Thursday, December 23, 2010

Khuda Kay Liye and New York: One Tragedy, Two Stories

American audiences have seen the disaster of the September 11, 2001 attacks memorialized on film through features such as World Trade Center and United 93. However, Hollywood is not the only industry to document the troubles faced by people in the aftermath of the tragedy. Two films from across the world have also intrigued their audiences, but from perspectives, and for purposes significantly different from America's. Pakistan's 2007 film Khuda Kay Liye (In the Name of God) by Shoaib Mansoor and India's 2009 film New York by Kabir Khan offer a glimpse into two nations that – though distant from the attacks themselves – have experienced their backlash. These two films share much in common, but also differ immensely as they appeal to different domestic audiences, each with a different message to send to the world. Pakistan, as an Islamic republic, faces the struggle of self-identity as it hopes to communicate the aspirations of moderate Muslims. And India, a pluralistic democracy, reaches out to its diverse diaspora population in the United States and the post-9/11 trials which they face. Thus, the Pakistani film Khuda Kay Liye and the Indian film New York – though both set against the backdrop of the 9/11 attacks – emphasize significantly different messages traceable to the unique demographics, film traditions, and political climates native to each nation.

Khuda Kay Liye and New York, though based on similar themes of Islamophobia and the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, are two separate products of very different populations. Pakistani demographics show a nation that is almost exclusively Muslim, and the plot of Khuda Kay Liye reflects this. One conflict in the film is the foil between the main character, Mansoor, and his brother, Sarmad. Brought up in a secular household, the brothers participate in a rock music band, a type of music that often is criticized by more extremist Muslims (Khuda Kay Liye). But Sarmad falls prey to the extremists, grows a beard, relinquishes music and photography, and even requests that his mother and grandmother adopt the hijab. Disapproving of his brother, Mansoor continues his life, relocates to Chicago to study music, and lives a typical Western lifestyle. This parallelism serves to illustrate the nature of pressures from both extremes found in Pakistani society, thus leading to a crisis over self-identity in the minds of many young Pakistanis. When straddled between two very powerful institutions as Western culture and Islam, a safe middle is boggling to retain. Husham Ahmed describes the threatening and potent nature of this crisis in his article in The Statesmen:

Pakistan’s turbulent history has widened, rather than resolved, the contradictions present in our society, leaving society as polarised as ever. The young generation is still searching for the answers that previous generations of Pakistanis have failed to provide. While groping for solutions in this dark period, the youth are exploited by certain individuals who with their oratory skills present a simplistic answer to complicated dilemmas by urging them to focus on a common external enemy. They spit venom, blabber about conspiracy theories, and preach jingoism in the media. (Ahmed)

Therefore, the Pakistani film is dealt a very heavy burden, the burden of dispelling notions that all Pakistanis or all Muslims constitute a large anti-Western force. The film must depict advocates of liberal Islam contrary to the practice of fundamentalism, and thus this conflict forms a major element of the film's plot, while the film's Indian counterpart, New York, is presented, a different, if not lighter, burden of proof.

Just as Khuda Kay Liye is a product of the Muslim identity of Pakistan, the Indian film industry's production New York appeals to a majority Hindu nation with a prevalent and affluent diaspora community. Therefore, at the film's inception, as the camera cruises over the city of New York, the director indicates that this is a story of South Asians in the United States (New York). As protagonist Omar arrives as an international student to New York and forms close friendships with suave American-born Indians Samir and Maya, it is evident that the intended audience and goals of this film are quite different from those of the more conservative and modest Khuda Kay Liye. For example, conversational registers of Hindi are intertwined with English; characters converse just as the children of Indian immigrants would. Yet in Khuda Kay Liye, the nature of the content and circumstances necessitate a higher, ornate register of Urdu.

Similarly, the cultural values depicted in New York are more secular and less focused on religion, but on greater personal morals. Film critic Omar Qureshi comments on this aspect of New York and the universal themes it propagates: “Films with which people can identify always work. Everyone can connect with films that revolve around friendships because everyone has a friend. There is no one who doesn't have a single friend” (“Bollywood”). Therefore, the Indian film is manufactured to appeal to pluralistic domestic and international Indian societies consisting of a plethora of languages, ethnicities, and religions. As Saltz writes in her New York Times review of the film, New York “hinges on loyalty, love and friendship, a holy trinity of Hindi cinema” (Saltz). Where Khuda Kay Liye is able to call upon its audience's shared experiences as Muslims, the makers of New York must expand their film's appeal to a much broader set of people. And this too constitutes a burden resting on the shoulders of the film's producers. And especially in a nation where the formulaic, romantic epic genre has reigned for decades, complete with escapist song-and-dance sequences, vengeful villains, and macho heroes – appealing to the masses with a serious film on terrorism, politics, and discrimination is a difficult argument to win.

Many of the vast differences between the Pakistani and Indian narrations of the attack's aftermath stem from the film traditions ingrained in the countries' histories. The two neighbors share a combined tradition of filmmaking which was interrupted as the region experienced a violent post-colonial partition in the late 1940s. During this period, much of the talent remained in the new Indian state, giving birth to a strong tradition of film based in then Bombay. Consequently, the Pakistani industry based in Lahore experienced a devastating brain drain (Zafar). But how does this history cement the fates of Khuda Kay Liye and New York? How does this history serve to further distinguish the features of these two films?

First, until recently, the screening of Indian films in Pakistan was illegal. Likewise, Khuda Kay Liye was the first Pakistani film to screen in Indian cinemas in 43 years. Therefore, the film is also burdened with exposing Pakistan to Indians and international audiences who have probably only seen the country through news reports detailing burgeoning elements of fundamentalism. Khuda Kay Liye's director Shoaib Mansoor remarks that he was “shocked by the ignorance” of Indians regarding life in Pakistan:

Indian films never stopped coming to Pakistan, on DVDs, so every Pakistani is absolutely clear about the way of life in India, about how everything works in India. But there is nothing coming in the other direction, with the result that India has very clear misconceptions about Pakistan. They had very surprising ideas about Pakistan. They asked: ‘Do you have taxis there?’ ‘Can women drive?’ ‘Are women allowed to go to university?’ They thought Pakistan consisted entirely of fanatics and mullahs. (Gentleman)

This “two-way mirror” effect between the neighboring countries has resulted in dangerous stereotypes of Pakistan, and Mansoor's efforts to exhibit the identity crisis Pakistan is suffering works to placate these notions. As popular Indian script writer and lyricist Javed Akhtar comments, “ Ignorance breeds suspicion and suspicion breeds hate; it creates huge villains. There is a lot to be heard and seen by Indian and by U.S. audiences here [in Khuda Kay Liye]” (Iqbal). But if Pakistan's Khuda Kay Liye possesses soul and an honest goal of changing world opinion, what it lacks, according to Indian critic Subhash Jha, is that “it is not a pot-boiler; it doesn’t have the audience-pulling big stars” (Gentleman). However, this commercial appeal is exactly what New York can claim.

The Indian film tradition originates from escapist sagas of romance and sentimental family dramas, and the grim topics explored in New York diverge from this traditional path to box-office success. But the producers of New York have not completely abandoned this tested and well-worn formula. The attractive, fair-skinned superstars, the catchy songs, the glamorous fashions and locations are all found in Kabir Khan's film. Glenn Whipp of the Los Angeles Times locates these elements of the Indian film tradition in that the characters as students at a fictitious New York college “have no cares (and apparently no classes).” Furthermore, “musical montages repeatedly emphasize youthful passion and Omar's unrequited love for Maya” (Whipp). These facets of a traditional Indian film as demonstrated in New York, unlike Khuda Kay Liye, demonstrate how the makers of New York are forced to maintain a level of commercial elements among a background of more gripping, realistic elements such as terrorism, politics, and anti- Muslim discrimination. Thus, one may interpret this expectation of gloss and glamour as well as a coherent, well-researched chronicle of the September 11 aftermath as another burden for New York.

Not only are Khuda Kay Liye and New York products of their respective intended audiences and countries' film traditions, but the manner of each film's storytelling is also attributed to the political climate in each nation. First, any discussion of Pakistani politics entails Pakistani military engagements on two separate fronts: the Afghani border in the West and Kashmir in the East. Regarding the conflict in the West, Khuda Kay Liye documents Sarmad's fall into the hands of fundamentalism and his departure from the liberalism of Lahore to the tribal regions to participate in jihad. During this period, Sarmad is trapped by the blinding influence of Maulana Tahiri. As Makarand Paranjape notices in his book Altered Destinations, “the bad mullah [Maulana Tahiri] has a distinctly Pashto or Afghani accent.” This subtle, but meaningful use of language serves to underline the contempt that liberal Pakistanis hold against what they view as extremist influences from Afghanistan sweeping their cities and towns. A public policy think tank, the New America Foundation confirms this view. In a 2009 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Steve Coll presented that “ Pakistan's struggle to achieve its constitutional and founding ideals of democracy, pluralism, and a culture rooted in a modernizing Islam have been impeded in part by the spillover effects of continual warfare in Afghanistan” (Cole). This animosity between liberal, urban Pakistanis and the lawlessness of the tribal regions intensifies when one also takes into consideration US violations of Pakistani sovereignty with drone attacks on Pakistani territory and subsequent deaths (Brulliard and Hussain).

But this more recent conflict has done nothing to subdue the long-standing rivalry between Pakistan and India, also a conflict subtly addressed in Khuda Kay Liye. Once Mansoor reaches the United States, he quickly adapts to Western life, but the attacks in New York shake up Mansoor's progressing American dream. He is discriminated against, called a “terrorist” due to his Muslim identity, and faces brutal Guantanamo-style detention by the Americans. Paranjape interprets this course in the film as an exercise in finger-pointing at the Indians for their role in the marginalization of Muslims worldwide. Paranjape continues in Altered Destinations: “the man who betrays him [Mansoor] is a Sikh, an Indian who, when he is drunk, gets into a brawl and calls him a terrorist because the Sikh's own family members have been killed by Islamic terrorists back in India” (Paranjape). This statement not only makes claims toward the nature of Pakistani-Indian relations from a regional perspective, but also points to the political climate of domestic Muslim-Hindu relations in the Indian community.

The question of coexistence of India's diverse religious communities is one addressed, by necessity rather than by choice, in the film New York. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Samir, Omar, and Maya transform from being average college students to representatives of a people deemed anti-American, regressive, and violent. Eventually, Samir is detained in Guantanamo-like circumstances by American intelligence claiming that Samir participates in a terror cell located in New York. Vijay Nair criticizes this aspect of Indian filmmaking in his article in The Hindu when he reprimands Indian films for acquiescing to the sensitive and controversial nature of politics – thus resorting to stereotypes. Nair urges that:

None of these films try to reflect on the phenomenon of terrorism intelligently. Mainstream directors are likely to balk at the idea of terrorism being spawned by truths closer at home [in India]. It is only by design and not accident that a New York...unfolds in the American context. The two feuding parties, the white American population, as well as the Islamic terrorists, can be perceived as adversaries by the Indian audience (Nair).

Nair's analysis of New York's placement of stereotypes for both political as well as commercial reasons, points to the atmosphere of Indian-Pakistani and larger Hindu-Muslim relations in the Subcontinent. Just as in Khuda Kay Liye, Pakistan points its finger at Afghanistan as the source of fundamentalist activity, in New York, India directs its criticism to its alienated, ghettoed Muslim minority and at Pakistan. Neither nation is willing to accept its role in the growth of fundamentalism within its borders. India will not affirm the effects of Muslim marginalization in a largely Hindu society, while Pakistan will not affirm its inability to govern the lawless tribal provinces. Thus, both nations' politicians, and both nations' films, find scapegoats in the United States and in each other.

Khuda Kay Liye and New York are two films about one world-changing event told from two profoundly different perspectives. The mixture of the spice and sultry heat of South Asia blend with explosive topics such as prejudice, politics, and identity to form two films incapable of transcending the cynical nature of their homelands. Khuda Kay Liye offers to the world a glimpse into Pakistan's struggle over its modern identity, the strides of its meager film industry, and the lack of pragmatism in its corrupt politics. Meanwhile, two years later, New York exports another glossy drama to its Indian audiences detailing how despite addressing a serious topic, Indian film cannot detach itself from glamour and resorting to stereotypes in order to narrate a story. However, given difficult circumstances in the Subcontinent, both films also suffer from heavy burdens which restrict the filmmakers and their intentions. Khuda Kay Liye must communicate a message to its Muslim audiences that they have a choice between two paths: fundamentalism and liberalism. And with either choice, they cannot escape criticism. Similarly, New York is pressured to create a film experience that is grossly commercial, yet able to appeal to India's pluralistic society and its diverse overseas markets. Given these pressures, both films merit a strong level of praise for addressing their stories in a meaningful and poignant, if biased, style – something films before them, and many after, have failed to accomplish.


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Best of India 2010

The following slideshow comprises of shots from my travels around India during the summer of 2010. The architecture of the Arabo-Persian Mughal Empire, the intricate South Indian Dravidians, as well as more modern aspects of this quickly developing nation inspire this set of photographs.
Sites featured include Bangalore, Delhi, Jaipur, Agra, Hyderabad, Kochin, and Chennai. 

My Atheism in a Snapshot

I sit at a plastic table draped with a clear, disposable table cloth wearing an intricate, traditional Indian kurta. Members of the local Indian community are assembled in a large one- story house; a Hindu house of worship, a temple, a mandir. The crux of the vibrant – and noisy – gathering is the inauguration of the temple. I chat with the other teenagers about the latest Bollywood films, and we listen to music on our iPods. As we debate over which song to listen to, an auntie calls on all the children to enter the temple and pray. The train of children leaves the table to pray. I do not. I do not believe in God.

Being a minority is difficult; being a minority within a minority is a struggle. I realize that this setback does not have an easy resolution, but it begs for gradual change – a change that I must effectuate. Society views atheists as subordinate, lifeless, vulgar, and lacking a sense of cultural roots. Atheists are typecast as the “druggie” on the street corner or the radical “commie” devoid of patriotism; I am neither. My ideal rests with the great figures of history, such as Jefferson and Nehru, both men of the highest caliber, yet non-theists. Yesterday, these men used their secular identities to unite vast populations under common values of integrity, liberty, justice, and democracy. They manifested the face of atheism that stands strong for conscience, for society, and for cooperation. Today, I challenge society's definition of the atheist; I dictate my own potential. I contribute to society a new perspective, complemented by modern progressivism and collaboration, ancient ethic and honor. I write my personal moral code – for myself, for today.

Some might consider my lack of faith, spirituality, and religion a quirk or even a vagary, but to me atheism is sensible and logical. The prevailing theory of fatalism which is present in all religions seems pointless and detracting from life. Through rejecting fatalism, I feel responsible for my own actions and am aware that any goals I set may be achieved through my own will and not that of any God's Providence. When I am successful, I commend only myself; when I fail, I censure only myself. I have always been a pragmatic person, challenging the various superstitions rooted in the Indian and Hindu cultures. I find reciting Sanskrit incantations for protection, consulting priests for a propitious wedding date, or adorning an amulet for good luck to be an unnecessary attempt to leave the real practicalities of the world behind. Rather than escape these practicalities, I prefer to work with them.

The surroundings are serene, and all I hear are the devotees chanting and bells ringing from the inner sanctum of the temple. I envision the women sari-clad, accompanied by their husbands and children, and the priests' voices crescendoing with the final, collective “Om.” As I wait for the worship to conclude, I reach for the latest edition of Newsweek. I find glaring at me in tight, black, bold font, the headline: “Out, Out Damned Atheists!”

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Musings from Bangalore #1

I've been meaning to write this post since the day I arrived in Bangalore, but now that I've found a venue for broadband internet connection, I am ready to finally compose and publish these set of observations from my first few days in Bangalore.

  1. Speed bumps are ubiquitous on the streets in Bangalore. Yet, I believe that whoever considered instating these speed bumps are highly deceived. People do not actually slow down, rather they utilize these speed bumps as amusement by continuing at rapid speeds. Someone needs to build more amusement parks in Bangalore!

  2. There is great socioeconomic disparity easily visible on the streets. In its introduction to Bangalore, Lonely Planet India notes that “slums are tucked away even within well-off neighborhoods.” Unlike in the United States, the wealthy are not as segregated from the poor. The wealthiest IT businessmen roams the same streets and breaths the same pollution as the poorest beggar. For example, across the street from my grandmother's three-story house is a series of shacks.

  3. Manual labor is employed whenever possible. With the plethora of construction projects and renovations taking place, this is too apparent. Moreover, a large portion of this labor is unfortunately done through children. Economically, this makes a lot of sense in a nation where people are abundant and education is not available for all. Thus, with the supply of labor available, hand-made goods and labor is often cheaper than manufactured goods or machinery.

  4. Horns take on a totally different meaning in India. They are not employed after something dangerous (like in the United States), but rather horns are used by vehicles to notify other vehicles and pedestrians of their presence. Therefore, horns are ALWAYS sounded. I must admit I saw no benefit to this system during my first days in Bangalore, but after becoming a pedestrian in the city, I do appreciate when a vehicle beeps its horn as it approaches me. Is this a sign of being in India too long??

  5. Along the sides of the streets, there are (usually old) women in vests sweeping with what can be described as “brooms” aka bunch of long straw. Unlike my experience with horns, I still do not see the benefit of this sweeping. If you saw the amount of trash and dirt along these streets, you would realize that one lone woman sweeping with such a “broom” would make little or no difference at all. Perhaps this is just another way to employ people...

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

London to Bangalore

I had previously expected to write this post about the entire route starting at O'Hare, but as that flight was a fairly standard transatlantic flight with the usual demographics – tourists, students, business travelers – there was not too much out of the ordinary.

However, the second flight from Heathrow to Bangalore consisted was essentially a desi davat on an airplane. From the moment the gate number A10 was announced, the migration of saree-clad grandmothers and desi families was clearly apparent. The demographics of this flight were fairly homogenous: almost 95% Indian with a few white and business travelers and families.

A land of Indians has given birth to such chaos and calamity. Shouldn't a jet full of Indians as well? Here are two exchanges that took place even before the plane left the runway:

Woman A: Where is your son sitting?
Woman B: Over there. He just graduated high school.
Woman A: Where is he going to college?
Woman B: He got into Rice and Stanford. He might go to Stanford.
Woman A: Ohhh!! Congratulations!

Flight Attendant: (upon seeing a child in his grandfather's seat) Sir, how old is that child?
Old Desi Man: He is two years old.
Flight Attendant: Well, if he's two years old, he should be in a seat by himself.
Old Desi Man: Ohh, no...he's not two...he hasn't completed two years.
Flight Attendant: (with a puzzled and annoyed expression) So he hasn't completed two years yet...?

(Anyone with any knowledge of desis should understand why these two conversations are significant...or perhaps...insignificant)

In addition to, or rather, to complement the cheapness and the “davat-scene” taking place during the 9.5 hour flight, “aunties” were constantly standing in the aisles chatting with one another and families trying to get the most out of the galley by stuffing snacks into their bags.

I might as well post another complaint I have regarding people's behavior on airplanes. Why don't all passengers first get to their seat and then take turns placing their carry-ons into the overheard compartments? The current procedure that most take of finding their seat and immediately placing bags in the compartments creates a tremendous delay in boarding. This inefficiency is only amplified by the fact that people bring carry-ons larger than regulation size and also store their bags in compartments not assigned to them.

To conclude on a much more positive note, my experiences in both Heathrow and Bangalore airports were fabulous. The people were all respectful and efficient; they were friendly and hospitable. Heathrow is a huge airport, but its bright and consistently placed purple “Flight Connection” signs makes navigation easy, the sort of easy that borders on even being fun.

My experience at the new Bangalore Airport was also very simple and would have been extremely quick had the luggage arrived earlier on the belt. Also, for 4:30am, the airport security staff were warm and personable in welcoming us to their city and country.  

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

India Preparation Sources

As I prepare to depart tomorrow for Bangalore, I thought I would compile a list of internet sources that proved extremely helpful, entertaining, and convenient. With all its added challenges and rewards, Tourism in India has long remained a cult favorite for those hoping to experience something more than the sterility of Europe. Needless to say, there is a plethora of sources on the internet to service a traveler to the Subcontinent - and the best are developed by fellow travelers who have repeatedly made the trip, repeatedly overcome the challenges, and repeatedly acknowledged their "aha! moments."

ENGAGING User-Developed Sources:

IndiaMike - a monumental website that hosts an open forum for discussion on a wide range of subjects relating to travel/residency in India. IndiaMike also hosts a series of user-developed articles that detail various aspects of travel such as "How to Cross an Indian Road." In addition, there is a fairly expansive photo gallery posted by fellow travelers. 

TripAdvisor - a mainstay for travelers to any destination in the world, TripAdvisor aids in scouting out the main points of interest in any destination. The site's system of ranking attractions, hotels, etc and coupling the rankings with travelers' reviews and photographs permits one to efficiently process information. TripAdvisor is great for those who do not want to wander through forums, for those who want to make quick, calculated travel decisions.

Bolly-what Forums - the "India, Greater South Asia, and the Diaspora" and the "India-bound!"sections of the forums provide more interesting threads - whether you are planning to travel or not. Like IndiaMike, these forums are full of engaging anecdotes from fellow travelers. Also, be sure to wander outside of these two sections to learn more about Bollywood's sphere of influence as well as to brush up on your Hindi and Urdu. 

DRY Government Sources:

Guide Book: Lonely Planet India is the most widely read guide book for India and it has held this place since its inception in the 1980s. Lonely Planet also makes much of the basic planning information found in its books accessible online

My next post will be covering the ORD-LHR-BLR route. Stay tuned!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Ek Mulaaqaat...Bollywood Ke Saath

The following is a multimedia project developed as part of my ongoing study of the Hindi language. Literally titled "An Encounter with Bollywood," this 8-minute video provides snapshots of the diversity in content the Hindi film industry offers its audience. In addition, the second portion of the video focuses on Bollywood through the perspectives of native South Asians as well as those new to the genre of film. Enjoy!