A Suitable Boy, “Decent” People, and Names that Pass (The King is Out: Part IV)
April 22, 2010 § 3 Comments
by Huma Dar
In the second half of the film, My Name is Khan (2010), Karan Johar shows that Rizwan Khan’s wife, Mandira (played by Kajol) is on a personal journey to obtain justice for her son and accountability from the perpetrators of a hate crime. It is thus ironic that Mandira’s own negligence towards Rizwan Khan (played by SRK) and the lack of accountability for making him set off on an ostensibly unfeasible mission, albeit in a fit of grief and anger, is not problematized at all in the film. A mission that might very well have remained unfulfilled but for Rizwan Khan’s Herculean efforts, his unusual talents and disabilities, and a string of exceptional circumstances. Rizwan Khan, given his Asperger’s syndrome, “fear of new places,” and his Muslimness (actively practiced), would have been equally, if not more, susceptible to the kind of hate crime that victimized Mandira’s son. After the initial outburst at the place of death, Mandira had had enough time to re-think the consequences of her angry directive to Khan, yet she never apologizes to Khan. Here too, the immediate context of Bollywood, the multiple Hindu-Muslim marriages amongst the stars of Bombay, and the general lack of acceptance of such marriages in mainstream India are crucial to keep in mind.
Outside of India, many are not aware of the vigilante as well as “official” committees in various parts of India that work incessantly to prevent and investigate such inter-religious marriages, especially between Muslim men and Hindu women, akin to those in Israel. Shahrukh Khan is himself married to Gauri Khan, a Hindu woman. Anupama Chopra writes how SRK reveals that prior to their marriage, much before achieving stardom, “in jest,” Shahrukh Khan “offered to convert [to Hinduism],” to “change his name to Jitendra Kumar Tully,” but for the knotty problem of getting “uncircumcised”! That these “jests” only ever partially screen the underlying anxieties and tensions is a given. Jitendra Kumar Tully is, of course, a “Hindu” name.
SRK first achieved fame in the late 1980s for playing the role of a Hindu army officer, called Abhimanyu Rai, in the popular television series, Fauji [Soldier]. The first time Gauri’s father, a retired officer from the Indian army, met SRK at a party, and asked for his name, the “flustered” Shahrukh says,”Sir, you may have seen my [TV] serial. They call me Abhimanyu in the serial.” Gauri’s father told SRK to “forget about the serial” and again asked him his name. SRK responded, “Sir, my name is Shahrukh Khan.” Shahrukh Khan is a name as marked by Muslimness as Abhimanyu is by Hinduness. Gauri’s father retorted, “There are some decent people here and I don’t want to create a scene. You’d better leave soon” (Chopra, 2007: 76-77; my emphasis).
It is this framing of “decency,” names that pass and those that don’t, even identities that pass and those that must be coded, that is vital to interpreting My Name is Khan. While doing research at the National Film Archive of India in Pune, in 2006, I had to get a document notarized to get access to particular film stills. The notary public asked me if I was an “X.” Unable to comprehend him, I confessed that I wasn’t sure what he meant. He pointed to my silver ring with a Qur’anic inscription on it, and repeated his question. It dawned on me that “X” is a code for “Muslim.” The notary public came out to me as a Muslim himself, gently but firmly refused to notarize my document, and suggested that 1) I shouldn’t wear that ring publicly, outside of certain limited spaces, and 2) I seek a Hindu notary public, as my Muslimness compounded with his own had the potential to cause us both some trouble down the road. Clad in a sari that day, a dress not particularly marked by Muslimness, I could only imagine the perceived escalation in this “trouble” had I been a Muslim man. This difficulty of Muslim maleness in India is exacerbated if connected sexually to Hindu women, and intensifies further if there are children from this connection. Mandira’s less than ethical stance stemming from her regret at “marrying a Muslim [man]” and giving the surname “Khan” to her son rather than “Rathore” is simply not noticed in the hullabaloo about a Hindu woman married to a Muslim man.
 I have changed the exact code to preserve its utility for those who use and need it.
[read Part V]