My Name Is Khan

A well-intended yet misguided movie that’s unnecessarily melodramatic, painfully long and filled with stereotypical caricatures that merely exist to incessantly attest and affirm the same point (again and again and again!) that “A Muslim can be a nice person too.”

But technical issues aside, the movie inadvertently makes the same “group-think” error that it so humbly tries to rebuke. The correct response to denounce the claims of Islam’s tendency to propagate violence is not “Hey look over here! See, Muslims are nice people too!”. You’re just trying to put them on the “right” side of the divide — while accepting that such (crude and singular) division exists.

When one tries to describe an individual in terms of a single dimension – be it her religion, culture of ethnicity – all other associations and affiliations that this individual has are conveniently ignored. And what you end up with is a grossly incomplete, flawed and narrow understanding of that individual.

The protagonist in My Name Is Khan is shown to be a devout Muslim who continually chants his prayers, who donates handsomely to the 9/11 victim fund because that’s what a true Muslim would or should do. He opposes the justifications for a violent jihad – not because he’s a good human being, but because he’s a good Muslim (who happens to disagree with a nascent terrorist organization’s leader’s interpretation of a Koranic/Biblical story).

This reminds me of the classic example of a presupposition/trick question: “Are you still beating your wife?” If the respondent answers yes or no he’s admitting that he had beaten his wife in the past. Similarly, “Are Muslims bad people?” question presupposes that the humanity can be preeminently classified into discrete and distinct groups and defined based on religion… that the world can be seen (and analyzed) not as a collection of people, but as a federation of religions and civilizations.    

While Islamist militants have good reason to deny all the identities of Muslims other than that of Islamic faith, it is not at all clear why those who want to resist that militancy also have to rely so much on the interpretation and exegesis of Islam, rather than drawing on the many other identities that Muslims also have. [From Identity and Violence, Amartya Sen]

What the makers of My Name Is Khan failed to understand is: the problem is not that of incorrect attribution, but that of monoculturalism (i.e. civilizational or religious partitioning that confines human beings into “little boxes”) and disregard of individual identities at the behest of a group identity.

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6 responses to “My Name Is Khan

  1. rags

    I want to see MNIK only for Kajol. Oh, those beautiful eyes! A very expressive actor, I wonder if she has a good role in this movie…

    Though I am a great SRK fan myself most of his movies with very few exceptions lack depth. And considering this is a Karan Johar movie I’m not all that surprised by the stereotypical portrayal and the desperate attempts to show Khan as a ‘good muslim’. KJohar is an average filmmaker at best. I only hope the Asperger sydrome angle too has not been stereotyped and overdramatized.

    Will try to catch this one on DVD.

    “While Islamist militants have good reason to deny all the identities of Muslims other than that of Islamic faith, it is not at all clear why those who want to resist that militancy also have to rely so much on the interpretation and exegesis of Islam, rather than drawing on the many other identities that Muslims also have. ”
    I think there is a basic flaw in that argument. While I understand that it is important for people of other religion not to depend on interpretations of Koran or Islam to judge Muslims, I feel it is the average Muslim (even the so called moderate ones) who tend to look at the Koran and hadith for justification.

    • Vishal

      Kajol’s role as a *mother* had some really good potential in this movie, but her character is hastily sidelined in the later half of the movie, and she ended up being *Khan’s wife* only.

      >> [I]t is the average Muslim (even the so called moderate ones) who tend to look at the Koran and hadith for justification.

      Sen’s argument was pertaining to how one group of people view/analyze/generalize others. But in his book Identity and Violence, surprisingly, there’s no mention of how one’s view of her own self can influence how she is perceived from the outside.

      Identity is often forced on people (like how I am almost always seen as a Hindu in spite of me being an atheist), but – as you’ve mentioned – if an individual is adamant on defining herself using a singular dimension, then we can’t blame the outsider to use the same singular identity to define/understand/analyze that individual (or group of individuals)…

      I guess recognition of the plurality of identity is important to understand others as well as one’s own self too….

  2. nikhil

    good write-up!! its just that the whole country is licking up to karan johar and SRK, that no one is really giving a good, on the face review. it is one of those taboo topics where if you disagree, you shall be looked upon as a hater, a communal being and so on. it is just plain that, the movie is bad only cause the script is, say what, shit. the movie had very good potential, but it all went down the drain later. Everyone are praising the script to the seventh heaven!! that, people, is simply disgusting but the pinnacle of commercial and paid review. Lets go capitalism!!! 🙂

    • Vishal

      >> it is one of those taboo topics where if you disagree, you shall be looked upon as a hater, a communal being and so on.

      I had a related personal experience: I went to see this movie with a new acquaintance who happens to be a Muslim. When he asked me if I liked the movie and I said I didn’t, an uncomfortable yet smug smile appeared on his face which clearly implied “I thought so. You wouldn’t understand.” I was taken aback and had to clarify that I didn’t like the movie because of its technical flaws, loopholes in script, and above all its reliance on stereotyping. But I don’t think that convinced him!

  3. Vishal,
    I read many of your blogs and I found them intelligent. I think you need to watch some good movies like ones made by Abbas Kiarostami,Bergman, Truffaut or Antonioni. Bollywood is certainly an insult for intelligent folks. I have not seen any bollywood movies in the last 13 yrs and I consider myself a serious cinephil.

    -Sudhir

    • Vishal

      Thank you, I am humbled!

      Yes, I definitely need to explore movies by acclaimed directors such as the ones you’ve mentioned. And your generalization about Bollywood (an insult to our intelligence) is correct to a great extent, but in the last decade things have started to change, IMO. Directors like Anurag Kashyap and Vishal Bhardwaj are taking Bollywood to new heights. We certainly have a long way to go before we can stand shoulder to shoulder with world-class movie-makers. In India, movies are primarily a medium of entertainment as opposed to a craft or art. And some of the new directors deserve praise for their efforts to push the envelop and deliver a product that has a commercial appeal while doing as fewer compromises with the art as possible.

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