The Price of Translating a Narrative and its Context (The King is Out: Part V)

Karan Johar falteringly attempts to fashion a cinematic alliance of sorts between African-Americans and South Asians — very unusual in the Bollywood context and more so for Karan Johar, himself — but fails to seize the radical politics embedded. One wishes that the spirit of this song was continuously re-thought, re-energized, re-contextualized, re-translated. A revolution that stops moving, stops “revolving,” is nothing but an aborted one.

by Huma Dar

[read Part I Part II Part III Part IV]

In an interesting twist, Karan Johar’s My Name is Khan displaces or translates (one original meaning of “translate” is to bear or carry across from one place to another) the convoluted and complex, determining context from India, with a specific genealogy, on to the US.  The post-9/11 circumstances provide some unfortunate resonances, yet much of the untranslated/untranslatable context results in the particular aporias of the filmic text.  Even beyond Mandira’s furious and irrational directive to Rizwan Khan, he has to go around saying his name is Khan and “he is not a terrorist” because in that originary terrain of imposed defensiveness there is not much space for a “Muslim name” (besides certain limited spheres), leave alone for “My Name is Khan, and I am an American.”  This latter, more “affirmative” alternative to the “apologetic” cinematic version, is proposed by Suad Abdul-Khabeer in her excellent critique of the film.

Abdul-Khabeer is absolutely correct in pointing out the extremely problematic stereotyping of African Americans in My Name is Khan and the erasure of the African-American Muslims from the cinematic warp and weft. Nonetheless, I do want to elaborate on, and complicate, Abdul-Khabeer’s reading further.  The erasure of non-stereotyped African-Americans in the film might unwittingly mirror not just the racism and “colorism” within the various Muslim communities, especially amongst South Asian Muslims, but also the “gulf” that was perceived as dividing the Black Muslims from the immigrant Muslims — a gulf “marked by race and class, culture and history” prior to September 11.  By far, it is only since post-9/11 that “uneasy alliance(s)” are being forged between the immigrant Muslims communities and the African-American Muslims at large, alliances that might have been more prevalent in the inner cities of major metropolitan areas.  Masjid Al-Waritheen in Oakland (where I would sometimes take my children for Eid) used to have very few South Asian Muslims in attendance pre-9/11.  What if Rizwan Khan had “discovered” this warm and welcoming community of mostly African-American Muslims right here in the Bay Area, where the film is set, how might the narrative of My Name is Khan have then unfolded?

A New York Salat

In a clumsy way, My Name is Khan might also demonstrate the difficulty of giving/receiving alms as a Muslim in post-9/11 America: all funds coming from or going to Muslims, are assumed tainted with the heavy suspicion of “terrorism.”  Rizwan Khan’s awkward experience at the fundraiser for Christian children in Africa, where he goes to meet Bush 43, is problematically depicted through the body of an African-American woman.  This, unfortunately, is not an unusual dilemma of liberal Indian cinema that deflects such rare confessions of racialization through the body of another Other — Mr. Cohen of Mr. & Mrs. Iyer (Aparna Sen, 2002) comes immediately to mind (See my article “Can a Muslim be an Indian and Not a Traitor or Terrorist?” for more on this).  Yet, it might very well also be the displacement on to America of what Johar/SRK cannot show happening to Muslim bodies within India itself: the expulsion and prohibition of Muslims from certain spaces.  Indian Muslims, however rich and famous, cannot always buy or rent housing in many “housing societies” that openly and unabashedly declare such prohibitions.  In the upscale Defence Colony (Def-Col) of South Delhi, a Muslim friend, exhausted after many months of looking for a place to rent in 2006, was able to secure an apartment only after she used her pre-divorce, married name.  She had been married to a Hindu man.

Andrea Elliot claims in “Between Black and Immigrant Muslims, an Uneasy Alliance”:

For many African-American converts, Islam is an experience both spiritual and political, an expression of empowerment in a country they feel is dominated by a white elite. For many immigrant Muslims, Islam is an inherited identity, and America a place of assimilation and prosperity.

In My Name is Khan, contra the “immigrant Muslims” hypothesized by Elliot, Rizwan Khan’s Muslimness is not just spiritual but is always already politicized.  (This purported binary construction of “spiritual” and “political” is blind to their sometimes overlapping and often mutually constitutive aspects, but that has to be addressed elsewhere).  In a fleeting flashback of the film, the aggressive noise from the Hindutva or Hindu nationalists’ parade, marching through a lower-middle-class neighborhood of Bombay [Mumbai], all clad in saffron, scares young Rizwan.  Also at the parade, a cheering woman, in a saffron-colored sari, beats up Rizwan.  This is the beginning of his phobia of the color “yellow” — a subtle signification of the Indian Muslim’s dread of the Hindutva forces.  Along with his mother’s simple (and simplistic) advice, in face of religious prejudice in India, that people are of only two specific kinds: good or bad, this phobia accompanies Rizwan Khan wherever he goes. Khan carries the India that he encountered with him wherever he goes.

Moreover, Rizwan’s life in a single-mother, working-class household and less-than-elite neighborhood of Bombay; his education not at formal schools, but for gratis at the hands of another minority figure, Mr. Wadia, a retired Parsi school teacher; and the surfacing of his special mechanical talents in “fixing things” when he fashions a pump to drain water from the flooded courtyard of Mr. Wadia’s dilapidated apartment complex, could all be taken as incipient signs of Rizwan’s radical, coalitional politicization within India.  While these subtle depictions might escape notice of those not conversant with the Indian context, it also needs to be pointed out that Karan Johar is unable to cinematically translate this politicization appropriately into the American context.  Karan Johar’s blunder here is at least twofold: 1) he falls for the ridiculous and anachronistic stereotypes of the “deep South,” perhaps to better show Khan as the “helper,” and 2) his politics of erasure of African-American Muslims and that of their coalitions with “immigrant” Muslims is not just so pre-9/11, but also disrespectful of people like El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (better known as Malcolm X) and Muhammad Ali, and their iconic struggles for equal rights and social justice.  Both are well-known and much-loved amongst the South-Asian Muslims.

That said, anti-racist, pro-Black, or pro-African-American are not the first descriptors that would come to mind when thinking of Urdu-Hindi films of India (or Pakistan for that matter).  Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala (1991), a romantic drama, is an exploration of the racial tensions between the Hindu community and African-Americans, yet it remains an exception to the rule, and it wasn’t produced in India.  A code word current in the Indian Hindu diaspora in the US, to discourage their children from “unsuitable” marriages is BMW: Black, Muslim, White, and reveals the “racial” hierarchy in order.  “White” being the most suitable category amongst those deemed “unsuitable.”  [One wonders where the Black Muslims would place in this hierarchy?]

Nonetheless the Urdu-Hindi version of “We Shall Overcome,” “Ham HoN GeiN Kaamyaab,” sung by Khan and Mandira during their courtship has long been an anthem of various emancipatory movements in South Asia.  If Martin Luther King Jr. was inspired by Gandhi in his heroic struggles, perhaps unaware of Gandhi’s not unproblematic ideas about race and caste, the song that inspired the civil rights movement in the US did make its way to South Asia and is now back in the US.  Thus the song’s appearance “long before … any of the film’s black caricatures” as pointed out by Abdul-Khabeer, is not as “curious” as she suggests.  Karan Johar does falteringly attempt to fashion a cinematic alliance of sorts between African-Americans and South Asians — once again, very unusual in the Bollywood context and more so for Karan Johar, himself — but fails to seize the radical politics embedded in the song.  One wishes that the spirit of this song was continuously re-thought, re-energized, re-contextualized, re-translated.  A revolution that stops moving, stops “revolving,” is nothing but an aborted one.

[read Part VI]

3 thoughts on “The Price of Translating a Narrative and its Context (The King is Out: Part V)”

  1. Of course for people like you it just does not matter that SRK has publicly declared himself to be an ambassador of Islam! Although Amitabh Bachhan for you is a Hindu Icon?

    As for SRK largely playing Hindu characters what else do you expect? Is it not obvious that 80% of India being Hindu, most of the stories will be about Hindus? Or are you suggesting that Hindu stories are the same as Muslim stories? Well they are not and they can never be.

    BTW, how many Pakistani Films have Hindu heroes ? If Big B played a Muslim Coolie, it was great but if SRK has to play Hindu it is repression! Is there any end to this kind of bigotry?

    You very nicely pointed out that Hindu Families impose a pecking order on their daughters but you might be aware that Muslim parents don’t have to because it happens to be laid out in their sacred law, a guide for all for ever!

    Curious to understand what u mean by ‘accepted’ when saying Muslim male and Hindu female marriages are not accepted?

    SRK offered to become a Hindu oh horror of horrors, repulsive!! But is it not Gauri who is called Gauri Khan? BTW how many examples are there for a equally famous Hindu Male-Muslim Female marriage where Hindu male remained a Hindu or the Muslim female became a hindu?

    You are right in claiming that nationalization project failed in 1947, but India still has to pretend that it did not. India still has to work on that Project but no such problems for Pakistanis, isn’t their nationalisation (wrong word actually) project way too successful with residual risk down to just 1.7% with potential upsides from J&K (and possibly more). (1.7% happens to be Hindu population of Pakistan)

    Reality is neither as awful as you portray nor is it as nice as you pretend.

    1. SKS Mumbai: there’s a saying, “Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true!”
      I, for one, would celebrate the ideal world where different groups of people not only get their proportional share of fair, just, and complex cinematic representations, but where the erasure and invisibilization of people officially designated to SC (Scheduled Castes), ST (Scheduled Tribes), OBC (Other Backward Castes) status and other historically oppressed categories, is reversed. That would mean that all the dwijas, the caste Hindus (Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas) would get less than 15% screen time!!

      1. “That would mean that all the dwijas, the caste Hindus (Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas) would get less than 15% screen time!!”

        Very well ! The sickness isn’t new, notwithstanding the veneers.

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