[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 filmChak 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).
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.
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.
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.
The obligatory declaration of cinematic patriotism for Indian Muslims necessitates a continuous performance of “loyal citizenship” invariably through offering the sacrifice of a “disloyal” one. This leaves little space for critical engagement with the nation and the state.
The obligatory declaration of cinematic patriotism for Indian Muslims (discussed in Parts I and II earlier) necessitates a continuous performance of “loyal citizenship” invariably through offering the sacrifice of a “disloyal” one. This leaves little space for critical engagement with the nation, the state, and the unending wars. An example of this ritual performance is the sequence in My Name is Khan where Rizwan Khan, played by Shahrukh Khan (SRK), reports the “doctor” in the Los Angeles Masjid to the FBI. How do we know the “bad” doctor is an al-Qaeda member or a terrorist? Dr. Faisal Rahman does indeed talk about his “blood boiling” at the oppression of the Muslim Ummah in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir et al and even exhorts the handful of audience in a completely open space inside the Masjid to “join him and do something.” The details of that “something” are never revealed.
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.”
—This essay is drawn from the opening chapter of Tony Judt’s new book,Ill Fares the Land (Penguin), first excerpted at NY Review of Books. A review of the book will follow shortly.
On the left, Marxism was attractive to generations of young people if only because it offered a way to take one’s distance from the status quo. Much the same was true of classical conservatism: a well-grounded distaste for over-hasty change gave a home to those reluctant to abandon long-established routines. Today, neither left nor right can find their footing.
For thirty years students have been complaining to me that “it was easy for you”: your generation had ideals and ideas, you believed in something, you were able to change things. “We” (the children of the Eighties, the Nineties, the “Aughts”) have nothing. In many respects my students are right. It was easy for us—just as it was easy, at least in this sense, for the generations who came before us. The last time a cohort of young people expressed comparable frustration at the emptiness of their lives and the dispiriting purposelessness of their world was in the 1920s: it is not by chance that historians speak of a “lost generation.”
If young people today are at a loss, it is not for want of targets. Any conversation with students or schoolchildren will produce a startling checklist of anxieties. Indeed, the rising generation is acutely worried about the world it is to inherit. But accompanying these fears there is a general sentiment of frustration: “we” know something is wrong and there are many things we don’t like. But what can we believe in? What should we do?