Bollywood Imagines the Good (and Bad) Muslim
My Name is Khan...and I am not a terrorist is the already ubiquitous chorus from the most recent Bollywood blockbuster to cross over to western audiences. The film seeks to engage American anxieties around nationalism and race and at the same time reveals similar commentaries about India. Omer Shah reviews the film and asks: are we ever able to construct Muslim identities without the notion of terrorist?
Shahrukh Khan has told us time and time again that his name was Rahul or Raj or Arjun. Quite obviously, his latest film, My Name is Khan offers something different—an articulation of Muslim identity—a rare Bollywood moment. The articulation is not only symbolic for Rizwan—Khan's character in the film—but is also a "coming out" of sorts for off-screen Khan. The film seeks to interrogate rather huge and seemingly disparate issues, everything from autism, racial profiling, terrorism, and Hurricane Katrina. In general, it has many flaws—mostly revolving around the questions of "the terrorist" in Islam and other failures in representing the United States.
My Name is Khan is not the first Bollywood film to tackle Indian Muslim identity politics in a post 9/11 America. Before My Name Is Khan, there was New York and Kurbaan. These films were seen in the typical Bollywood outlets from Mumbai to Jackson Heights. My Name is Khan on the other hand, is more of a spectacle. Khan was released by Fox Searchlight and saw a massive release in the United States and quite frankly, everywhere. Of the handful of Hindi-language films that have seen wider releases in the United States, Khan is unique in that it posits a sharp critique of the American political system. Monsoon Wedding, Slumdog Millionaire, among other films releases in the United States that have the effect of representing Bollywood sensibilities were generally toothless—or rather merely showed the Indian state or family in crisis. By exploring questions of race and identity, My Name Is Khan seeks to engage American anxieties around nationalism and race; at the same time, the film reveals similar commentaries about India. Although many famous Bollywood directors and actors are Muslim and many Bollywood consumers are Muslim, Muslim narratives are generally unavailable and when they are, they typically rest on common representations of Muslims as terrorists or the slum dwelling masses. Considering this, My Name is Khan is new ground.
Last summer, the film received some unfortunate, although revealing publicity as real life Khan was detained at Newark airport for a security screening. The incident mirrors the opening of the film, which shows Rizwan detained at an airport in California. Furthermore, in India, Khan and the film were both under fire as the Shiv Sena, a right-wing political organization based in Mumbai, staged protests and attempted to interrupt the films release. Shiv Sena activists were quick to site an incident where Khan voiced criticism that no Pakistani cricket players were selected for the Indian Premier League. In the end, over a thousand Shiv Sena activists were arrested by Mumbai police. The cinema in Mumbai was open to the public, but transformed into a veritable security site.
Despite my interest and perhaps others' in reading this film as a "Muslim" narrative, Khan has been highlighting other aspects of the film, namely the love story. But, pointing our attention to the emotional inter-personal narrative is misleading—and perhaps a play that was borrowed from the Brokeback Mountain public relations team—because that too was just a love story?
Moving beyond the love story, Khan is also often discussing the fact that he is playing a man who has Asperger's syndrome. The film begins with some disclaimer reminding audiences about the topic at hand; however, the text swipes away rather quickly, rendering whatever intent entirely performative. More generally, I have some questions regarding how necessary this condition was for this role? My fear is that it is being used rather disingenuously—as an effort to make the population more sympathetic to a Muslim narrative, to render a Muslim protagonist as always and completely innocent.
The opening of the film shows a young Rizwan struggling to fit in at school and at home—classmates taunt him and his brother is jealous of the special attention his mother and others pay Rizwan. As a youth, Rizwan parrots some anti-Hindu rhetoric to his mother, to which his mother teaches a lesson in morality that haunts the rest of the film. In short, Rizwan's mother teaches her son that the categories of "Muslim" and "Hindu" are not coherent categories with which to judge others, but suggests that categories of "good" and "evil" are more useful. This suggestion then becomes informative to the film at large—where we are constantly qualifying other Muslims and Hindus with those terms throughout the film.
Eventually, Rizwan finds himself in America. He works as a salesman for his brother Zakir's Muslim beauty supply company. While on a site visit to some Orientalist salon, Rizwan meets Kajol or Mandira—our beautiful Hindu protagonist who is also a single mother. The two eventually marry and amidst communal conflict around the question of religion—the conflict eventually resolving itself in the wake of the September 11th attacks in New York.
The film portrays the horrors that Muslim Americans—or rather, South Asian Muslims in America faced in the wake of 9/11. Mandira abandons her business. Rizwan and Mandira's journalist-neighbor-friend dies in Afghanistan. And worse still for our protagonists, Mandira's son is slain in a hate crime at school. This death then pulls Khan and Mandira apart. In a pretty unforgivable moment, Mandira asks her husband to leave, her logic being that if she did not marry a Muslim, her son would be alive still. This is where the film's chorus originates—Mandira charges him with the task of informing the President that he in fact, is not a terrorist. He is not to return to her until he does this.
Through Rizwan's travels we see the American countryside, which serves as an exotic setting for our lonely and exhausted protagonist. On the road, Rizwan meets Hindus, Muslims, and African Americans. Rizwan meets an anti-Muslim Hindu at a motel and some shameful Muslims who try to stop Rizwan from throwing down his namaz outside a diner. Later, he finds himself in Georgia, where he meets black America—two characters we call Mamma Jenny and Funny Hair Joel. Jenny and Joel live in shacks and spend a great deal of time in church. Quite clearly, as Bollywood attempts to humanize Muslims, it leans on shallow, tired, and racist stereotypes in its handling of black America.
Another unfortunate cinematic moment comes when Rizwan stumbles upon a mosque where some Muslim-American doctor is calling for jihad. Khan interrupts this Muslim-American terrorist conference and attempts to offer corrective readings of the faith. Rizwan storms out, but before doing so throws three stones at the men in question—a religious reference that would not be lost on Muslim audiences. However, shaming through symbolic Muslim ritual was not enough. Rizwan saw something, so he said something. Rizwan travels along and attempts to meet President Bush, but instead finds himself arrested under the suspicion of terrorism. Despite a bunch of ACLU-types, two Desi journalism majors, and one Sikh reporter—who removed his turban and cut his hair after 9/11, but now was filled with moral outrage and perhaps some shame from our uppity desi-reporter friends—all on the case, it was Khan's terrorism report that got him out of jail. To review, if you see something you should say something, because later it might get you out of the clutches of racially motivated internment.
The drama continues after Khan's release—which, by the way, has everyone in America psyched. We learn that an epic hurricane is battering the small town in Georgia where Jenny and Joel live. Khan braves the elements and travels to the epicenter of the storm where he finds much tragedy. Jenny and Joel are safe and seeking refuge in the church. In the end, Khan single-handedly saves small-town Georgia; his post-internment stardom inspires Muslims from all over the country to brave the storm and help. In short, the Muslims band together to help systematically disenfranchised communities when the American state actors will not. An awesome example of Muslim solidarity with other communities of color, or more Muslims-are-good-people-too pandering?—I'm not entirely sure. Either way, the bad Muslims are quick to spoil the good Muslim's efforts—Rizwan is stabbed by a supporter of the "terrorist" who he had arrested. In the end, Rizwan is OK. Mandira is back and soon enough he will meet President Obama—who along with the rest of America knows Khan is not a terrorist.
In America, the reaction to the film has focused on some interest in understanding how India sees America—which after viewing the film, one can understand America as deeply flawed. Yet at the same time, the film reveals much about India and its own crisis around the Muslim question and the question of Pakistan in the specter of the Mumbai attacks in 2008. The connection between India and the United States becoming all too clear as lazy journalists and other political actors were quick to speak of India's 9/11. Unfortunately, the conversation based on this film does not get us very far—for the terrorists are still inexplicably just that—terrorists. The film's chorus then is trapped to these identities that we never explain—nor are we able to construct Muslim identity without? However, if we edit the adage down to "My Name Is Khan"—to the simple reminder of Muslim-ness, or a first attempt at such a representation, the spaces where the film and real-life meet are far more exciting and hopeful.