I watched the movie with some people, and one of them was displeased with the film for a number of reasons, reasons with which I agreed in the past and have by no means ceased to comprehend. I will describe her main three reasons.
Firstly, the portrayal of Muslims in the film is distasteful. All the main characters are Muslim, including the protagonist, who has sex with the hero (whom she has known for but three days) in a night of agreed-upon no-string-attached frolicking before they decide to marry, and the father of the protagonist, who falls into alcohol as a cure for his grief after his wife dies. Such portrayals are propaganda that normalize such un-Islamic behaviors as premarital sex and the consumption of alcohol.
Secondly, the signature song of the movie utilizes the Islamic phrase "Subhanallah", which can be translated as "Exalted is Allah." To hear a phrase used to worship reduced to what can be essentially described as a pick-up line is jarring to the Muslim ear and mind.
Thirdly, the melodramatic plot-line of the movie is utterly unrealistic. They fall in love, have sex, and decide to marry within the span of a few days. The next day, she gets eye surgery whilst he carries out a terrorist attack (which is not portrayed as a Muslim thing, thankfully, but a Kashmiri freedom fighter affair). Seven years later, he just happens to get injured close to her house. The implausibility causes unrealistic expectations.
All of these are valid concerns, and I have shared some of them and still do.
As for the first, i.e. the portrayal of Muslims, it is true that seeing things in movies does tend to desensitize people to them. I'm not sure, however, if a film like Fanaa could be counted as "propaganda," as that word is defined by Merriam-Webster as such
1 capitalized : a congregation of the Roman curia having jurisdiction over missionary territories and related institutions
2: the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person
3: ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one's cause or to damage an opposing cause; also : a public action having such an effect
Definition 1 is easy to dismiss, and the third is a very political definition. #2 is probably the definition used in the criticism, with the damaged party being Muslims. Viewed in a vacuum, the movie could be seen as deliberately designed to hurt the image of Muslims and Islam. However, viewed in the broader context of Bollywood, it follows a formula in which are inserted Hindus (and, to a lesser degree, Parsis and Christians) as well as Muslims. Of course, Muslims are a minority in India, and thus more prone to stereotyping.
As for the portrayal of pre-marital sex, it might not be so disparate from reality as many Desis would like to believe, as Nita J. Kulkarni blogs.
No matter how much parents rave and rant about the evils of western influences, and the decline of Indian culture, the facts are that the desire to interact and romance the opposite sex is natural and has always existed in India! By denying the existence of such natural feelings parents are alienating their children. In fact I did not include an interview due to a lack of space, that of an eighty year old gentleman. He told me that too much fuss was being made about premarital sex. It was not a modern affliction, he said, it existed in his day and age too. He lost his virginity at age 17 he said, several years before marraige and it wasn’t with a prostitute. This was the first time he was confessing it to anyone though. The only change now (he told me) is that sex has been dragged out into the open and youngsters do not pretend its wrong. This is a good thing according to him because it could be the beginning of the end of hypocrisy.
What the old man calls hypocrisy is, actually, so embedded in the Desi community (including the Desi diaspora of which I am a part), especially the Muslim Desi community, that a young Pakistani who drunkenly murdered a white man in 2005 actually said, in reference to drinking and being a in a premarital romantic relationship, that "In our religion you don't tell your parents. They might get upset." He didn't say that drinking and romance prior to marriage were forbidden in the religion, he said that talking about it was forbidden. This, to me, represents the embedded gag order under which Desis, especially Muslims, live. Taking the dichotomy of appearance (i.e. "we don't talk about that") vs. reality into consideration, the criticism is a poignant example of cultural synecdoche.
Alcohol is perhaps even more stigmatized than sex, but even that is changing. The consumption of alcohol by young Muslims is called a plague here, and yet the stigma is still real, as Austin Cline details in several interviews with young Muslims.
The second criticism, that of the use of Islamic phrases in Bollywood soundtracks, is not an easy one to tackle. I've heard other Indian songs use the word "Allah" and found it jarring. Theologically speaking, it's irreverent, but I know of no one who regularly watches Indian movies who cares. It could simply be a desensitization on their part, or a lack of exposure to Bollywood on mine. In any case, my knowledge of Hindi is not enough to know whether or not Islamic Arabic phrases are used in day-to-day life in a manner to which I am not accustomed.
The third criticism is easily answered via a quick glance at Bollywood. All the movies are ludicrous and over-the-top. Every single movie is a romance or is romantic in nature in a society in which most of marriage is arranged (more than 95% according to this, and 80-90% according to this). Bollywood films are intended to be romps in escapism more than a realistic depiction of reality.
In the end, no matter how much I might dislike Bollywood, there is a flip side of the story. Even though media portrayals might deride true feminism, there was a movie that sent an empowering message for women, and Indian soap operas seem to help rural Indian women develop more feminist attitudes. India's feminist scene is also quite vibrant, with groups such as the Gulabi Gang taking matters into their own hands. I suppose that since Bollywood is here to stay, even "haters" like me would better serve others by offering constructive criticism instead of hoping that Bollywood stops making movies, or completely revamps everything.
The number of bangles I own...
I'll admit it, I imagine myself as graceful as some of the Bollywood actresses when I wear Desi clothes. Also, this is an old picture. I own a lot more bangles now.