Muslim Identity and the Movie “My Name is Khan”

By Javeed Akhter
“My name is Khan” a movie that was recently released is running to full houses in India and has created quite a buzz in the expatriate south Asian communities worldwide and received reviews from many mainstream newspapers including the Chicago Tribune. This article is not a review of the movie. It is a reflection on the ironies surrounding it and its main actor Shah Rukh Khan commonly known by his initials SRK.

As Bollywod movies go, it is better than average fare. It is an example of a Bollywood pseudo epic where Rain Man and Forrest Gump meet Rizwan Khan, a Muslim Indian with Asperger’s syndrome who moves to the US just before 9/11. The movie tackles the serious social issues of stereotyping and profiling of Muslims in America with sensitivity but is marred by an uneven narrative, and fantasy filled situations, like the Katrina type episode in Georgia. The protagonist in the movie Rizwan Khan is played by SRK who turns in a superb acting performance; the movie is worth watching for his acting prowess.

But what makes the movie interesting is how fact and fiction come together. For starters SRK while he was in the US to promote the movie was stopped at the Newark Liberty airport in August of 2009 for secondary screening that lasted over an hour. Just as the protagonist in the movie SRK appears to have been profiled because he has a common Muslim last name Khan.

The movie’s imaginary tale and reality also come together in dealing with Muslim identity. A major strand of the movie is about Muslim American’s struggle in the post 9/11 world dealing with their identity. Muslim Indians in Bollywood face the same struggle. SRK is one of many Muslim Indians who are prominent in Bollywood. Four of the top tier of male movie stars in India are Khans. The most successful lyricist is Javeed Akhter my namesake. Many of the movie directors are Muslim as are scores of others who work in Bollywood. None of them are paragons of Islam nevertheless, it is apparent that they try and keep their Muslim identity hazy. SRK uses words like Insha Allah but downplays his faith. In this movie one of the characters initially takes off her Hijab and later starts wearing it back as a symbol of coming to terms with her own identity.

Muslim roles in Indian movies are highly stereotypical. Unable to produce or act in movies that reflect the status of Muslim Indians in Bollywood they take the safer and vicarious option of making a movie about a Muslim in other countries like the Muslim Americans. It is worth noting that SRK’s wife is one of the producers of this movie.

Even the slightest hint of Muslim sympathy by these actors results in a firestorm of controversy in India.

As the movie was being released SRK was slammed in India by a right wing regional group, the Shiv Sena (the army of Lord Shiva), for making a fairly innocuous statement that Pakistani cricket players should be allowed to participate in the much sought after Indian (Cricket) Premier League. SRK voiced the opinion that sports and politics should be kept apart.
This vicarious attempt to address local issues through stories about others is what we Muslim Americans do as well. Muslim Americans write freely about Islamophobia in India and Europe or Britain than in the US. Their criticism of US policies and practices on civil rights, human rights and foreign affairs are muted mostly out of fear. The fear factor is definitely there. To be a Muslim in India or the US is decidedly a nerve racking affair. After a bomb explosion in a major Mosque, the Makka Masjid, in my home town Hyderabad, many Muslim young men were rounded up and tortured; this was documented by an Indian government appointed Minority’s Commission. There are neighborhoods in cities in India where a Muslim may neither rent nor own a house or a business. This type of blatant segregation would not be tolerated in the US.

Muslims in the military, judiciary, civil and professional services and Parliament are grossly under represented both in India and the US. In the US Muslim American activists worry about becoming tangled in the vagaries of the Patriot Act.
Change in India or US will not come through Bollywood. It may come through Muslims standing up for their rights with dignity with the support of civil and human rights groups.

Javeed Akhter, a physician, is a founding member of a Muslim American group “The International Strategy and Policy Institute.”

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 March 2010 on page no. 2

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