Bollywood Perpetuating Myths of Muslims Victimized in the West?
by Jalal Zuberi
In a crucial segment in the movie, "My Name Is Khan," currently breaking box office records in India, the hero is detained and interrogated at a U.S. airport, and blocked from boarding a flight by U.S. airport security. The message, " I am not a terrorist!", implies that in America, Muslims are victims of discrimination solely because of their religious affiliation or identity.
Isolated cases of the harassment of individuals with Muslim names and Middle Eastern backgrounds are an undeniable part of recent history -- but it is also undeniable that law enforcement agencies have moved quickly to prevent discrimination while supporting justice and the social order. The film does not attempt to answer the perplexing question faced by thousands of airport security personnel everyday around the globe: how to screen Muslim passengers. Transport security officers must detect and prevent actions by potential terrorists, mainly coming from Muslim backgrounds and brainwashed with the radical Wahhabi, anti-Western ideology of Al-Qaida. How do we save lives and property without appearing insensitive and racially discriminatory?
Although the plot is laudable for its depiction of human issues and its potential to increase awareness about mental health and the second chances people deserve in life, its implied theme of discrimination in the U.S., based solely on religion, may be troublesome, and even insulting, for some Muslims who call the U.S. their home and have had very different experiences -- despite the effects of 9/11. But simply trumpeting the fact that the silent Muslim majority is against terrorism, committed by only a radicalized minority, may provide little consolation to airport security personnel trying to discern which kinds of passengers they might be dealing with, as shown by the case of the Nigerian would-be suicide bomber this past Christmas eve.
Ironically, the film, which stars Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan, is breaking box office records, partly fueled because the star was detained at a U.S. airport in the middle of making a movie dealing with this very issue - an incident much publicized by the Indian media. In the film, its hero, named Rizwan Khan, grows up in India afflicted with a variant form of autism. He faces immense challenges in a society lacking awareness of such disabilities. He succeeds, however, in getting a degree, and journeys to the U.S. to join his brother's business in California.
There, he meets the heroine, the Hindu owner of a beauty salon, who is ultimately won over by the raw but honest manners of the autistic Mr. Khan. Their love, despite the social upheaval caused by their different religions, blossoms into a happy marriage. But their joy is short-lived after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, which aggravate the anti-Muslim sentiments that finally engulf the family. Love ultimately triumphs but not without more tragedy.
Indian cinema has made tremendous strides in technical quality, now almost on a par with the West, as well as in its selection of artistic themes and daring subject matter. Many topics that were taboo in the parochial and traditional society of India are now fair game to Bollywood film makers. The increasingly diverse, multicultural and extremely educated Indian diaspora, spread across the globe, should feel pride in its film industry. Equally, they should insist on fair depiction of history and facts.