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Panelists discuss post-9/11 Muslim identity through Bollywood film

Panelists from three California universities discussed various interpretations of post-9/11 Muslim identity in a discussion framed around the popular and recently released Bollywood film “My Name is Khan.”

The Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies held the panel last night in Cubberley Auditorium to discuss the relationship between cinematic cultures, religious actions and identity. Entitled “Naming the Muslim: Cinema and its Religions,” the panel featured Priya Jaikumar, associate professor of cinematic arts at the University of Southern California; Aishwary Kumar, assistant professor of modern South Asian history at Stanford; and Saba Mahmood, associate professor of cultural anthropology at UC-Berkeley.

Panelists from several California universities discuss the way cultural and religious identity is reflected in the popular Bollywood film "My Name is Khan" in a panel hosted by the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies on Wednesday evening. (MASARU OKA/Staff Photographer)

“My Name is Khan,” which was released this year, depicts the travails of an autistic Muslim man named Rizwan Khan in post-9/11 America. His family is shattered by prejudice toward Muslims, so he decides to embark on a quest to tell the President of the United States that his name is Khan and he is not a terrorist.

Abbasi Program Director Shahzad Bashir prefaced the panelists’ discussion by providing a brief overview of the film’s focal point.

“The critical statement throughout this film is, ‘My name is Khan and I’m not a terrorist,’” Bashir said. “One way to explain what happens is to take apart that statement. There are two parts: My name is Khan, a question of Muslim identity; and there’s the question of action, I am not a terrorist. This is a negation of guilt by association. That’s the most obvious part of the film.”

“But when we try to see what happens in the film, based on the things he does, if being Muslim is not about being a terrorist, then what is it about?” he asked.

Jaikumar said one aspect distinguishing “My Name is Khan” from other Indian films is its departure from the use of India as a backdrop against which discussions of religious difference are contextualized.

“India as a primary axis against which religion is defined disappears,” she said. “The Indian nation state disappears, but what is it replaced by? I have some suggestions. One could argue it is replaced by a more implicit India, which is portrayed by Khan’s way of looking at the world. Looking at the world in a new way is a thing the film insists Khan can do for the rest of the world.”

Kumar said the decision to make the protagonist of the film autistic renders him pre-political in a way, since he is completely impervious to indoctrination by social pressures. Kumar said this trope, combined with Khan’s tendency to inflict suffering on himself throughout the film, at first suggests a Gandhian interpretation of the character, though this interpretation ultimately falls short.

“Despite the fact that Khan evokes Gandhian principles, he balks in one very significant way,” he said. “When Gandhi was charged with sedition at the end of the World War I, one of the things he did was to question the legitimacy of the court. He said the British had no right to try him. Khan is not given that choice. He never becomes fully capable of questioning the legitimacy of the court or the imperial sovereign power, in this case embodied by the United States. In the end, his very selfhood as a Muslim [is] grounded in an idea that is dictated by the sovereign empire.”

Mahmood said the decision to make Khan autistic reminded her of certain phenomena in films about African Americans before the 1950s. Mahmood said such films generally portrayed African Americans as stammering and emotionally inept. In the same way, “My Name is Khan” portrays the Muslim protagonist with a childlike innocence.

“Khan’s ability to redeem himself precisely lies in his emotional ineptitude,” she said.

“The message seems to be that no Muslim man can really quite redeem himself or redeem Islam unless he is mentally and emotionally challenged, and insofar as he is challenged he is therefore innocent,” she added.

Yet Mahmood said that there is a political message behind the film, as evidenced by the scene in which Khan reports a group of Muslim men to the FBI.

“Khan goes from pre-political to being extremely political, in handing over fellow Muslims, which becomes his own story of redemption from torture by the United States government,” she said. “So I think I would say that he does not secede from politics — he represents politics of a particular kind.”

Students at the talk found the panelists’ discussion to be engaging, offering some unexpected points of view.

Elahe Popat is a freshman in a PWR course about the rhetoric of India and Indian cinema. She said she was interested in the panel because of her own Muslim identity.

“I found most striking the commentary on the portrayal of a ‘good Muslim’ and the comparison in the film of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims,” she said. “As this is a central theme in the film, [one of the panelists’] interpretation was unique in that it mentioned that the film depicted it necessary for a ‘good Muslim man’ to be mentally handicapped. Although I didn’t always agree, it was a striking interpretation.”

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