How is it that one can love Bollywood and simultaneously reject its indefatigable stream of misogyny, homophobia, nationalism, and racism?
The eve of the 2012 U.S. presidential election is an apt time to revisit Bollywood’s relation to America, particularly how since 9/11 Bollywood has tried to not only control the way Indians abroad imagine their relationship to India, but how the “Western world” imagines its relationship to the Indians within its midst. The 2010 film, My Name is Khan, is propelled by the desire of its Muslim protagonist, Rizwan Khan, to shake hands with Barack Obama, look him in the eye, and tell him, “My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist.” It is perhaps the best known of these films here in the U.S. But it’s not just the proposed relationship of Bollywood to the U.S. state that interests me, but also my own relationship as a second-generation American to this crazy thing we call Bollywood.
“Sajadaaaa-aa-aa-aaaa.” Rahat Fateh Ali Khan croons, the lilting pronunciation of the elongated vowel sound seeming to lift up into the heavens. My body expands along with the sound, my spine elongating simultaneously with the alap, my chest expanding ever so slowly, my shoulders rolling backward. One after another instruments enter the song, enriching the rhythm behind the voice, and Khan begins to sing:
“Teri kaali ankhiyon se jind meri jaage/Dhadkan se tej daudu, sapno se aagey/ Ab jaan lutt jaaye, ye jahaan chhut jaaye/ Sang pyaar rahe, main rahun na rahun . . . ” [Your lovely black eyes make me come alive/ I run faster than a heartbeat and gallop ahead of dreams/ Now my life can be stolen/ I can leave this world/ But my love will be with you whether I live or not] [I’ll worship you/ Day and night/ I’ll never rest]
The sun’s rays boomerang off the endless pavement, the heat entangling with the pungent smell of dosa/chaat/chana masala and so many onions, entering the nostrils, enveloping the body that is still except for the opening of the spine and the senses, so as to experience this ephemeral beginning of the song, the sensorium of the alap in the time-space of an afternoon in Artesia’s Little India. The tabla enters, marking a steady beat. The rapid drumming of the dholak marks the commencement of the song proper. “Sajda….tera sajda/ Din rain karoon/ Na hi chain karoon . . .” The chorus begins, and I am pushed into motion, the moment marking the transition from pure bodily affect into emotion and meaning.
In the spring of 2010, “Sajda” became the soundtrack to one’s life in the diaspora: filling the space of ethnic grocery stores, of clothing shops, blaring from friends’ cars, broken down into its component parts by eager culture show choreographers, remixed by DJs and played at clubs and fashion shows. Potential viewers of the film were bombarded with trailers, commercials, interviews, and clips on both Indian satellite channels and locally produced shows like Showbiz India, all featuring the song and clips from the film, along with news and images of the stars themselves, all components of what Amit Rai calls the transnational media-assemblage (Untimely Bollywood). My Name is Khan stands out among Bollywood films about life in the diaspora because not only did it receive attention by the American and international press, but because it is so invested in exploring and offering solutions for the problematic relationship between South Asian Muslims and the American nation-state. As such, the media-assemblage of My Name is Khan seems to be particularly ripe for an exploration of the relationship between second generation Indian Americans and this all-encompassing behemoth we call Bollywood. More specifically, for me it stands as the quintessential example of the conflict between my often rapturous embrace of the culture and my unavoidable disappointment with the actual narratives of the film’s themselves. In other words, how is it that one can love Bollywood and simultaneously reject its indefatigable stream of misogyny, homophobia, nationalism, and racism?
The answer lies, I think, in the realm of affect and emotion, so let me start with the spring of my romance with My Name is Khan, before the winter of our inevitable discontent. Some scholars of culture define affect as those physiological changes that affect the body before individual cognition. Others argue that the body’s physiological and emotional responses cannot so easily be distinguished from one another, and that affect is a response to stimuli that shapes the body and its relations with other bodies and objects. In either case, affect is understood as the opening up of the body to potential connections it would not otherwise have been primed to make. In the case of My Name is Khan, as with most Bollywood films, it is the music (both alone and tied to images in the form of trailers or scenes of the songs’ picturizations) that reach our bodies first. The qawwali rhythms of “Sajda,” what one critic referred to as its “meditative and spiritual powers,” immediately affected my body and seemed to align me to an imagined community for whom this particularly Sufi musical form is associated with spiritual love, with mythologies of a romanticized pan-Indian past, and with nostalgic memories of a putative homeland. I say putative because, of course, India is not my homeland, it is my parents’ (if they even think of it in that way anymore).
And the nostalgia evoked here is not necessarily even a personal one. I did not grow up listening to qawwali music, nor was the watching of Bollywood films a special ritual in our home. Rather, the music seems to tap into a collective form of memory formed by the interplay of stories, films, TV programs, newspaper articles, dance competitions, wedding traditions, religious spaces, cultural shows, and the other myriad practices in which we take part, reject, challenge, and turn to as a way to make sense of the hyphenated identities we find ourselves inhabiting in the diaspora. Cultural practices that may have changed, lost their meaning, or be otherwise rooted in particular regional and religious identities come to take on a more generalized cast of “Indianness” in relation to stereotypes and misunderstandings, loss and yearning.
The song’s picturization plays with these nostalgic memories by evoking not just “ideas of India,” but more specifically invoking the celebrated pairing of actors Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol – the embodiment of a certain brand of Bollywood romance for those spectators, who like me, came to age during the heyday of the Yash Raj blockbusters (Dilwale Dulhania le Jayenge, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai). In so doing it creates a bridge between collective nostalgia for India and the more particular time-space of a post-9/11 U.S. “Sajda” plays as Shah Rukh Khan’s character, Rizwan Khan, a newly arrived Muslim immigrant with Asperger’s Syndrome weds Kajol’s character, Mandira, a more settled Indian American Hindu woman, with roots in the community. The religious identities of the film’s protagonists are important, of course, since the director, Karan Johar, explicitly sees the film as intervening in the plight of Muslims in the United States, but the film also seeks to quickly disturb the notion of essentialism usually associated with religious identities.
Its goal in this scene is not only to represent the coming together of Muslims and Hindus, but, perhaps more crucially, to induce the viewer to partake in the formation of a South Asian American community premised on affect rather than identity. My Name is Khan attempts to not only create an intra-religious community within the narrative, but involve the audience in a relation to this filmic community founded not through direct identification with any particular character, but through a combination of bodily propensities, imaginative relations, and investments in the celebrity culture of the assemblage. The film counts on the audience’s knowledge of SRK’s status as a (nominal) Muslim, Kajol’s as a Hindu, and even more recently, of SRK’s being stopped at the Newark airport for questioning (a publicity stunt?) to surpass or even eschew the religious identities that have been reified by the intersection of Hindu nationalist discourse and American Neo-Orientalism. Furthermore, it hopes to build empathy for SRK’s character and the family he and Mandira try to build in the context of an increasingly Islamophobic America in which all South Asians become suspect, and which – in the film – leads to Rizwan being detained and interrogated, Hasina being attacked and stripped of her hijab, and, most tragically, to the murder of Rizwan and Mandira’s young son.
The film’s trailer, which could be downloaded for free from iTunes, and which played incessantly on home television screens, on the TV screens of Little India music shops, and before other Bollywood films in under-air conditioned theaters, strategically interweaves scenes of Rizwan and Mandira’s wedding with its echoes of the entire repertoire of SRK and Kajol’s iconic moments (the green suit and hot pink dupatta she wears at her mehndi referring us directly to the green salwar kameez she wears at the most famous mendhi ceremony in recent Bollywood history) with other iconic shots of their very American love affair (that is carried out on San Francisco trolleys, the bleachers of baseball games, and the front porch of their first suburban home).
Who could resist the electricity of the first time Rizwan and Mandira see each other on their wedding day? She, framed by a host of multiracial friends, is first surprised and then pleased; he, accompanied by his sister-in-law (her peach-colored hijab and Mandira’s surprise reminding us that within certain discourses this union is by no means inevitable), cannot meet her eyes, a result or symptom of his Asperger’s. The camera cuts back to Mandira who teases him with her eyes, he smiles and – just for a moment – looks directly at her/us. I was smitten, brought back to that first moment that I, as part of a collective diasporic audience, watched the two of them on screen. Rahat sings “Now my life can be stolen/ I can leave this world/ But my love will be with you whether I live or not,” Mandira kisses Rizwan on the cheek despite all his protestations against tactile affection, the dholak starts, he moves his head to the rapid-fire beat in unconscious pleasure, and I am taken into the affective community of the film.
Seduced by the sensorium, by the promise of an affective community to counter the stereotypes and hate I witness daily, I watch the film itself. The community founded in the wedding of Rizwan and Mandira soon extends to include South Asian Americans of all religions and classes. More unpredictably, however, the film attempts to forge another affective community, this time among South Asians and African Americans. After Rizwan’s stepson, Sameer, is beaten to death by his erstwhile best friend, who associates Sameer’s new last name (Khan) with the people he blames for his father’s death while fighting in Afghanistan (talk about the manipulation of the audience’s emotions!).
In contrast to the racist characterization of South Asians and African Americans as essentially different (in both American multiculturalism and prior Bollywood films), My Name is Khan represents, in the friendship between Rizwan, Jenny Williams, and her son Joel, a model of friendship that allows for mutual recognition and regard despite different racial and political identities. While it the building of an intra-religious South Asian American community was a predictable move, the bridging of South Asian Americans with other racialized groups in the U.S. was a welcome angle, and one that speaks to the rich history of coalitions formed by people of color to counter forms of racism, and economic and cultural ostracization. It seemed to suggest a remedy for the “Indian exceptionalism” that characterizes both the model minority myth as well as Bollywood representations of life in the diaspora (for example, Kal Ho Na Ho).
Encountering a stranded Rizwan by chance one rainy evening in Georgia, Joel’s mother Jenny recognizes Rizwan as South Asian, and certainly a little peculiar, but despite the fact that her son James had been killed in Iraq, she shelters him, and Jenny and Rizwan immediately form a friendship that based not on a shared identity, but a mutual recognition of suffering and loss. Once again, we are asked to project itself into this affective community through the interplay of song and story. Jenny and Joel bring Rizwan to the local church on the day of a special memorial for soldiers killed in the Iraq war. As red, white, and blue flowers are placed in front of the images of the town’s fallen soldiers, Jenny places a small picture of Sameer into the frame which holds a larger image of her son James. The scene represents the mutual sympathy between Rizwan, Jenny, Joel, and their community, but through the juxtaposition of the church setting with Rizwan’s invocation to Allah in his elegy for Sameer, and the layering the classic protest song, “We Shall Overcome,” sung by the church members with Rizwan’s vocals in Hindi, it refrains from swallowing up difference in order to build a coalition. This affective community between Rizwan and the townspeople of Wilhelmina is brought together with the community of South Asians near the end of the film, when Rizwan’s supporters (first and second-generation immigrants, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, working-class motel managers and successful professionals) come to help him bring relief to his friends in Wilhelmina after the town has been hit by a hurricane and the government is either incapable or unwilling provide relief.
The emotional coming together of these seemingly disparate groups inspires a sea-change in the nation’s attitudes, and in film’s final moments, Barack Obama, now the president of the United States, recognizes Rizwan Khan as a citizen of the state, cheered on by a crowd made up primarily of people of color, many in hijabs and Muslim prayer caps. My Name is Khan has succeeded in the creation of a new affective community, now inclusive of the entire nation, that bears the promise of a new relationship between America and its citizens, regardless of religion or skin color.
Or, at least, the plot succeeds. And here is where I must get to the part where MNIK breaks my heart. In “Differences Disturbing Identity: Deleuze and Feminism,” Elizabeth Grosz asks a crucial question: “if the subject strives to be recognized as a subject of value in a culture that does not value that subject in terms it seeks, what is such recognition worth? And once the subject is recognized as such, what is created through this recognition?” (“Differences Disturbing Identity,” 102). In other words, what work has been accomplished by My Name is Khan, its millions earned and international acclaim not withstanding? Inasmuch as the script is controlled by the production team, the plot succeeds. But the film’s larger project of building affective communities beyond the scope of its limited narrative fails, miserably. Why is it that by the time Rizwan finally approaches the stage to shake hands with Barack Obama (or, more accurately, the actor playing Obama who looks nothing like him), Mandira beaming at his side, I no longer see myself in the cheering crowd? Why is it that even in that moment when Hasina emerges at the flood water’s horizon, do I feel only a momentary thrill and then detached again from the story into which I had initially invested so much emotion? Why have, to use Sara Ahmed’s apt phrase, I have become an “affect alien” (“Creating Disturbance,” 35)? It is not just that these scenes bear the imprint of Bollywood hyperbole, melodrama, and patent lack of realism, rather, I would argue that this disaffection stems from the hypocrisy of the film’s reliance on certain stock assumptions and stereotypes of gender and race even as it seeks to move beyond such narrow identity politics.
Firstly, it relies on an assumption of heterosexual marriage as the kernel of immigrant life and the symbolics of immigrant womanhood as nation, family, and sacrifice. Affect is the presubjective opening of the body to unforeseen potentialities and connections. And an affective community is one based on the radical credo of noncoercive, horizontal relations in which differences are neither obliterated nor fetishized. Using the courtship, wedding, and marriage of Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol is an easy choice to manufacture a certain type of affect, but by its very definition marriage is hierarchical and based on expectations of sexual, economic, and emotional exchange, and thus antagonistic to the development of an affective community. Kajol’s character Mandira is once again the modern diasporic Indian woman: it is her labor, aided by Hasina, that roots Rizwan in America and that creates the family that stands in for a larger affective community. It is her sacrifice that propels Rizwan on the journey that will lead him to further expand the film’s affective community and recuperate the state, and her feminine irrationality that deprives her of a place in that crucial journey.
Second, the film relies on a lexicon of dialect, dress, behavioral codes, and stock figures like the pick-a-ninny and the mammy drawn from the racist representation of African Americans in nineteenth and twentieth-century U.S. culture to craft the characters of Joel and Jenny (referred to as “funny-haired Joel” and “Mama Jenny” in Rizwan’s voiceovers). The viewer is so appalled by the seemingly unconscious utilization of these racist tropes (twangy “Southern” banjo music, Jenny’s unshapely cotton shift, Joel’s wide-eyed innocence) that she is hurled out of the film, and all future efforts to build an affective community in the film carries the bitter taste of ignorance and racism.
If Bollywood wants to intervene in the plight of South Asian Muslims targeted by U.S. anti-terrorism policies and the agents of Islamaphobia in our general discourse, then it needs to understand it cannot do so at the expense of South Asian women and African Americans (while acknowledging that all three groups are not mutually exclusive). On a more personal level, until it does, I’ll be trapped in this love/hate relationship with a media-assemblage that at once speaks to that which I long for and turn away from.
What is your relationship to Bollywood? Have you seen the film? Please leave share your thoughts in the Comments section!
A big thank you to Jen Kosakowski, Vanita Reddy, Neha Vora, and Mimi Nguyen for all your feedback on various versions of this essay!
For Amit Rai, today’s Bollywood must be studied not simply in terms of the film text, but as a transnational media-assemblage: songs, diasporic TV programs, online media blitz, university culture shows, mutiplexes, the herding of bodies, sitting arrangements, time-pass, image. That is, representation must be deprioritized, and the material substrate of its emergence must be diagrammed. See Amit Rai, Untimely Bollywood: Globalization and India’s New Media Assemblage (Duke UP, 2009).
Translation by Rakesh: http://kingsrk.wordpress.com/2010/01/11/my-name-is-khan-sajdaa-lyrics-english-translation/
Sara Ahmed, “Creating disturbance: Feminism, happiness and affective differences,” Working with Affect in Feminist Readings: Disturbing Differences, eds. M. L. a. S. Paasonen (Routledge, 2010): 31-44.
Grosz, E. (2010). “Differences disturbing identity: Deleuze and feminism,”Working with Affect in Feminist Readings: Disturbing Differences, eds. M. L. a. S. Paasonen (Routledge, 2010): 101-111.