of barriers in Salman Khan’s Pawan. Munni doesn’t see the difference between them, and Pawan begins to realize that the things that are different (such as religion) are not traits that make them enemies. This hatred is taught, and it is lacking in Munni.

As a Bollywood film, it is important that Pawan is a Hindu, and not a Muslim man. The majority of India needs to be able to see through their own eyes when watching Pawan’s journey unfold. It is ironic, and yet completely sensible that this character is played by a Muslim-Hindu actor. Salman Khan is a powerful and popular actor in India, and captures hearts everywhere, whether they are Hindu or Muslim. While his film has blown box office records, I wonder if it has broken down internal prejudices.

Partition displaced over 12 million people, and 1 million died in the ensuing chaos.
Partition displaced over 12 million people, and 1 million died in the ensuing chaos.

The British ruled India by a simple method: divide and conquer. They divided religions and cultures, and caused strife and animosity between people who had lived peacefully as neighbours for hundreds of years. Partition was the dismemberment of a country at the hands of a white man.  He drew a line in the sand, and severed cities, landscapes, and heads from bodies. Over a million people lost their lives.

Interestingly enough, we see the same sights, and the same people in both Pakistan and India; this was first revealed to us in Veer Zaara’s “Aisa Des Hai Mera“. The countries are one and the same. Indeed, the place where Munni reveals she is from is Kashmir, a disputed territory between India and Pakistan. Kashmir is a metaphor for India and Pakistan. It represents the history of something that used to be whole. It is the Maulana Sahab, played by Om Puri, who tells Pawan that Munni may be from the Pakistani Kashmir. He also houses them in a Mosque, and helps hide and protect them from the cops- Pawan’s mission is a noble one regardless of his Hinduness. Pawan is reluctant to stay in the building after passing the night there, when he finds upon waking that it is a mosque. He demonstrates a pathetic Hindu fear of pollution- this is similar to the treatment of lower castes in Hinduism (a now abolished form of governance). The Maulana and Munni both help him overcome this. For Munni, Pawan is willing to go into the mosque; his love for her trumps all Hindu-Muslim ignorance. When parting ways with the Maulana, Pawan’s Hinduism is confronted yet again. He offers the Maulana a hand to shake, and in turn the Maulana envelops him in a hug. When the Maulana offers the parting words “Allah Hafiz”, Pawan nearly raises his hand to reply in the same manner- but he checks himself and joins both hands in prayer. The Maulana takes a second, and then asks what the Hindu parting is. He says “Jai Shree Ram” to Pawan with ease. It does not belittle his Islamic Bajrangi Bhaijaan Hands Foldedfaith- and Pawan stares on in wonder. Even Chand Nawab (a reporter travelling with the pair) and Munni bow and join hands with ease when Pawan stops to pray to a monkey, an incarnation of Hanuman (Bhajrang Bali). The story teaches that the differences between them do not define the relationships they share. Pawan slowly learns this as he sees the way Muslim people interact with his Hindu religion without hurting their faiths.

When Pawan is being released back across the border, he turns to Pakistan and its people once more. He raises his hand in the adab gesture, finally overcoming his prejudice and becoming comfortable with his faith. As he crosses, Munni runs to find him and call to him one last time. The miraculous happens- she is finally able to speak due to the prayers of Hindus and Muslims. Her first words are “Mama”, and then “Jai Shree Ram”; the former means maternal uncle, and the latter is a Hindu greeting. When Pawan and Munni meet for the last time, it is in the middle of the border crossing, in the river. They embrace, and Pawan throws Munni into the air. My tears flowed freely, and I hoped that the prejudices of our day and age would flow away just as swiftly.

Can Bajrangi Bhaijaan stop all prejudice? No. But it can serve as an inspiring start for Indians and Pakistanis everywhere.

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