Outing the Muslimness, Finally: Some Viewing (and Hearing) Pleasures (The King is Out: Part VI)
April 30, 2010 § Leave a Comment
by Huma Dar
[I]n one scene I wanted to have just a half open door and I wanted to be shown saying namaz once. We couldn’t take that shot. Then we put that bit where I say the prayer: Nasrun minal lahe wah fatahun kareeb (God give me strength to win) [sic] [Victory is Allah's, and the opening/victory is close] which is my own prayer too. I don’t think we should intellectualise entertainment. See the fun of it.
This is how Shahrukh Khan describes his experience working in the film Chak De! India (Dir: Shimit Amin, 2007). With apologies to King Khan for discarding his proposal to not “intellectualize” films, yet taking due “fun” in it, I argue that it is only in My Name is Khan (Dir: Karan Johar, 2010) that the King finally comes “out” as a Muslim. No “half open door” is needed. This coming out affords particular visceral pleasures to an audience (or at least a large section of it spread across the globe) long resigned to seeing SRK endlessly and persistently marked by the specifically filmic variety of Hinduness practiced in Bollywood: doing various pujas and aartis at different Hindu temples, or adorning his spouses’ hair-parting with sindhoor and smearing his own forehead with tilaks. This performative Hinduization of Shahrukh Khan in Urdu-Hindi cinema is unrelenting precisely due to the dogged presumption of SRK’s Muslimness that is not easily obscured. “In my films I have been going to temples and singing bhajans; no one has questioned that,” (my emphasis) SRK exclaims in the same interview. No one “questions” the diegetic (filmic) Hinduness of SRK; it is expected and mandatory. With the increasing and explicit polarization in India since 1990s, the anxiety around Muslimness is such that it requires perpetual masking: an iterative performance of Hinduness, secular or otherwise. When the mask slips off, the performance is momentarily paused – as when SRK plays a Muslim character in a film and critiqued the anti-Pakistani politics of Indian Premier League (IPL) – Hindutva activists target SRK’s suburban Bombay home, Mannat, with massive demonstrations (See the earlier Part II for more).
Shahrukh Khan, the much-revered, feverishly popular “King of Bollywood,” in his almost two-decade-long acting career, had taken on a Muslim role in only two films, prior to My Name is Khan (2010). In the first film, Hey Ram [O Ram] (Dir: Kamal Hassan, 2000), SRK has a brief cameo role of the “good” Indian Muslim, Amjad Khan: a Pathan (Pashtun), who sacrifices his life to save Hindus on the eve of the Partition of India, 1947. In the second film, Chak De! India [Go For It, India!] (Dir: Shimit Amin, 2007), SRK plays Kabir Khan, an Indian Muslim hockey player, who has to prove that he is not a traitor (a closet Pakistani). The slur is undeserved and is erased only when he coaches the Indian women’s hockey team to victory in an international arena, while repeatedly asserting the indivisibility of India. Kabir Khan performs this by insistently asserting, “I neither hear the name of states [within India], nor do I see them. I only hear one name: I-N-D-I-A.” It is this context, the context of the “original sin” of being an Indian Muslim, connected to the Partition of India and the familiar/estranged neighbor, Pakistan — the twin separated at birth — that a Muslim character/actor/director always has to recurrently play against to overcome the always already label of a separatist, traitor or terrorist.
Shahrukh Khan has a “close brush” with Islam, Muslims, and Pakistanis in another Bollywood hit, Veer-Zara (Dir: Yash Chopra, 2004), where he plays the role of Squadron Leader Veer Pratap Singh, a discretely Sikh pilot (read: no beard, no turban) in the Indian Air Force, who falls in love with a Muslim Pakistani heiress, Zara (played by Preeti Zinta). Zara’s Muslim Pakistani fiancé, the villainous Raza (played by Manoj Bajpai), in a caricatured “violent” fit of jealousy, falsely implicates Singh for espionage in Pakistan. Raza uses his influential status to have Singh imprisoned under the fictitious name, Rajesh Rathore (a patently Hindu name). This false name coincidentally comes with a fringe benefit: “Rajesh Rathore” is prisoner number 786. The number 786 stands for the much-recited “Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim” [In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful] in Islamic numerology, and often functions as a protective talisman, particularly in South Asia. Who better than the Muslim Shahrukh Khan, to play the Sikh Veer Pratap Singh, framed as the Hindu Rajesh Rathore? “Allah” singles out these latter cinematic roles to shower blessings, via baptism with 786 – above and beyond any special favor bestowed on the adjacent Muslim prisoners. The cinematic serendipity of this numbering serves to shame the prison warden, the prison and legal system, and Pakistan at large. Singh’s lawyer, the Pakistani Muslim, Saamiya Siddiqui (played by Rani Mukherjee, neither Pakistani, nor Muslim) particularly highlights this fact to prove Singh’s righteousness in the court proceedings as well as to reprimand the warden. Even the God of the “enemy” – within [Indian Muslim] and without [Muslim Pakistanis] – especially singles out the Sikh/Hindu Indian male for this crucial consecration; such is the ultimate goodness of Singh/Rathore. The choice of casting SRK in this role, preserves a kernel of pleasure even for the Muslims in the South Asian audience who are keenly aware of SRK’s off-screen identity.
Later in the legal court, Siddiqui, cleverly and potently demonstrates that not only has everyone called Singh by a name not his own during the past twenty-two years, but also that such an experience was bound to be extremely exasperating. Sitting with two close friends, watching Veer-Zara in Bay Area’s Naz Cinema, I had wondered out loud how many years it would take for the King of Bollywood, Shahrukh Khan, to play a major Muslim role, to be called by some name adjacent to his own. Three years later, Chak De! India (2007) was released, with SRK playing his first major Muslim role: Kabir Khan. Nevertheless, here too, Kabir Khan’s Muslimness is subtle, understated, and comes inflected through the label of “ghaddaar” or traitor, a label reserved for closet Pakistanis in the Indian discursive landscape.
In a stark departure from these earlier roles, King Khan takes on the role of a practicing Muslim in My Name is Khan (2010), and is finally able to take the shot that was denied in Chak De! India – the one where SRK wanted to be shown doing the namaz (cited earlier). Through Rizwan Khan, SRK offers an entire litany of Islamic prayers and practices — from “Bismillah” to “Sura Fatiha,” from the canonical namaz (salat) to the obligatory zakat. Moreover Khan utters the Arabic expressions, “Inna lillaahe wa inna ilayehe raaje’oon,” “Masha’Allah,” and “Insha’Allah,” frequently, appropriately, and correctly, without the invariable visual foregrounding of gangsters, violence, and terrorism that have become inseparable with any invocation of Muslimness in Bollywood in the past two decades. The song “Ya Ali!” from Anurag Basu’s Gangster (2006) can serve best to illustrate this problematic trend. One almost wonders if Rizwan Khan had performed Hajj, the “fifth pillar of Islam,” might he have discovered and commingled with the Black Muslims in America more easily (Explored in the earlier Part V)? The Hajj is one of those potentially paradigmatic spiritual, social, and political events that was a turning point in the formative journey of that big Muslim hero: El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz or Malcolm X.
In the aural register, Rizwan Khan’s insistent correction of the pronunciation of his last name “Khan” as “Khan from the epiglottis” is a move that asserts his South Asianness in America – “Khan” is refusing to be assimilated into the more normalized “Kahn.” It also affirms his Muslimness in the US and in India — most Khans in India are Muslims, although there are some scattered communities of Hindu Indians who were given that title in the past and might still use it. “Khan” in Pakistan would simply be a marker of a Pathan affiliation or of an inherited title. More significantly, this emphasis on the correct pronunciation of “Khan” is a move that resists the racist and racializing twisting of “ethnic” or “foreign-sounding” names in the American as well as in the Indian milieu. “Khan” is actually pronounced with a beginning consonant that is a velar fricative rather than one from the epiglottis, yet it is a sound that is routinely and ritually mispronounced in both contexts.
The mainstream US media correctly enunciates Mitterrand’s name – arguably difficult to pronounce for English speakers due to the rolling French “r”, but chronically puts the wrong stress on Saddam’s name. This distorted enunciation of Saddam’s name reeks of Biblical Sodom and Gomorrah, even though the actual name has no sound exotic or alien to English tongues that could make it unpronounceable. Analogously, the Indian mainstream media accurately pronounces polysyllabic Sanskrit terms, but regularly mispronounces Shahrukh Khan’s first and last names. More tellingly, the Indian corporate media also consistently changes (or at least used to change until quite recently) the first name of the other big Khan of Bollywood: “Aamir” to “Ameer.” Shahrukh Khan’s first and last names both have the same velar fricative, arguably “difficult” for some Hindi speakers to enunciate, yet “Aamir” has no such “difficult” sound to trip the tongue of native Hindi speakers. Such “oversight” is not quite benign, I argue.
The attempt to systematically erase certain sounds from Indian aural terrain can be traced not just through the indigenization of “borrowed” sounds, but also through the battles between Urdu and Hindi from the turn of the nineteenth century, the power struggles between Muslims and Hindus leading to Partition, and to the state-engineered gradual loss of Urdu in mainstream India at the contemporary moment. The Indian state-run television and radio, Doordarshan and Akashvani, used to (and might still) reject at the outset, those prospective broadcasters who could correctly enunciate the “foreign” sounds. These “discouraged” sounds are those coming from Urdu, Farsi, or Arabic: ق क़ qa /q/, خ ख़ xa /x/, غ ग़ ġa /ɣ/, yet not always including ز ज़ za /z/ and ف फ़ fa /f/, that are also used in English. The choice in selecting which “borrowed” sounds are more kosher (or halal) than the others is illuminating. An especially grating rendition of this conundrum is Aishwarya Rai’s performance in J.P. Dutta’s Umrao Jan (2006). A period film based on an Urdu-speaking Muslim courtesan of Lucknow, Umrao Jan highlights Rai in the eponymous role, consistently mispronouncing Urdu words: in particular, her “Khuda” (خدا or “God” in Urdu/Farsi) becomes “khuda” (کھد١ or “dug up” in Urdu/Hindi) (See 3:44-3:47 of the linked video for an example) and so on.
In the era of permanent war, of declared and undeclared wars, on people, practices, and languages, My Name is Khan, with all its undesirable baggage, still manages to depict with some sincerity, those deemed dispensable, less grievable, more precarious, inherently threatening; those whose racialization is produced and naturalized through the ethics (or lack thereof) of war. For many of us terrified at the thought of passing check-posts that criss-cross the nation (aka airport security, “the quintessential site for post–9/11 anxieties”) and for those of us who feel progressively dehumanized by the humiliation of seeing fear and hatred in other people’s eyes, Rizwan Khan’s travails strike a chord. That Shahrukh Khan went through a somewhat similar ordeal at Newark airport brings Rizwan Khan and Shahrukh Khan closer to each other, and perhaps to us.
The King is out: he is irreversibly a Muslim. His name is Khan: pronounce it correctly please. Long Live the King: Ameen Sum Ameen!
 These fierce and naked exhibitions of public anger are somewhat reminiscent of those in December 1998 and July 1999 outside the residence of Bombay film industry’s older Muslim icon: Yusuf Khan aka Dilip Kumar. The former “exhibition” entailed about sixty Hindutva men stripping to their underwear to protest Khan/Kumar’s support of the film Fire (Dir: Deepa Mehta, 1998). In the latter protests, some Congress politicians, BJP ministers, and the expected Hindutva activists, all joined hands in demanding that Khan/Kumar return Pakistan’s highest civilian award, the Nishan-e Pakistan, which he had been awarded earlier in 1997. Refusing to acknowledge his acceptance of the Pakistani award as evidence of his infidelity to India, Yusuf Khan had retorted: “This is not a circus. Do they want to rob me of my personal dignity to prove my patriotism?” Of course, Khan/Kumar had not only gone through the official Indian procedures before formally accepting the award from Pakistan, but he was also not the first Indian to receive this award. Morarji Desai, a late former [Hindu] Indian Prime Minister, had accepted the award in 1990, yet his family was not targeted by similar protests.
 Yusuf Khan/Dilip Kumar, claimed as a role model by SRK, had exactly one Muslim role in his entire career – Shahzada Salim in the magnum opus Mughal-e Azam (Dir: K. Asif, 1960), besides a brief and stereotyped diegetic disguise as “Abdul Rahim Khan” for the Hindu Kumar in Azaad (Dir: Sriramulu Naidu S.M., 1955).
 The Sikhs, too, have a history of tortured representations in the Urdu-Hindi film industry of Bombay. The anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984 in Delhi and the waves of massacres unleashed in East Punjab following the aborted separatist movement hardly receive any screen time – Maachis (Dir: Gulzar, 1996) remains an exception. More often, Sikhs are problematically represented as the “militant wing of Hinduism” and used as a foil against the “villainy” of the Muslims, in a classic strategy of divide-and-conquer. Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (Dir: Anil Sharma, 2001), a blockbuster film, epitomizes this discourse.