_ A Bollywood event in Tel Aviv highlights how both India and Israel
are using art to distract from human rights abuses. _
Bollywood has been wooed by Israel, with tax breaks, film funding and
Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Mumbai in 2018, IIlustration by Mohamad
Between October 15 and 17th, Bollywood actors are travelling
to Israel for the Indo Fest TLV, a "cultural showcase" touted as the
biggest event in the history of India-Israel cultural relations.
The festival - featuring Anil Kapoor, Amisha Patel and at least eight
other stars of Indian cinema - promises to be a cultural extravaganza
designed to draw Israel and India closer to one another, with some
30,000 Indians expected to attend a slew of activities in Tel Aviv.
But the event has been mired in controversy and confusion even
before it began.
'Wooing Bollywood to artwash its violations of Palestinian human
rights is part of the Brand Israel strategy'
_- Apoorva PG, South Asia BDS coordinator_
Last week, activists from the Boycott Divestment and Sanction
[[link removed]] urged its
supporters to apply pressure on the stars to abandon the visit and
honour the cultural boycott of Israel.
On Tuesday, Sophie Choudry, one of the actors on the programme, told
MEE [[link removed]] that
the event had been cancelled, but tickets were still on sale at the
time of writing and there have been no official communication to
confirm Choudry's assertion. According to the BDS movement, a similar
event in 2018 was indefinitely postponed
[[link removed]] after
actors were pressured to withdraw.
But with or without this event, Israel's charm offensive in Bollywood
is well underway.
“Wooing Bollywood to artwash its violations of Palestinian human
rights is part of the Brand Israel strategy,” Apoorva PG, South Asia
coordinator for the BDS campaign, told Middle East Eye.
And it is about to reach new heights.
On 1 November, the first Hindi film to have been partially shot in
Israel is scheduled for release on Netflix. Starring Sushant Singh
Rajput and Jacqueline Fernandez, _Drive_ has been marketed as a
Bollywood incarnation of the _Fast and Furious_ franchise, with
scenes shot "on Tel Aviv’s boulevards and in the picturesque
alleyways of Jaffa’s Old City".
"The movie revolves around stunt drivers turned getaway drivers, who
use money stolen in a high-risk robbery to take a trip to Tel Aviv -
the city that never sleeps and is known for its nightlife, beaches and
parties," as one Israeli news site
In many ways, _Drive_ will be the first return on an investment
to leverage Bollywood's soft power to tackle Israel's deteriorating
image in the Western world.
In a bid to enter new markets and lure tourists, Israel has
offered to invest in films as well as tax incentives;
_Drive_ was funded
part by the Israeli Tourism Ministry and the Prime Minister’s
Robindra Deb, a member of South Asia Solidarity Initiative's (SASI)
organising collective based in New York City, told MEE that the
burgeoning ties between Israel and Bollywood were “a troubling sign
of India’s growing ties to Israel and its support of the occupation
The Israeli project to whitewash the occupation of Palestine has
found an obliging audience among an Indian media already drowning in
Islamophobia and revisionist nationalist narratives of its own.
"Israel's connect with Hindi cinema dates back to the early 1900s,"
says the introduction of
[[link removed]]one Indian television
programme focusing on Bollywood's Jewish history during the silent
film era, even as it goes on to acknowledge that the early actors were
It also ignores the fact that Israel was not formed until 1948 when
the silent film era was long over.
Suchitra Vijayan, director of the Polis Project, a research and
journalism hub based in New York, says Bollywood's willingness
to participate in Israel's project of appropriation is no surprise.
"Israel colonises art, it colonises culture. Bollywood is the just
most brazen example of that method. Palestine has had a longer
relationship with the subcontinent, and Israel is attempting to erase
those ties, too," Vijayan told MEE.
According to the Indian government,
[[link removed]] there
are some 85,000 Jews of Indian origin now living in Israel. There are
also 12,500 Indian citizens working in a variety of jobs, including
healthcare, IT and the diamond trade.
According to organisers, some 30,000 Indians are expected to attend
the three-day event in Tel Aviv.
Vijayan says that given India's skilled migration is still mainly
upper caste, she is sure that "they take with them their rabid sense
of nationalism and caste politics, which explains the inroads
Bollywood has made".
"The other side of this is that India is also a huge market for
Israel," Vijayan adds.
Indian and Israeli ties have improved dramatically since the early
1990s, but since Narendra Modi became prime minister in
2014, partnerships between the two countries have reached
In 2017, Modi became the first Indian premier to visit Israel,
underscoring a major foreign policy shift in India. Today, India is
[[link removed]]purchaser of
Israeli weapons, spending an estimated $1bn per year.
During his six-day visit to India in January 2018, Israeli Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it a point to meet with Indian
actors and producers in Mumbai, including Amitabh Bachchan and Imtiaz
Ali, to discuss and seal collaborations with the industry.
Since then, Israel’s representatives in India have missed no
opportunity to emphasise the connections between the two countries,
be it technological exchange, joint security concerns, or to boast
that Bollywood has come to town.
On 3 August, known by some as "Friendship Day", the Israeli embassy
in New Delhi released a video collage
[[link removed] ] celebrating
Netanyahu and Modi's much touted bromance. The video also featured
[[link removed] ]of
“Yeh dosti hum nahin todhenge" (We will never break this
friendship), a song from one of India's most iconic Bollywood films,
as its background score.
Likewise, when Bachchan won India's highest award in cinema in late
September, Ron Malka, Israeli ambassador to India, was among the first
[[link removed] ] his
Action star Tiger Shroff was also expected to travel later this
year to Tel Aviv to learn the Israeli army martial art Krav
Maga for a new film. The trip was only cancelled
filmmakers felt the action sequences would be too repetitive.
Apoorva PG says that Israeli authorities have made no secret that
the attempt to woo Bollywood is about dismantling BDS
[[link removed]] and
improving Israel’s image in India.
“Israel is offering benefits to Indian filmmakers so that they come
and shoot their films in Israel," Apoorva said.
The spokesperson for the Israeli embassy in New Delhi did not reply to
MEE’s request for comment.
It is also an open secret that some of Bollywood's biggest stars
are purveyors of the status quo, rarely ever standing up to it.
Bollywood is replete with examples of films that either minimise and
stereotype minorities, or advance state talking points.
"Bollywood has always normalised what is so problematic about India.
Bollywood has always found a way to present India as 'good' and
'decent'," Vijayan says.
Through Bollywood, she says, India is increasingly "normalising and
popularising the everyday military industrial complex"
Earlier this year, actress and Unicef peace ambassador Priyanka
Chopra encouraged war between India and Pakistan following an attack
on Indian troops in disputed Kashmir. When India began its
communication blockade on Kashmir on 5 August, veteran Indian actor
and Hindu nationalist Anupam Kher tweeted
[[link removed] ] that
the “Kashmir solution” had begun.
"When Priyanka Chopra wanted to transition from Bollywood to
Hollywood, she chooses to become an FBI agent [in television show
_Quantico_] and becomes the eloquent, sexy voice of the empire,
killing fellow brown people in the name of national security," Vijayan
In September, Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan released a series on
Netflix, _Bard of Blood_
that focuses on the insurgency in the Pakistan state of Balochistan.
On its own, the plot might appear compelling, but Balochistan has
long been an official talking point of the Modi government used to
deflect criticism about its occupation in Kashmir.
"_Bard of Blood_ also paints most of its Pakistani and Afghani
characters as devoid of any moral code, depicting them either as
adulterers, paedophiles, or fanatics who behead people the instant
someone angers them," one review
the series reads. "Meanwhile, most of the Indian characters are
upright citizens and just trying to do the right thing. It's
simplistic storytelling essentially, which shows the villains as all
black and the heroes as all white."
Given its history as a vanguard of the status quo, if there is
growing internal dissent within Bollywood the public isn't likely to
In September, 49 theatre artists, some associated with Bollywood,
wrote an open letter to Modi calling for an end to lynchings in India
- only to be immediately charged with sedition
"Campaigns relating to Bollywood and the cultural sphere in general
are very important to us," Apoorva PG says. "They not only reflect
Israel's established strategy of cynically using art to deflect
attention from its occupation and apartheid, more importantly they
reflect the growing popularity of the BDS movement.
"Ultimately, we are asking Bollywood to stand against apartheid and
not be a tool for Israel's cynical use of their talent and
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.
_Azad Essa is a senior reporter for Middle East Eye based in New York
City. He worked for Al Jazeera English between 2010-2018 covering
southern and central Africa for the network. He is the author of The
Moslems are Coming (Harper Collins India) and Zuma's Bastard (Two Dogs