Religious and National Identity in My Name is Khan

  • Author(s): Kathleen M. Erndl
  • When: 2016-01
  • Where: Journal of Religion & Film
  • The Bollywood film, My Name Is Khan (2010) is the story of an Indian Muslim man, Rizwan Khan, with Asberger’s Syndrome, living in the San Francisco area and married to an Indian Hindu woman, who, post 9/11, sets off on a journey across the United States to tell the President, “My name is Khan, and I’m not a terrorist.” Filmed in lush settings in both India and the U.S., this high-budget production was a blockbuster both in India and abroad. For director Karan Johar, known for his highly successful glossy romantic dramas, such as Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) and Kabhi Khushi Kabbi Gam (2001), it was a significant departure, both in terms of theme and cinematography. Six months before the release of My Name Is Khan, the star of the film, Shah Rukh Khan, while on a trip to the U.S., was detained by Homeland Security in the Newark airport and questioned for about two hours, because his name, Khan, had triggered a security alert. In Mumbai, demonstrators from the militant Hindu party, Shiv Sena, threatened the opening of the film. These two incidents, while external to the content of the film itself, relate directly to the intended audiences and to the message of the film. My Name is Khan, a love story set in pre and post-9/11 U.S., is an attempt to dispel stereotypes about Muslims for a Western, primarily North American, audience. Equally important is the message for the Indian audience of national unity, interreligious harmony and cooperation, in the wake of the Mumbai bombings of 26/11 (Nov. 26, 2008), while at the same time celebrating distinctive Muslim, as well as Hindu, religious identities. This paper explores ways in which Muslim images, practices, and beliefs—such as recitation of Bismillah, daily public prayer and wearing of prayer caps, hijab for women, giving of alms, the story of Abraham and Ishmael, and the pervasive Sufiana musical score—along with selected Hindu and American (especially African-American) motifs, are highlighted, reinterpreted, and re-contextualized. My Name is Khan, while navigating a minefield of problematic representations and cultural stereotypes, presents an identity that is at once both Muslim and Indian, while at the same time promoting a vision of universal humanity.

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