Bollywood After 9/11 – The Depiction of Islam and the West in Indian Cinema

Since the dramatic events of 9/11, Bollywood cinema has shown an unusual interest in the terrorist film genre, especially as regards to international terrorism and global tensions between Islam and the West. Striking examples of this genre include Kabir Khan’s New York (2008), Karan Johar’s My Name is Khan (2010), Rensil D’Silva’s Kurbaan (2009) and Apoorva Lakhia’s Mission Istanbul, to name a few. Films like Anil Sharma’s Ab Tumhare Hawale Watam Sathiyo (2004) and Subhash Ghai’s Black and White (2008) focus on terrorist issues within the Indian subcontinent itself. The latter films have continued in the tradition of pre 9/11 terrorist films like Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Mission Kashmir (2000), Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se (1998) and Bombay (1995). Ratnam’s Bombay dealt with the devastating Hindu and Moslem riots in 1991, which cost over a 1000 lives. Chopra’s Mission Kashmir dealt with a scenario of local terrorist activity in the Kashmir region sponsored by international terrorist cells working from Afghanistan. In this way the terrorist genre is not an entirely new genre in Bollywood, nor is terrorism an unfamiliar phenomenon in the day to day activities of the Indian subcontinent (the most recent and brutal terrorist attack was the Mumbai massacre in 2008). What makes the recent spate of terrorist films interesting is that they have entered the global sphere and have become part and parcel of a transnational dialogue between East and West and Islam and the other.

To make the terrorist genre more palatable, Bollywood has traditionally spiced up the violence and suspense with the hallmark Bollywood song and dance interludes and sentimental romantic exchanges between the hero and heroine. Mission Kashmir is notorious for its graceful dances and stirring emotional exchanges between the main protagonists, played out on the violent backdrop of terrorism in Kashmir. Mani Ratnam’s Bombay likewise mixes up the most brutal scenes of Hindu and Moslem hatred and violence with delicious comedy and a forbidden love affair between a pious Moslem girl and a boy from a highly placed Shaivite Hindu family. His father is the trustee of the village temple and both the family patriarchs are violently opposed to the children marrying outside their caste and religious community.

Karan Johar’s My Name is Khan

Following in the Bollywood tradition of mixing genres (known in the industry as the masala or spicy recipe film), Karan Johar’s My Name is Khan blends comedy and romance with the political hot potato of post 9/11 bigotry and racial hatred in the US. The film’s theme of ultra-nationalist extremism culminates in the senseless killing of a young Indian boy Sam or Sameer, who is beaten to death by youths in the football ground, in part due to the adopting of his stepfather’s name Khan. Overflowing gushes of emotion and heart stirring romantic songs, such as the mixing of the 1960’s counter culture anthem “We Shall Overcome” (sung in both Hindi and English), occur throughout the film to both lighten the tension and to exemplify the presence of light and hope in a world darkened by the bitter shadow of global terrorism. The fact that the central protagonist Rizvan Khan is a pious Moslem, and politically neutral to the hysteria of the debate, is significant. Brought up by his mother that there are no fixed labels such as Hindu and Moslem, but only good and bad people, Rizvan Khan freely practises his religion with equal love and respect for all other races and creeds, only differentiating between what is in the hearts and minds of people, not to what religion they profess, or to what race, culture and nationality they belong.

My Name is Khan is also significant for Bollywood fans in that it reunites the biggest heart throb couple of Hindi cinema from previous decades, Kajol and Shah Rukh Khan. The duo was previously paired in two of Karan Johar’s earlier blockbusters Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1995) and Kabhi Kushi Kabhie Gham (2001). Both of these films were sentimental gushy romances, literally overflowing with juicy outpourings of emotion and feeling; a phenomenon which is termed rasa in India. The song and dance sequences were also very elaborately staged and combined a balance of the traditional Indian music and dance forms (Hindustani music and traditional folk dances) as well as modern Western forms. This ensured the films’ immense popularity in both India and diaspora countries like Canada, the US and the UK.

Karan Johar continues to utilise the Bollywood masala formula in My Name is Khan, exploiting a sentimental and occasionally drawn out love affair between the autistic hero Rizvan Khan and his eventual Hindu wife Mandira, a proprietor of a successful hair dressing salon in San Francisco (the “city of love” which symbolizes the 1960s counter culture movement exploited by Johar in the “We Shall Overcome” sequence). In the preliminary scenes of the film, America is portrayed as the land of freedom and opportunity, the nation where all races and religions are given the possibility to move forward and achieve prosperity and happiness in a way that is seen to be almost impossible in a country like traditional India, buffeted as it is with caste and religious prejudices and between half and two thirds of its population living in poverty.

For foreign nationals or NRI’s (non-resident Indians), however, 9/11 radically changes this formula and shatters the American dream nurtured for decades by an Indian diaspora which has merged its Indian cultural roots with American ideals of individual freedom and consumer prosperity. According to Johar’s film, this is now the plight of the Khans who, instead of continuing to act as fully integrated members of the mainstream community, now suddenly find themselves on the periphery of a post-9/11″us and them” rhetoric, fuelled by an ultra-nationalist Republican President, who perceives the world in black and white realities, which have little to do with the everyday lives of the average individual. It is no coincidence that it is the newly elected President Barack Obama (played by his look alike Christopher B. Duncan) who greets Rizvan Khan at the end of the movie and applauds him for his faith in God and his humanity and perseverance. For Karan Johar, Obama’s election is symbolic of the “us and them” divisions in the US psyche being brought to a close along with the restoration of the innate ideals for which the American Republic and its people stand.

Before the nation’s divisions are healed, however, the Khan’s experience extreme personal hardships due to their ethnicity. These hardships culminate in the tragic death of their teenage son Sameer, beaten to death in the school playing field by racist youths. In her grief, Sameer’s mother Mandira blames her husband Rizvan, accusing him of the fact that if she and her son had not taken the name of Khan, he would not be dead. She then tells him that the only way he can atone for this stigma of being a Khan and, by implication a Moslem, is to meet the US President (at the time it is George W. Bush) and to tell him that: “My Name is Khan and I am not a Terrorist.” This simple phrase becomes a kind of mantra throughout the film, powerfully confronting the viewer’s post-9/11 prejudices by refusing to link the two concepts of Islam and terrorism together: i.e. my name is Khan, therefore I am a Moslem, but at the same time just because I am a Moslem, does this mean that I am a terrorist? Unhappily, during the hysteria that followed in the wake of 9/11 for many Westerners the two terms, Moslem and terrorist became pretty much synonymous.

This is a film therefore which, unlike its predecessors, is not only aimed at instructing Indians and West Asians (it broke all records in Pakistan), but is also aimed at educating and enlightening Westerners. This it does in a very subtle and didactic way, not only through its exploitation of familiar West Asian icons, but also through its exploration of themes and images universal to the US and the West: the 1960s counter culture, the plight of the coloured people in the South and references to the civil rights movement via the film’s theme song “We Shall Overcome.” This famous anti-establishment song from 1960s when sung in Hindi by a devout Moslem in a black gospel church gives the audience an almost surreal feeling of both merging and, at the same time transcending, national, racial and socio-religious cultural borders: a path to world brotherhood and unity which has been courageously expounded by two of the twentieth century’s great spiritual leaders, India’s Mahatma Gandhi and America’s Martin Luther King.

Karan Johar thus draws upon both the Western ideals of liberty and individualism, as well as propounding the roots of West Asian religious piety and communal solidarity. By doing this My Name is Khan proposes an alternate model of global brotherhood and transnational identities and exchanges. This new global model for Johar is one which draws its inspiration and ideals from the grass roots level- from the poor coloureds of Georgia, from the socially ostracised Moslems, and from the autistic and mentally handicapped. All of them are an integral part of this global humanity and in the end the figure of Shah Rukh Khan, the biggest megastar in the global forum today (including Hollywood), speaks for all of them, when he says my name is Khan and I am not a terrorist, not an outcaste and not a threat to the US or the essential values which it seeks to export to the rest of the world. Rather, as pious Moslems, those like Rizvan Khan have something of value to contribute to the US and the West, and when those in power allow them to do so, the essential values which have made the US great can not only be maintained but increased and broadened. On the other hand, ultranationalist extremist practises will only create more and more hatred and division, so that even those who have assimilated the American Dream will grow to become its most sworn enemies. This is the main theme of Kabir Khan’s New York, which I will briefly discuss in part two of this article.

Kabir Khan’s New York

Although not as successful at the box office as Karan Johar’s blockbuster, Kabir Khan’s New York is perhaps an even more interesting example of the transnational trend in the Bollywood terrorist genre. Released in 2008, New York focuses on the lives of three trendy young Indians studying at New York State University together. The usual Bollywood masala romance dominates the first half of the film, focusing on a sentimental love triangle between Maya (Katrina Kaif), Sameer or Sam (John Abrahams) and Omar (Neil Mukesh). Both Katrina Kaif and John Abrahams, as well as Irrfan Khan (playing the FBi agent Roshan) are well established stars in Bollywood (Irrfan Khan also starred as the policeman who interrogates the main protagonist in Slumdog Millionaire). And the presence of these stars, along with the solid musical score and the dramatic love triangle scenario, assured the film’s success despite its controversial theme. Significantly, Sam and Maya fall in love and shatter Omar’s emotional world at around the same time as the two hijacked passenger planes are driven into the Twin Towers. As with My Name is Khan, actual footage of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre is utilised in the film.

From this point onwards, a film which has been mostly centred upon a sentimental love conflict between three friends now becomes a political indictment of the Bush administration’s post-9/11 terrorist policies. Sam, as part of the FBI’s nationwide hunt for terror suspects, is arrested, incarcerated and tortured. These tortures are graphically depicted in the film and are apparently based on true life accounts of innocent victims, who have been illegally arrested and incarcerated for no other reason than their having the wrong ethnic background and religious persuasion. During the final credits a grim note to this effect informs the viewers of the facts that: “In the days following 9/11 more than 1200 men of foreign origin in the US were illegally abducted, detained and tortured for as long as 3 years. The government did not find evidence linking a single one of them to the 9/11 attack….”

The central protagonist Sam or Sameer functions as a prototype for these 1200 men. Indeed, from being a totally assimilated American before his torture and arrest, Sam now becomes a Moslem Jihadi, fusing his hatred for the United States with that of terrorist cells in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East. His old friend Omar is recruited by the FBI to spy on Sameer and his Hindu wife Maya and to crack open Sameer’s links to international terrorist cells. Omar is coerced into betraying his friends at the threat of disappearing into the FBI’s custody and being tortured for months on end as Sameer had been. In this way, even if the film does not actively promote Jihad as a fundamental tenet of Islam, it does portray a sympathetic psychological profile of the terrorist mind-set. Sameer’s friend Omar eventually understands this also when he is given Sam’s story and the barbaric nature of the ordeals he has had to endure and which have caused him to become an international terrorist.

Unlike Rizvan Khan, who has no qualms about informing the FBI about the fanatic Doctor Faisal’s terrorist plot in My Name is Khan, New York’s Omar is torn between his sympathies for his friend Sam/Sameer and the US system of liberty and justice, which he sees as being seriously undermined by George Bush’s invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and his repressive domestic policies in the US, where under the Patriot Act fundamental individual rights and liberties of American citizens are apparently violated for no other reason than that they are of another ethnicity, culture and religious persuasion than the mainstream white majority. Omar, as the voice of reason and sensibility in New York, also represents the neutral observer, who is both within the system (he is educated at New York State University) and is outside it (he is an NRI national from Delhi living in the US). He has also been in love with Sam’s wife Maya but has tried to detach himself from these feelings, indeed from feeling anything at all. As such his decision to infiltrate his friend’s terrorist group and take part in its Jihad is significant. Omar is an “undecideable”; he is unsure of his identity, unsure of his ideals and his loyalties. Eventually, he betrays Sam and his group and communicates Sam’s plan to blow up the FBI headquarters to the FBI agent Roshan and the relevant authorities.

Despite promises from Roshan and the FBI executive heads, both Sameer and Maya are shot dead by FBI snipers during negotiations for Sameer’s surrender. According to Kabir Khan’s controversial film, this kind of FBI brutality and overkill is symptomatic of the new post-9/11 ultra-nationalist America which, in its unrelenting quest to punish the guilty, also leaves in its wake the bloodied corpses of the innocent: not just Maya, but arguably also Sam himself. This is a theme which has been taken up courageously and sometimes uncompromisingly by Hindi cinema.

Another powerful example of this uncompromising condemnation of post-9/11America occurs in Rensil D’Silva’s Kurbaan. Here, in an open discussion university forum, the main protagonist Riyaaz condemns US intervention in Afgahanistan and Iraq, claiming that the world’s biggest terrorists are the white super powers. Riyaaz informs the ethnic white students present about certain uncomfortable realities in US politics, such as the fact that the Taliban was a creation of the CIA and that more than 500,000 civilians were killed in Iraq. Much to the horror and consternation of the students present, Riyaaz concludes his speech by saying that “just because you wear a suit and call yourself President does not make you any less a terrorist.” This is pretty bold stuff and seems to be reflective of the growing dissatisfaction of certain Bollywood filmmakers towards a period in history where the West appeared to go totally wrong taking the downward path from humanitarian ideals of universal equality and democracy to policies of religious bigotry and totalitarianism.

Interestingly, although these themes have also been taken up by Hollywood, in films such as James Cameron’s Avatar, they have been depicted in a less direct way. In Avatar, for example, the” shock and awe campaign” unleashed upon the indigenous inhabitants of the planet Pandora (clearly a reference to Bush’s shock and awe campaign against Iraq), occurs in the context of an ingenious fantasy universe, where the brutality of corporate capitalism and US neo-imperialist policies is downplayed in that it not only happens in the safety of another continent, as with Iraq and Afghanistan, but occurs on another planet entirely!

The new Bollywood terrorist genre is therefore a more uncompromising and indeed disturbing contribution to the global debate than films like Avatar. This is due to the fact that West Asian directors depict terrorist activity from the contemporary political standpoint, along with exploring relevant issues connected with the stigmatised cultural and ethnic group, which has been largely denied a voice in this debate ever since the 9/11 event took place. As has traditionally been the case in Indian cinema, the new Bollywood terrorist genre gives the Moslem minorities a voice, telling their story from the inside, making them subject and not object and narrating the plot from the perspective of their culture, religion and community base. In My Name is Khan, for example, Rizvan’s sister in law Hasina is persuaded to remove her hijab (head scarf) after being attacked and having it forcibly removed by an unknown assailant. Eventually, she restores the hijab to her everyday dress, including her lecturing job at university. Here she says to her students: “M y hijab is not just my religious identity. It is a part of my existence. It is me.”

In Rensil D’Silva’s Kurbaan, the central protagonist Riyaaz is also instrumental in educating white university students about their preconceptions of Islam as a violent religion and the Koran as a scripture promoting Jihad. Riyaaz flatly informs the students that the word Jihad is in fact mentioned in the Koran only 41 times, but that the term mercy and compassion is mentioned 355 times. In this way, the film’s viewers are also informed that Islam is predominantly a religion of compassion and peace and not violence and bloodshed, as right wing vested interest groups have led us to believe in the past decade or so.

It is these perspicacious insights from within the socio-religious roots of West Asian culture which makes Indian cinema, often dismissed in the West as sentimental and trivial, such a profoundly didactic medium from which audiences, especially in the West, can increase their scant knowledge about the psychology behind Hindu and Moslem icons and spiritual practises. In an increasingly global world, where these icons and practises are continually crossing over and clashing with Western standards, this knowledge and awareness is not only relevant to us in the West, it is fundamental to our very existence.

Films like New York and My Name is Khan are an integral part of the teaching of that awareness.

Robert Rintoull

PhD Graduate

Copenhagen University

Digital Editor

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