The Problem With MNIK

By Yasser Latif Hamdani

Warning: SPOILERS

Late last week I attended a packed show of “My Name Is Khan”  in Lahore’s DHA Cinema and while I went through all the emotions the film maker wanted to evoke,  I found the film entirely misplaced and misdirected.   The film itself was well made 70 percent of the way. It began to go downhill from the time our hero returned to Georgia to find it stuck in the Civil War era and by the time President Elect Obama made his appearance the film which is essentially Khuda Ke Liye meets Forest Gump meets Rainman meets Milk was completely over the top.

My objections however have nothing to do with Karan Johar’s Masala mix which was to be expected from a Bollywood film. After all Karan Johar is no Shoaib Mansoor and for Karan Johar this is not a life-long undertaking.    Instead my issues arise from the point of view of someone who is self conscious and self styled as a secular-minded modernist of Muslim background who wants to see the Muslim world re-join the world in its march of human progress.   To me the message that MNIK gives is entirely wrong and dogmatic but I’ll come to that in a minute.

In the subcontinent,  secularism is understood primarily in three ways.  The first is the point of view of the small but very Islamist sections who feel that secularism means not just an indifference towards but outright persecution of religion to drive it out not just from the public space but from personal as well. This view equates secularism to irreligiosity or even inherently anti-religion positions.   The second point of view is that the state should ensure equality of citizenship, freedom of religion and an impartiality towards all faiths.  This second view is more in line with modern state secularism and seeks to ensure that everyone is free to go about their own business so long as it does not turn into a brawl.  The third point of view is one which interprets secularism as harmony between religious minded of every religion.  This third point of view is sadly the cause of much heartbreak for good natured people who foolishly ascribe to it.

Sadly MNIK’s message has to do more with position 3 and that minimizes its message.   Towards the end,  Rizwan Khan’s Bhabi- played by our very own Sonia Jehan, the granddaughter of the immortal Nur Jehan- dons the Hijab proudly and makes an emotional point about it.  Hijab is a dogmatic Muslim position which is highly controversial and many Muslim women don’t consider it part of the faith.  That in of itself would not be the problem but the fact is that the dogma of Hijab derives itself from the same rigid straitjacket that frowns on pluralism and modernity. Therefore the pluralistic ethos which seems to underpin MNIK thus sits quite uneasy with the kind of  “Muslimness” it purports to champion simultaneously.   It reminds me of the poignant criticism that Mahatma Gandhi failed to take into account in his own attempts to reconcile orthodox Islam with Hinduism. Achyuth Patwardhan wrote: 

‘It is, however, useful to recognise our share of this error of misdirection. To begin with, I am convinced that looking back upon the course of development of the freedom movement, THE ‘HIMALAYAN ERROR’ of Gandhiji’s leadership was the support he extended on behalf of the Congress and the Indian people to the Khilafat Movement at the end of the World War I. This has proved to be a disastrous error which has brought in its wake a series of harmful consequences. On merits, it was a thoroughly reactionary step. The Khilafat was totally unworthy of support of the Progressive Muslims. Kemel Pasha established this solid fact by abolition of the Khilafat. The abolition of the Khilafat was widely welcomed by enlightened Muslim opinion the world over and Kemel was an undoubted hero of all young Muslims straining against Imperialist domination. But apart from the fact that Khilafat was an unworthy reactionary cause, Mahatma Gandhi had to align himself with a sectarian revivalist Muslim Leadership of clerics and maulvis. He was thus unwittingly responsible for jettisoning sane, secular, modernist leadership among the Muslims of India and foisting upon the Indian Muslims a theocratic orthodoxy of the Maulvis. Maulana Mohammed Ali’s speeches read today appear strangely incoherent and out of tune with the spirit of secular political freedom. The Congress Movement which released the forces of religious liberalism and reform among the Hindus, and evoked a rational scientific outlook, placed the Muslims of India under the spell of orthodoxy and religious superstition by their support to the Khilafat leadership. Rationalist leaders like Jinnah were rebuffed by this attitude of Congress and Gandhi. This is the background of the psychological rift between Congress and the Muslim League’

By championing the cause of the fundamentalist and orthodox Muslims in the name of pluralism,  MNIK greatly weakens its own praiseworthy humanist message.   Furthermore,  MNIK seems fall into the same pitfalls of Paki-bashing when it presents the clean shaven Dr. Faisal Rahman, a medical doctor of South Asian descent, as a terrorist-recruiter.  This is wrong on two counts – 1. most extremism in mosques is preached not by medical doctors, especially of South Asian origin, but by clerics funded and educated by Saudi sponsored Salafi groups and are mostly of Arab origin.   2.   Most Muslim doctors of South Asian descent in the US are Pakistani.   Therefore the angle was mala fide and wrong.   As a general rule, most Pakistani doctors I have come across in the US are voices of reason and moderation and when – if at times- they form part of mosque groups, they tend to act as bridge builders between the community and the society outside.

For these reasons and more,  despite being thoroughly moved by Shahrukh Khan’s remarkable performance as an autistic man,  I am very disappointed by the film because it will only strengthen extremists and only give American Muslims another reason to remain illiberal in their approach to Islam and America. In comparison  Shoaib Mansoor’s brilliant Pakistani film, Khuda Ke Liye, is not preachy and it does not purport to present Islam as what it is not.   What it does is document the struggle and travails of moderate Muslims stuck between the Mullah and American wrath. It too champions identity,  but in contrast to Sonya Jehan’s Hijab-donning ritual,   Khuda Ke Liye has a young man in jeans and baseball cap from the burger class laying an equal claim to faith to that of a Mullah.

35 Comments

Filed under Bollywood, Cinema, Islam

35 responses to “The Problem With MNIK

  1. lal

    YLH,
    I wholeheartedly agree that it was a very painful movie to watch for more reasons than you elaborate…but then to be fair i ve not enjoyed a single sharukh movie other than DDLJ,swadesh and chak de…After tare zameen pe,black and Pa sharukh has vey well understood that he should have some smart disease to get a national award…so he gets into this aspergers mode though he already has a hugely sensitive role to play as a muslim in post 9-11….wining about the horrendous melodram in the movie will take ages,but some thing i dont understand is why the children,sameer khan as well as the american children dont age throug all the 9-11,bush,katrina and obama periods…ofcos sharukh is evergreen…
    ”Furthermore, MNIK seems fall into the same pitfalls of Paki-bashing when it presents the clean shaven Dr. Faisal Rahman, a medical doctor of South Asian descent, as a terrorist-recruiter…..”…not sure about that part though…as i saw it he was recruiting,sharukh was making the comments,and instead of trying to attack him or abuse him,the doctor was controlling his wards and listening carefully to what sharukh has to stay….somebody watch it again and confirm if they are ready to take the risk

  2. Suv

    @YLH
    If you are looking for subtlety and depth then better not watch Karan Johar/Aditya Chopra genre of movie in which Shahrukh acts. Most of his movies are crap barring Swades and Chak de India. You are wasting your time commenting on kitsch dished out Shahrukh. Khuda ke Liye was a thousand times better movie than this. Better start watching Amir Khan movies

  3. YLH, you say that you saw the movie in a cinema in Lahore. There was a period of time when Indian movies were ‘banned’ in Pakistan, and I am glad that is no longer the case. Beware though, Bollywood barely represents India, 95 % of the movies flop. But it seems commercial cinema is good for the economy, as Indian governments collect a lot of revenue from theatres, movie stars etc.

  4. Dinu

    I completely agree with ylh. karan johar is absolutely nothing compared to Shoaib Mansoor. Absolutely lacking in talent, depth, facts..but that is exactly what indian films and anything indian are. Lollywood and the Bangladeshi film industry are far better.
    Now I understand that there are few Indians who may think otherwise.. but that’s because you have no idea about good films.
    Besides I feel that Indian islam based films have an annoying habit of bringing back the memories of the treatment meted out to them(non indian muslims) post 9/11 or 26/11 without achieving anything.
    It’s better they realise that due to their incompetencies in all things concerned their neighbours are globally more respected in films, fashion and music.

  5. ylh

    Dinu mian has reacted like a typical Indian.

    I suggest that you watch KKL and compare it to MNIK. KKL is not lollywood btw and no one in their right mind would argue about the superiority of Pakistani cinema over Indian cinema.

    It is just that KKL was a much more balanced film.

  6. hoss

    Enjoy this comic about the movie. H/T Sepia mutiny.

    thevigilidiot.com/2010/02/16/my-name-is-khan/

  7. straight-talk

    @YLH
    It is very naive to search for any massage from a Bollywood movie, which more often than not depends upon the proven formula to be hit on Box office,…….. if you point out this folly to Karan Johar or SRK, they will simply tell that they’re businessmen and only sell the things which had the market value, nothing else, I’m sure they even does not know the real meaning of secularism.

    It is also fact that SRK would not have attempted this film if he would not have suffered humiliation at New york Airport due to his sirname “Khan”. He often distanced himself from any politics.

    On the point of secularism, In India there are politics of appeasment, appeasment to and only theocratic and orthdox muslims, case of Shahbano is still very much in front of every one. Real secular Muslims have very less influence on the masses or in that respect any voter influence, it is fact and it is precisely this reason that everyone want to listen to them when any bomb blast happens or Muslim youth picked up on the charges of planting bomb but no party embraces these secular, intellectual and progressive Muslims e.g like of Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi etc.

    In India, generally Muslims have been sterotyped as long beard, white cap, white salwar kurta, very othodox and less accommodating in their approach, following always what Devbandi clergy says or orders. These clergy gives fatwa on everything and anything whether it is on their judice or not. These all things gives a very narrow outlook about Muslims.

    India after partition were devoid of progressive Muslims thinkers in line of Qaid-E-Azam who have opted for Pakistan and migrated their consequetnly for many years there were no middle class in Muslim society in India, the class which is the bulwark of pluralism, secularism and progressive thoughts and every other things which modern democracy demands.

    Therefore this space is taken over by the clergy the followers of moulvis who were opposed to MAK or Pakistan, and in India they presented themselves as tools for politicians as they can provide minority votes en-masses to them, a dirty vote bank politics started then onwards, which kept majority Muslims devoid of modern education, thoughts and thinking, and send them in deep darkness of poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment.

    So it is not the fault of Karan Johar or SRK, it is the mind set of the majority people which leads them to create some images which you don’t like.

  8. yasserlatifhamdani

    Vikram,

    That period was 1971 to about 2004….

  9. straight-talk

    Pl correct i meant to say MAJ not MAK.

  10. Aisha Sarwari

    The good stuff first: Shahrukh Khan and Kajol were great together, the chemistry was just right, the subtleties were intact, and there was what you call promise in the relationship and the song and dance hummed in one’s ears long after the show was over. Even greater films such as Benjamin Button failed miserably on the chemistry element between the protagonist and the girl.

    Also the other good thing about Karan Johar’s My Name is Khan is that there were some great moments in the film: Sharukh gets an I-am-watching-you gesture from his prison warden, which he mirrors back to him; Kajol proposes to marry Sharukh on a beautiful cloud-draped San Francisco skyline, Shahrukh dresses up in Mama Jenny’s clothes when in Georgia and of course the tear jerking scenes which are numerous as they are touching.

    But this was not alone enough to make up for the utter intellectually flawed film this was, what saved the day was that never for a second was Shahrukh Khan out of character, and he played autistic so realistically that there is a cool-factor attached to it now.

    If we were to assume that TV has a silver bullet effect and what you see you learn then these are the main lessons one draws from the film:

    There is a Center for Cure of Autism in Georgia: This is where autistic people can self-diagnose and self-analyze their limitations by cathartically talking about it with a group of church goers.

    Shahrukh Khan Training Center for Marine Corps: the US marine corps enroll in vigorous training on how to reach a treacherously stormy rural Georgian town in the midst of Hurricane Katrina, equipped only with a rucksack bag which interesting has more change of clothes than can fit in. Level 2 training involves bringing extended family, a film crew and a bunch of supplies in fedex boxes, down from the nearest Greyhound busstop which is on schedule despite the storm.

    If someone put Desperate Housewives, I am Sam, The Rainman, Finding Nemo and also tossed in a bit of Shoaib Mansoor’s Khuda Key Liey in a blender you’ll get a story of a guy whose Name is Khan.

    If you visit a UCLA campus and mumble “I am not a terrorist” you’re probably going to end up tortured by American security personnel.

    Most Pakistani doctors living in the US are angry terrorists, others are followers of angry terrorists.
    Americans understand Hindi, sometimes even anchors use it to broadcast their message on National TV.

    American Presidents apologize for all hate crimes in public.

    90% of all American families have lost someone in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Reuniting with your loved one is a bad idea: a Muslim terrorist will stab you.

    There are two kinds of people in the world: Good people who support wearing of the Hijab for women and bad people who snatch it off in well lit educational institutions.

    African Americans live in tiny segregated settlements with a very high animal to human ratio.

    If you find yourself in a flood, don’t bother building a boat, just grab hold of an electricity cable tower and try and make it stand upright.

  11. Majumdar

    I am surprised that people think that movies, esp Bollywood ones have anything else to offer than entertainment (that is some song and dance, dishum-dishum etc)

    Regards

  12. SD

    Could not agree with you more YLH .. I did not find the Hijab act right ..

  13. Ron

    As usual YLH is spot on.Nothing more to add.

    @Dinu

    Karan Johar has needs a “comedian” in his next movie. You fit the bill perfectly.

    Lol

  14. Ron

    A word on muslim women.

    In most cases i find that muslim women who DO NOT WEAR the hijab, their views are mostly FORGOTTEN AND IGNORED.

  15. bisupanda

    I am sorry to find that there is so much discussion about a film which is made just for commercial interest. The producer and director of the movies are more concerned about the prospect of commercial success of the film rather than any ideological message to the viewer. I do not have any doubt that there are still some people who make film on social, political , ideological relevance but in my view this film does not belong to that category

  16. karunx

    well thats the Indian brand of secularism.

    Take it or leave it

  17. yasserlatifhamdani

    So basically… leaving hapless minorities in the hands of subservient, submissive and yet extremely backward religious clerical class is “Indian secularism”.

    Well we did leave it ….

  18. Hayyer

    Aisha Sarwari

    “what saved the day was that never for a second was Shahrukh Khan out of character, and he played autistic so realistically that there is a cool-factor attached to it now.”

    When ever did he seem not to be autistic?

  19. karun

    😉 i was just kidding….that was meant to draw you out!!

  20. straight-talk

    “Leaving hapless minorities in the hands of subservient, submissive and yet extremely backward religious clerical class is “Indian secularism”.

    Well we did leave it ….”

    Yes you’ve done a good job by leaving them behind in the hands of orthodox, backward Mullahs and a majority hurt by partition………why? because they were poor and can not afford to travel a far and unknown land albeit they were very much involved in the struggle for their dream land.

    What a selfish thinking!!!!!

  21. Majumdar

    ST,

    Pakistan had kept its doors open to the IMs left behind till mid 1950s but if IMs chose not to exercise that option, how is it Pakistanis’ fault?

    Regards

  22. @YLH

    In Indian (and Pakistani) context multiculturalism and secularism means officially sanctioned tribalism.

    Remember Shah Bano case, unfortunately SRK’s ‘lollypop’ Islam and Indian Secularism is along the same lines.

    We want ‘One Law for All’. If multi-culturalism means ghettos,WE DON’T WANT IT.

  23. ahsan

    It’s a Bollywood movie for God’s sake and should be accepted as such. I would not have wasted time or energy critiquing it. I enjoyed it because I like everything Shah Rukh Khan is in, and if all the calamities in the United States in the last ten years had not somehow been incorporated in the film I would have been terribly disappointed!! That said, Shah Rukh did a pretty decent job as an autistic man.

  24. Ranjeet

    @YLH,
    I expected a scholar like you to have better things to do than critique a KJO film.
    It isn’t just India or Pakistan, everyone deserves (to be watching) better movies.

    Read this..this is what MNIK deserves (as a review)

    http://greatbong.net/2010/02/14/my-name-is-kingki/

  25. jillian

    I disagree about the hijab scene, and also with the idea that wearing the hijab is somehow tied to fundamentalism or orthodoxy. You are out of touch with the manifestation of Islam in Western youth: feminist Muslim women happily wear hijab! That being said, MNIK is a Bollywood movie, not a documentary, for goodness sake! It is feel-good entertainment in a trying time in history. Why over-analyze it? Thumbs up or thumbs down is all that should be said.

  26. enkhan

    Hijab is a moral value and a way to show respect to Arabs. It was also approved as a positive thing in Islam and woman not believeing it may try to understand the real background and value of it. In subcontintent it is considered more of a confinement than a step of respect and security(though not to forget that wearing ‘dobata on head’ is a south eastern trend to show respect of the elderly) and women fighting against it shall try and get a life, if they choose not to do it, fine keep the opinion to themselves but women being so upright like Jehan Ara and pro-feminist activists are the most ridiculous women on earth and deserve to be killed like Hitler removed the Jews..

  27. vajra

    @enkhan

    Very interesting. After wading through that fountain of vitriol, I gather that you approve of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. I gather further that you have problems with feminists and think that they should be treated like the Jews.

    This is all a little difficult to believe. Since you have stated it in print, one must however give it some importance.

    Would you mind confirming that you hold these two views?

  28. enkhan

    @vajra
    I don’t approve Hitler’s treatment though your favourite Bal Thakackry sure does..😉 My statement (was on a lighter note) is similar to his statement on muslims, and not reiterated though it does expressess my dislike of overly hyped feminist activists.

  29. vajra

    @enkhan

    Your sense of humour is a rare and priceless gem. Some day you will undoubtedly earn millions from it, if this is a sample.

    Now, on a lighter note of course, with😉 attached as mandatory certificate of levity, since you have stated that I have something to do with that fascist pig Bal Thackeray, on whose grave I wouldn’t waste a gob of spit, I do wish you were within reaching distance. Some remarks and outrageous insults irresistibly suggest a recourse to non-verbal communications.

    As you can see, I too have a robust sense of humour.

  30. vajra

    @enkhan

    In honesty, I must confess that some extreme feminists do go up the nose.

    Neither my wife nor my daughter know this nick; I changed from my older one for that reason.

  31. enkhan

    Yes agreed..
    *throws up on Jehan Ara’s Face*

  32. Vishal

    Interesting discussion.

    I felt that the makers of MNIK failed to understand that 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.

  33. Luq

    >never for a second was Shahrukh Khan out of
    >character, and he played autistic so realistically
    >that there is a cool-factor attached to it now.

    There had to be some way to camouflage his ham acting. Now we dont know when he is over acting and when he is playing that handicap.

    Luq

  34. Johnny

    “Well we did leave it ….”

    ======

    ….and created a land of subservient, submissive and extremely backward religious people ruled by a clerical class and military jehadist feudal juntas.

  35. vajra

    @ylh


    ….and created a land of subservient, submissive and extremely backward religious people ruled by a clerical class and military jehadist feudal juntas.

    One thing you’ve got to hand the man: he knows all the words.

    Now in a year or two, he’ll link them and start thinking.

    Gosh, it’s never too late.