For generations, Afghans have grown up watching Bollywood films such as Khuda Gawah, starring Amitabh Bachchan as a brave and patriotic Afghan. Such films were a source of joy for refugees during the dark Taliban era. They played the songs from these films at their weddings, know famous Bollywood dialogues and even learned Hindi from the films.
However, a few films in recent years have offended Afghans.
The first was the 2018 film Padmaavat, in which Ranveer Singh playing Alauddin Khilji, a Turko-Afghan ruler who invaded and ruled Delhi in the 12th Century. Though the film was liked in India, the portrayal of Khaliji as a cruel and vicious ruler offended many Afghans (Padmavat had its fair share of controversies in India as well).
Then came Kesari, a 2019 period film where 21 Sikh soldiers from the British Indian Army took on 10,000 Afghans. Again, Afghans didn’t like for stereotyping and vilifying Afghans as barbaric invaders.
And now Panipat, a film based on the 1761 battle between the Marathas and an Afghan army, led by Abdali, has anagered several Afghans.
To Indians, Abdali was an invader who killed thousands of Maratha warriors in the historic battle of Panipat (located near Delhi), but to Afghans, Abdali is their founding father and a hero; they refer to him as Ahmad Shah Baba (father).
So when Sanjay Dutt tweeted about his character, the uproar to the tweet was immediate (from Afghans who happen to be Bollywood fans).
“Ahmad Shah Abdali holds great regard in the hearts and minds of Afghan people. When the film was being made we requested to watch it without exposing the plot. Despite our constant efforts, we didn’t get any response from the filmmakers,” said Naseem Sharifi, Afghanistan’s consul general in Mumbai.
As the criticism about misrepresenting the Afghans started to grow, Film director Ashutosh Gowariker (of Panipat) clarified.
“This film is not about a Hindu-Muslim battle. It’s about stopping an invader. It’s about protecting your borders, your land, that’s the patriotic theme of the film. In the wake of that we have to show that Abdali did invade but we have kept the dignity of the character.”
Top Afghan diplomats however are worried about the possible fallout from films like Panipat.
“Historically Indian cinema has been instrumental in strengthening Indo-Afghan ties. I very much hope that the film ‘Panipat’ has kept that fact in mind while dealing with this important episode of our shared history,” Dr Shaida Abdali, the former Afghan ambassador to India, tweeted.
More and more young Afghans are noticing the change in the protrayal of Afghans on Bollywood films and are talking about on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Earlier, they used to be happy and feel proud at even the slightest mention of Afghans in Hindi movies, but now they watch it with scrutiny. Given Afghans’ long relationship with Bollywood they are hoping for a better representation.