Archive for June, 2008

The screening of the first Pakistan film on Indian screens since Partition, is proving to be a momentous experience for a generation of Indians both young and old, that have been silently flocking cinema halls and multiplexes. The film released in the first week of April may not be drawing people in large crowds, but it has been a continuous trickle that has kept the film in the running for nearly two months now. Through this period, I have sat next to a middle-aged Punjabi family muttering and taking deep sighs, “this should not happen…its wrong,” and I have sat next to an Indian Muslim that sobbed on my shoulder, imploring, “why?” and I have sat with two “Tashan” loving teenagers who claimed that it was the most “meaningful” film they saw in 2008.

“Khuda Ke Liye” (In the Name of God) essayed by a first time Pakistan film director, Shoaib Mansoor (the writer of the Pakistan’s first rock band Vital Signs’ highly popular songs whose founding members include Salman Ahmad, the lead guitarist of the now nearly defunct rock group, Junoon), has received gracious applause in the Indian cinema houses, guarded criticism from the Indian film critics and graceless comments from the political commentators.

The film is by no means a cinematic tour de force. Cinematographically it’s tacky and the acting apart from the wonderful performance by Rasheed Naz as Maulana Tahiri and Naseeruddin Shah as Maulana Wali, is largely devoid of depth. In fact, as the well-known Pakistani commentator, Tariq Ali, acerbically points out, it comes across as even crude, “I went to a matinee performance in Lahore and the cinema was packed with young people,” he wrote in October 4, 2007 issue of the London Times Book Review. “The film is well intentioned, also long-winded and crude. It has, however, had an impact. At least it tries out a few ideas, which is unheard of in a country where the film industry produces nothing but Bollywood-style dross, even if the ideas are limited to the good Muslim, bad Muslim stereotype. Jihadi violence is bad. Music is good and not anti-Islamic. Violence and rape in the badlands of the Pakistan-Afghan frontier are intercut with scenes in a post-9/11 United States, where an innocent Pakistani musician is lifted by intelligence operatives and tortured…The implication is that each side feeds on the other.”

You don’t need to be a history buff to understand the reasons behind Shoaib Mansoor’s right to reclaim cultural space, hijacked by political exigencies that by force, suppression and devious intent created the divide and two nation states: India and Pakistan and the nature of the subsequent political structures that took root in the two countries.

The film is, as Ali points out a “crude” exploration of Islam in Pakistan’s conscience. Or to expand the territory a bit, the exploration of Islam in subcontinent’s conscience. But, it is also something more than that. It’s about cultural conflict between the West and the East. Imagine the film maker, for whom Lahore is just 507 km from Delhi and another mere 203km from Agra where the Taj Mahal, the symbol of love is situated. Further, think about the man who asserts that Arabic is alien to him (as it is to an Indian, we understand Urdu not Persian) or the fact that he never thought of slicing his tabeez, an amulet, to discover its content. And when he does see it, he’s as surprised as his interrogator. Listen too to the film’s music track that while acknowledging tribute to the late Punjabi quawwal, Nusarat Fateh Ali Khan, sings the rustic Punjabi Sufi saint, Bulleh Shah’s searing stanzas of devotion to absolute truth in “Bandiya Ho”. These are admissions of a soul that is connected to the idea of India before the British colonized it and as such it is a tremendous act of bravery.

Sadly, venerable columnist of the Indian Express, the self appointed provocateur of the Newspaper of Courage, Tavleen Singh, takes on the narrow “us versus them” view and takes a rabid bite by suggesting India reclaim Harrapa and Mohenjodaro. On April 13, 2008 edition of the newspaper she writes, “In Khuda Ke Liye, the prejudices against India come through as well. The hero, when he lands in Chicago, finds that his future wife does not know that Pakistan is a country. When he tries to explain where it is geographically, he mentions Iran, Afghanistan and China before coming to India. It happens that India is the only country she knows and Taj Mahal the only Indian monument she has heard of. ‘We built it,’ says our hero, ‘we ruled India for a thousand years and Spain for 800.’ As an Indian, my question is: who is we? Those who left for Pakistan or the 180 million Muslims who still live in India? If we pursue this ‘we’ nonsense, we must urge the Indian Government to bring back Harappa and Mohenjo-daro and Taxila. And that is only the short list.”

The filmmaker’s statement that “we ruled India for a thousand years….” is not about seeking the placement of Islam in power. It’s about placing the context of history in fact. Both Spain and pre-Partition India are examples of cultural synthesis that occurred on account of rulers adopting and adapting to the countries they conquered. It was not about looting, but building, and sustaining and creating new language of discourse whether it was through Jallaludin Akbar’s Din-e-illahi, the Indo-Saracenic architecture or Sufiana tradition that defines our inherited intellectual and physical landscape.

For Masroor it is making a statement about one of the most powerful nations, in the heart of Asia, having lost its crown and the right to contribute to the world as an equal, free of the Western imperialism and the accompanying mambo-jambo paraded as legitimate West-East discourse. “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but how come all terrorists are Muslim?” asks the interrogator of the hero in the film. Now where did we hear this argument first?

It came from people like Ann Coulter, a George Bush supporter and a syndicated columnist with a number of conservative websites in the United States. Coulter barely a few days after 9/11, on 28 September 2001 in a column syndicated to Human Events Online, WorldNetDaily, Townhall.com, FrontPageMag and Jewish World Review, asserted that only Muslims could have been behind the attacks:

“As the entire country has been repeatedly lectured, most Muslims are amazingly peaceful, deeply religious, wouldn’t hurt a fly. Indeed, endless invocations of the pacific nature of most Muslims is the only free speech it is safe to engage in these days.

This is a preposterous irrelevancy. Fine, we get it. The New York Times can rest assured that every last American has now heard the news that not all Muslims are terrorists. That’s not the point. Not all Muslims may be terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims — at least all terrorists capable of assembling a murderous plot against America that leaves 7,000 people dead in under two hours.”

Years before Partition, in a book titled, “Nationalism” (written in 1917) Rabindranath Tagore advanced that India’s resistance to imperialism must rest on ability to provide not competing nationalisms, but a creative solution to the divisiveness produced by racial consciousness. What stops us from agreeing then with Shoaib Mansoor that violence is bad, music is good and racial profiling and conflict is about who-holds-the-gun-to-your temple? And what stops us from accepting Mansoor as one of us?

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