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.