"if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen
the side of the oppressor." - Desmond Tutu.

Nazneen to Naina: Kareena’s twenty years of acting covers important milestones in contemporary history Featured


Gurpreet Singh 

This month marks two decades of the emergence of a Bollywood Diva.

Kareena Kapoor Khan’s debut, Refugee, was released in June, 2000.  Since then, she hasn’t looked back and continues to steal many hearts with her beauty and talent.

The span of her twenty-year-old-long film career speaks volumes about her capability to represent the reality of the changing cultural and political landscape of India.  

From her very first role in Refugee as Nazneen, a stateless Muslim looking for permanent home and settlement in Pakistan, to the last one as Naina, a tough British police officer hounding suspected illegal migrants in Angrezi Medium, released early this year, proves her strength as a versatile actor.

In between these two films, Kareena has completed a journey of showcasing characters, who could be anyone from an innocent sweetheart to a loyal wife, besides a villain to a historical figure.

Kareena has acted in more than 50 films. The list includes those in which she either made special appearances or played cameo roles. However, the variety of powerful roles she has played help in understanding India’s transformation from a tolerant to an illiberal society.   

To begin with, the story of Nazneen educates the audience about the plight of stateless Muslims from Bihar state of India.

Nazneen’s parents were uprooted when India and Pakistan were divided on religious lines in 1947. This was following the liberation of the country from British occupation, forcing Bihari Muslims in Hindu-dominated India to migrate to East Pakistan. When East Pakistan was separated from Islamic Pakistan to become Bangladesh in 1971, they were forced to migrate again, as they weren’t accepted in a fledgling Bengali speaking nation. They had no choice but to go to Pakistan,  as it was difficult to return to their roots in Bihar. So they took an illegal route to travel to Pakistan, with the help of human traffickers. Nazneen, who falls in love with one of them, gives birth to a child on the no man’s land between India and Pakistan, symbolizing the hollowness of false border lines. This makes her role relevant not only for South Asian audiences, but for a global viewership in light of the ongoing refugee crisis everywhere.  

Refugee came in the wake of tensions between India and Pakistan. With India accusing Pakistan of sponsoring terrorism within its territory, the film gave a message how humanity continues to prevail in the hearts of ordinary people on both sides of the border. It was a far better film than many others made during that time, to mainly bash Pakistan and evoke narrow nationalism. The currently ruling right wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) was in power back then and much like now, there was no dearth of filmmakers who tried to outdo each other to please the government in New Delhi.

The BJP is known for its anti-Muslim prejudices and often portrays Muslims in India as terrorists and Pakistani agents.

Refugee was first in a series of films revolving around the ticklish subject of Indo-Pak relations done by Kareena in a highly polarized environment.   

In 2003, another movie LOC: Kargil was released. This time, Kareena played Simran, the fiancé of an Indian soldier who died during the fight between Indian and Pakistani troops deployed along the Line of Actual Control (LOC) in Kargil area of Kashmir.

The actual events took place in 1999.  The movie was certainly not like Refugee, and glorified the Indian soldiers, while vilifying their Pakistani counterparts.

Simran was the depiction of a courageous woman who is willing to marry and live with a soldier in spite of the war threat. Her story is similar to real life war widows, irrespective of being Indian or Pakistani, who know how to live with dignity.

Then came Agent Vinod in 2012. Kareena played as a spy of Pakistani origin. Iram Parveen wants to live a peaceful life, but circumstances land her in the espionage business. More than being a diehard nationalist, Iram is someone who cares for humanity and dies in pursuit of truth without taking sides, by helping Indians from a potential terror attack planned by international conspirators.

Her prominent role in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, released in 2015, gives hope for a better future between the two countries. As Rasika, a Hindu woman, she comes to the rescue of a Muslim girl from Pakistan who is separated from her mother during a train journey. Despite being born in a rigidly religious family that hate Muslims, she encourages her lover to locate and reunite her with her parents in Pakistan.

Moving beyond Indo-Pak ties, Kareena has to her credit some other significant roles that revealed Islamophobia in both Indian and western societies.

She played Aaliya, a survivor of anti-Muslim pogrom, in Dev (2004). Aaliya loses her family in the violence engineered by right wing Hindu politicians and testifies fearlessly against those involved. The film was produced two years after the Gujarat massacre of Muslims in 2002. The current Prime Minister Narendra Modi was Chief Minister of the state when the violence broke out under his watch. The storyline of the film clearly suggested it was based on the ugly events of Gujarat.

In 2009, she played as Avantika in Kurbaan, which is about Jihadist terrorism, and how Muslims are being mistreated all over the world. In spite of the reservations of her Hindu family, Avantika marries a Muslim man and ends up facing betrayal from her husband, who is part of an Islamic extremist group.

In her real life too, Kareena has stood up against Islamophobia. Married to a Muslim, she comes from a Hindu family. Saif Ali Khan is also an established actor and has acted with her in number of films, including Kurbaan.  She had to face a backlash from BJP supporters for marrying Saif and adopting Khan as her last name. She later came under attack when the couple named their child after an Islamic historical figure, who Hindu right wing leaders accuse of being a tyrant.

In 2018, when she stood up in support of an eight-year-old-girl Asifa Bano, who was raped and murdered by Hindu fundamentalists, she was widely trolled on social media, risking the fate of her film Veere Dee Wedding.

Although she is not an activist, she has played as one in at least two films, which are worth watching to comprehend the problems being faced by Indians due to corruption. Both Gori Tere Pyaar Mein and Satyagrah came in 2013. She played as Diya and Yasmin respectively in the two movies, that came around the time when people were marching in the streets against corruption. Yasmin is a journalist-turned-activist who expresses her concern over the anti-corruption campaigners taking the support of right wing nationalist parties that are bent upon dividing society. Her role proved prophetic, as a year later Modi became the Prime Minister in 2014, riding an anti-corruption wave that completely blinded the voters about his brand of divisive politics aimed at turning India into Hindu theocracy.

At the time of COVID 19, when healthcare workers continue to face challenges, Kareena’s role as a doctor in Udta Punjab (2016) needs special recognition. Preet is a doctor at a rehabilitation centre in Punjab who loses her life at the hand of a drug addict. She also tries to expose those involved in the drug trade, putting her life in jeopardy and speaking passionately for those who struggle with their addiction. The movie faced censor cuts due to political pressure, as it showed an inconvenient truth about the complicity of police and politicians in drug trafficking.

There is a long list of her roles as a feminist and confident career woman, but her performance as a sex worker in Chameli (2004) and Talaash (2012) was outstanding. As Rosie in Talaash, she became a voice of thousands of sex trade workers who are killed with impunity all over the world. The story has a special significance for Canada, where thousands of women went missing and the police remained indifferent because of their involvement in the sex trade.  

Likewise, she has acted as a rebellion lover, who goes against the wishes of her family and rejects social and class boundaries to choose a husband or a life partner in Jeena Sirf Mere Liye (2002), Talaash (2003), Mein Prem Ki Diwani Hoon (2003), Jab We Met (2007), Yuva (2004), Kyon Ki (2005) 3 Idiots (2009) and Heroine (2012).

It would be an injustice not to consider her roles as Kaurwaki in Asoka (2001) and Dolly Misra in Omkara (2006). Kaurwaki was a historical figure who was the second queen of King Asoka of India. Kareena amazed the audience with her acting skills while playing as Kaurwaki, who influenced Asoka to give up his lifestyle as a reckless warrior and become a Buddhist.

Omkara was the adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. Dolly Misra was an equivalent of Desdemona, murdered by her husband, who is made to suspect her loyalties by his detractors, including her estranged father. Kareena’s performance in the context of Indian society strictly governed by patriarchy and a  brutal caste system left viewers completely overwhelmed. 

Her exceptional performances as a villain in Fida (2004) and a person with speech disability in Chup Chup Ke (2006) were equally commendable. 

As she completes 20 years in Bollywood, a lot has  changed. With the beginning of the 2020s, one can expect Kareena to bring us more knowledge and entertainment in the backdrop of new challenges.     


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Last modified on Monday, 15 June 2020 05:51
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Gurpreet Singh

Cofounder and Director of Radical Desi


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