The King is Out, His Name is Khan: Long Live the King (Part I)

My Name is Khan, although narratively based mostly in the USA, has to be theorized within and around the framework of Bollywood; the Urdu-Hindi film history, and its transnational circuits of production, distribution, and consumption; Shahrukh Khan’s star narrative, and the determining context of the Indian political scene along with that in the US and its “war on/of terror.”

by Huma Dar

 

The Defacing of Khan: It's Not Easy Being Muslim in Mumbai or in Newark

My Name is Khan, although narratively based mostly in the USA, has to be understood and theorized within and around the framework of Bollywood; the Urdu-Hindi film history and its transnational circuits of production, distribution, and consumption; Shahrukh Khan’s star narrative, and the determining context of the Indian political scene along with that in the US and its “War on/of Terror.”  Even prior to the Indian Partition in 1947, most Muslim artists had what Sa’adat Hasan Manto (1912-1955) mockingly called “shuddified” or Hinduized names – Dilip Kumar for Yusuf Khan, Madhubala for Mumtaz Begum Jahan Dehlavi (1933-1969), Meena Kumari for Mahjabeen Bano (1932-1972), or the more ambivalent (non-halal) Johnny Walker for Badruddin Jamaluddin Qazi (1923-2003) and Nargis for Fatima Rashid (1929-1981).  At the contemporary moment, the biggest stars of the Urdu-Hindi film industry in India are Khans: Shahrukh, Salman, Aamir, Saif Ali et al.  It might therefore be tempting to conclude that the Bombay film industry is indeed a level playing field.  The Khans are all Muslims, at least nominally.  Cinematically, they enact, with a few notable exceptions, Hindu characters.  Culturally, the vigorous fanzines of Bollywood idolize them as comfortably suave denizens of metropolitan Bombay[Mumbai] with understated or unexpressed Muslimness — their Hindu wives, girlfriends, or mothers facilitating this imagined assimilation or passing.  Of course, for regular, non-filmi (“film-related” in Urdu-Hindi) Muslim men, this assimilation through marriage to Hindu women is generally frowned upon and can have potentially fatal consequences.

My ruminations on My Name is Khan, like a typical Urdu-Hindi film, lengthy and replete with intermissions, are an entryway into not just the film as cinematic text, but also its complex and rich transnational contexts that must be read in tandem.  In a series of six thematic posts, with this as the first, I will expand on:

(i) The (B)Onus of Muslimness in Bollywood

(ii) Shahrukh Khan and the Pound of Flesh: the Cost of Stardom

(iii) Placating the gods of Citizenship: the Ritual Sacrifice

(iv) A Suitable Boy, “Decent” People, and Names that Pass

(v) The Price of Translating a Narrative and its Context

(vi) Outing the Muslimness, Finally: Some Viewing (and Hearing) Pleasures


(i) The (B)Onus of Muslimness in Bollywood

The kerfuffle around the film My Name is Khan (Dir: Karan Johar, Feb 2010) however, provides ample evidence that the playing field is far from level: the “Muslim name” carries a bonus – a fetishistic attraction – as well as an onus, and the two are intimately intertwined.  The “bonus” emerges from the polyvalent and contradictory cache of stereotypes that includes virility and hypersexuality, passion and lust, as well as sedimentations from the bygone Muslim élite culture of the Mughal court and the Nawabi era of Urdu, high-brow poetry, and stylized mannerism.  David Gold aptly calls this endowment with extra appeal of the subtly dangerous: the “accessible exotic” (2005: 127-150).

With their Muslim identities safely contained within Hindu worlds, any vestige of the raskshasa [demon] latent in those identities is liable to enhance the stars’ appeal: As long as [a Muslim star] is also seen as a kind of regular guy, would not most any male film personality like to be able to project a bit of the aura of a lusty devil? (Gold, 2005: 146-147)

To those who piously enumerate the number of masjid silhouettes and mazaars, sherwanis and ghararas, qawwalis and Urdu, tawai’fs and whirling dervishes (see Jodha Akbar (2008) and Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani (2009) for a sample of this misplacement), and Mughals and gangsters (both Muslim), in an attempt to calibrate and marvel at the “Islamicate” within Urdu-Hindi film industry, I have this to say: Although these space-time events may potentially have a kernel of ambivalent pleasure for the audience — even for the South Asian Muslims — it is crucial to include the enfolding transnational sociopolitical context as an auxiliary text that demands to be read in conjunction with the cinematic text.  Only then can we begin to deconstruct such tropes and their fetishistic employ in masking the anxiety caused by Muslims and Islam in India: the failure of the national project at its very inception, the Partition of India into India and Pakistan in 1947.

The fallout from the sexualization, racialization, and minoritization of Indian Muslims that predated and culminated in Indian Partition (1947) entails that it is still obligatory for the Muslim star to repetitively and reassuringly declare her or his patriotic credentials.  The shadow of the “traitor” (the closet Pakistani) or “terrorist” haunts the Indian Muslim and has to be frequently rebuffed and preëmpted.  Reminiscent of Du Bois’ “double consciousness” when he asks, “How does it feel to be the problem?”, this haunting gives rise to a similarly “peculiar sensation…of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on” (Du Bois, 2007[1903]: 7-8) in fascination and fear, attraction and repulsion.

To Part II