Posts Tagged ‘reviews’

In the wake of the whole “Jihad Jane” controversy that seems to have taken the web by storm, I find it particularly interesting that a movie has emerged in the past month about a man who is mistaken for a terrorist. While I can name at least one person who didn’t appreciate the film’s merits, I think that there’s a little more to be said (a week later) about this Bollywood marvel.

Bear in mind that I am not agreeing with the glowing reviews (like this one) that Bolly-enthusiasts have given it. My Name is Khan is a flawed film from the outset with American audiences, I think, if just for the touchy subject matter — the plight of American Muslims and the discrimination they have suffered post-9/11 — or perhaps the medium. To quote Katie on this one: “Heaps of choral surges accompanying tacky panning views.”

I’m still divided.

Maybe it’s my distinct sense of camp inherited from my father (who has a developed love for the slapstick of Looney Tunes), but I fond at least the first half of the film compelling; if the goal of art (any art!) is to develop sympathy between the artist and the audience, mission accomplished. Rizvan Khan (“Khan…khan, with a ‘kh,’ from the epiglottis.”) was lovable and relatable as a man with Asperger’s syndrome can be; I personally think that the first half was moderately akin to an Indian Forrest Gump, and just as heartwarming. It takes a cold, cold heart indeed to watch a man with a mental disability overcoming the prejudices of everyday life (nothing Muslim at this point) and not feel like he should get the beautiful Indian single mom in the end.

I’m also going to skip the camp and slot it into the Forrest Gump unlikeliness category: for instance, there is the whole flood-in-Georgia sequence where every Indian Muslim that Rizvan knows shows up, chest-high in water, to save the tiny “Church of the Rock” in Wilhelmina, Georgia. Hm. Knocking that up as similar to Forrest meeting three separate presidents and winning the Medal of Honor.

That said…

My Name is Khan is also an incredibly dangerous film, and the camp masks that. Shown to American audiences, it might function as a mirror, pointing to our own sins in the wake of 9/11 and discriminating against a perceived Muslim “enemy,” when in reality we might have been learning to understand and distinguish what is Islam and what is Islamism. And the truth of the film is that I can’t deny the race riots I read about in the papers; in particular, I remember a group of non-Muslim Hispanics in South Florida being attacked on the street because they closely resembled Arabs. Sikhs, famous for their long beards and turbans (though not affiliated with Islam) also experienced widespread discrimination. These ugly things happened, and there is no denying them.

But Name takes a lot of liberties with the American public, which (I think) it gives a little too much credit.

1. Arabic. Before I started studying Arabic, I had absolutely one-hundred percent no idea what Arabic sounded like. No idea. Without tooting my own horn too much, I am an educated, relatively well-read, well-traveled, cultured individual; if you had spoken Arabic to me back then and told me to guess, I might have looked at the individual and guessed wildly at an number of languages. But when Rizvan attends a memorial service for the victims of 9/11 and begins to pray during a group moment of silence by reciting Surat al-Fatiha (basically, the Muslim Lord’s Prayer), candle in hand, only to have the crowd disperse, visibly disgusted by the presence a Muslim who is muttering Arabic….that’s a bit much. I’m pretty sure that would never happen, if just because ninety percent of the American public wouldn’t be able to recognize that it was a) Arabic, b) Muslim, and c) anything but a prayer in that context.

The name's Khan. Genghis Khan.

2. The Name. To me, (and again, I’m pulling the above-average American card), the name Khan doesn’t sound all that Muslim to me. And I’ve studied, known, befriended, loved, etc. etc. Muslims. Muhammad sounds Muslim. Mustafa sounds Muslim. So does Ahmed, Khalil, and Sherif. But Khan? That sounds like something out of a Star Trek movie. That sounds like a Mongol emperor that ruled half the world: a name like Khan and you expect it to be preceded by Genghis. To assume that Americans would assume that Khan is a Muslim name gives them a little too much credit for their knowledge of Indian Muslims. They would probably make a joke about “The Wrath of Khan” and Klingons before anything.

3. Evil White People. I understand the message. I do. I really, really do. But this movie exhibited the most God-awful, crazy, douchebag examples as happening every day. Every. Day. From Rizvan’s sister-in-law getting her hijab yanked off (that’s really awful), to the little kid getting beaten to death (awful to the power of ten), to the constant angry, sometimes tearful shouts of nativist jingoism: “Get out of my country” and “You people should never….” etc. etc. All instances of this kind of racism were perpetuated by caucasian whites. Not a single instance of a positive reaction.

I don’t mean that I expected white people to react well to 9/11; but some of us went out and bought a Qur’an. Some of us read up on Islam and tried to understand and distinguish between who a Muslim is, and who is a terrorist. Some of us learned Arabic and studied history and are applying to graduate programs in comparative Arabic-English literature. In short, I don’t like being lumped into the category of “Muslim-hater,” which is what this movie did. It said that all non-Muslims turned discriminatory against Muslims — even children.

But wait! What about Mama Jenny, the ever-so-lovable-African-American-woman-with-her-son-Funny-Haired-Joe, the one that takes in Rizvan and makes him wear a dress?

Hm. Aside from the perhaps not-deliberate lampooning of black Southern culture (I kept thinking that Mama Jenny seemed a little too cartoonish to keep me at ease), ultimately, she is a minority as well. The underlying message of the division of presidents — one that reacts with detainment, torture, and violence (Bush) and one that, after hearing Khan wants to see him, walks back to the podium to welcome him (Obama) is that minorities better understand Muslims than whites do. Even the film students are Indian, not white.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a lot to atone for, but there were some of us that did good.

4. Evil White People Among Us. The film might have highlighted American ignorance by pointing out that reactions were posited against those that looked Muslim or Arab, and might also have given light to the conflicted situation of those who suffered no discrimination because they lacked a “racialized” appearance. This might have put the narrative into a greater timeline of the (ongoing) struggle against racism in America. Or what about the conflict of newly converted American Muslims who look just like the boy next door, only they pray five times a day? Why is there no discussion of them? But instead, all the Muslims in the movie were foreign-born, foreign raised. Where were the American Muslims? There are a lot of them! Where were the American Muslims in the “downtown mosque” that Rizvan visits? To me, the movie seems to conflate Muslim identity as something racial; that to be Muslim, you must be a foreigner first.

*                        ***                        *

This film addresses an important topic, but the issues at stake are far more complicated than it is willing to portray. For instance, what is the point of having Rizvan meet the President? Naturally, it keeps the plot moving – and I understand the inherent value behind “keeping your word” – but ultimately, what is the outcome? Merely the awkward moment when Rizvan pulls out a picture of Sam and says, “He was not a terrorist, either.” But having met the President, having told him he is not a terrorist, having shown him the picture of his adopted son/best friend…what is President Obama supposed to have done at that point?

Nothing. The two walk off into the horizon as heroes, having proven their point.

That’s it?!

The more I think about it, the more I believe that the ending is probably the worst element of the movie, because it gives a triumphant ending to an ideology, rather than action. Suddenly, the recurring echo of Rizvan’s “We will overcome” as a theme seems a little too eerie, and makes me wonder who the “we” is. Too many elements collide too easily:

That, ladies and gentlemen, is dangerous – at least in the land of Egypt. It conforms a stereotype and rather than making amends, posits the superiority of the immigrant Muslim experience, rather than a real reconciliation. It makes me uneasy.

But maybe as I think about it more, I’ll come round. As for now, I’ve got to shoot off to class and teach a crowd of 15 about the animals.

Salaamat, peeps.

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