Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Kurbaan: K.Jo. has a lot to answer for

Bollywood films have always traded in stereotypes. From the boisterous Sikh to the lascivious gori, nobody has ever accused Bollywood of being subtle, but the last few years have brought some unfortunate changes to the industry - culminating in the release of Karan Johar's Kurbaan, which uses dangerous stereotypes of Muslim characters of Pakistani and Afghan origin as scary fundamentalist terrorists.

The tagline of
Kurbaan
reads like this: "Some love stories have blood on them," explicitly stating that Kurbaan is going to be a love story and therefore should not be taken seriously. But is it really? Kurbaan is a thriller and one set against the background of Islamic terrorism, a subject that has become extremely contentious since the September 11th terrorist attacks on the cities of Washington, D.C., and New York. Kurbaan is certainly not the first Bollywood film to be made about terrorism - films as varied as Main Hoon Na (fluffy 2004 Shahrukh Khan film featuring Indian nationalist terrorists), Black & White (2008 indie film featuring a tormented Afghan terrorist), and Khakee (2004 police drama which uses terrorist stereotypes for a very clever plot twist) have used terrorism and terrorists as plot devices without the kind of dangerous ideas being played with in Kurbaan.

Kurbaan
's narrative is divided into two halves. Pre-interval, the narrative focuses on the character of Avantika (Kareena Kapoor), an explicitly Hindu character. She meets and falls in love with a charming Muslim man named Ehsaan (Saif Ali Khan, looking like he just stepped out of the Botox clinic). Despite the severe misgivings of Avantika's father, who disapproves of mixed-religion marriages, the couple marry and move to a South Asian neighborhood in the suburbs of New York City. The stereotypes fly fast and furious as Avantika realizes that all of her neighbors are traditional Muslims - the wives all wear voluminous hijaabs and are separated from the men in social situations - and it’s hinted that they are not Indian. When one couple invites Ehsaan and Avantika over for dinner, Avantika shows up in a skimpy dress and is treated to plenty of disapproving looks from both the men and women. The soundtrack may as well have been playing the music from Jaws as the veiled women spell out all the things they aren't allowed to do and eye Avantika and her skimpy dress with envy.

The next day, one of the wives calls on Avantika and tells her that she is scared for her life - that her husband is going to kill her - and asks Avantika to call her friend Rihana because she is not allowed to use a phone. Ehsaan tells her not to worry about it - to let the family work out its own problems - but Avantika gets curious and sneaks over to her neighbor's house and into the basement, where she finds that not only has the poor wife been killed but all of her neighbors
and her husband are Islamic terrorists who are planning to do all sorts of awful things in the name of Allah.

What is so disturbing to me about this scenario is that it plays into exactly the kind of fear and hate-mongering towards Muslims in the west that is the focus of the (much better) film
New York
, in which John Abraham plays a secular Muslim-American who is radicalized after he is tortured at the hands of the U.S. government. The narrative follows John’s character from the perspective of his Muslim friend Omar, who has made very different choices in life. John’s character’s decision to embrace terrorism is seen as a personal failing helped along by some unforgivable actions by the U.S. government. In the end, while the audience understands why he has embraced terrorism, we also understand that his choice to embrace hatred was his alone. New York may have used a similar plot device of terrorism, but the Muslim characters were all individuals, unlike Kurbaan. In Kurbaan, the secular, middle-class, westernized (and Hindu) Avantika is our point-of-view character and the audience is supposed to be just as unnerved as she is by the undistinguishable mass of veils that are her (non-Indian) Muslim neighbors. She, and we, the audience, are supposed to see them as strange and terrifying.

Post-interval the focus switches to journalist Riyaaz (Vivek Oberoi), who decides to go undercover in Ehsaan's terror cell in order to bring them to justice before they have a chance to set their big plan in motion. Most of the Riyaaz narrative is just plot driven, pushing events to the big, bloody showdown, but there are a couple of scenes where Riyaaz is trying to win the confidence of Ehsaan by showing how much he hates Whitey that are extremely disturbing in their subtext.

Ehsaan's cover story is that he is a professor of Islamic studies. Riyaaz joins his class one day and faces off against a white girl who is trying to defend America's occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. Bearing in mind that Riyaaz is supposed to be a proud American and Muslim, the tone of the scene is one where the audience is supposed to agree with Riyaaz. Riyaaz gets the students' ire as he says that just because you wear a suit and call yourself the president, it doesn't mean you are not a terrorist. To which the white girl replies, if you don't like it here, why don't you leave our country? Riyaaz tells her, as soon as you leave ours. As Bollywood director Tarun Mansukhani excitedly said via Twitter about a screening of
Kurbaan
, audiences were cheering when Riyaaz gives this speech.

What exactly is happening here? Whether or not you agree that the United States' occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan are justified, this scene crystallizes some disturbing politics in
Kurbaan
. Set up against the scary Muslims in the first half of the film, Riyaaz's speech comes as a shock. After the very deliberate us-versus-them, the audience is supposed to unite as, well, brown against the white oppressors, with Iraqis and Afghanis suddenly welcomed into the Indian fold. Not only is this an insulting attempt to place a band-aid over the regressive politics of the rest of the film, it signals a severe lack of self awareness of the part of Karan Johar and film's creators, who are well-respected in the Bollywood community. While leading man Saif Ali Khan is Muslim, the producers, director, and writers are not, lending an air of condescension to the idea that the enemy of my enemy is my friend - despite the fact that "my enemy's enemy," as shown by Kurbaan, are violent savages.

If
Kurbaan
was, as advertised, simply a love story set against a background of terrorism, a lot of these problems might not have mattered. In Fanaa (2006), Aamir Khan plays a Kashmiri terrorist who falls in love with an Indian woman but unlike Kurbaan, there are almost no political overtones and his character assumes full responsiblity for his actions. In the aforementioned New York (2009), John Abraham's character is, again, depicted as an individual who is given responsibility for his actions. Kurbaan, instead, ties the terrorist Ehsaan specifically to a non-Indian Muslim identity and never has him emerge as an individual.

Coming in the wake of the Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008, it also seems extremely irresponsible for Karan Johar and his team to be making films that explicitly demonize Muslims, especially since
Kurbaan
has seen a worldwide release into theaters that serve more than the NRI community. Fortuantely, it seems as if most of the film-watching public has chosen to pass on Kurbaan, which is heading on its way to mega-flop status. While there will always be creators who choose to make films with messages of hate and violence, I'm disappointed that Karan Johar, purveyor of delicious romantic fantasties, has chosen to join them. Like it or not, Bollywood does play tastemaker to a growing worldwide audience, and Bollywood producers need to think about the messages they are putting out before they decide to go ahead with a film.

13 comments:

aham said...

I havent seen this film so cant really comment on anything but would like to point out one thing, this film as I know was loved by the critics(most of them gave it a thumbs up) and it has bombed at the box-office, while another film De Dana Dan which was torn apart by critics is on its way to be a big box-office earner.The critics should do a reality check and stop acting like they can make or break a film based on what they write.

ajnabi said...

The thing I worry that the screenwriters and possibly Indian audiences have missed, is that "why don't you live somewhere else if you hate it here so much?" is a common knee-jerk retort to *anyone* who questions "patriotic" policies in the States. White people included, as I discovered when I was in college which was when 9/11 and then the current Iraq war started. Riyaaz's sentiments are far from rare, especially in an academic setting

And, really? Indian people and Afghani and Pakistani are all in the same country now? Wow. Someone call McNally.

veracious said...

Ugh, I had no idea Kurbaan had such islamophobic tones. That's dreadful. Makes me want to not see it.

It also disgusts me that Saif's character is a terrorist AND his cover is academia. Academic experts are often seen - and usually are - the voices of ration in this radicalized world. You'd assume a highly educated expert on a religion to realize the variety of beliefs within that religion, and to also understand other religions, and similarities between different faiths, and not be sucked into radical beliefs themselves.

To say, "even this highly intelligent, supposedly rational individual is a terrorist" is really dangerous.

Filmi Girl said...

@aham I agree 100% - the critics are just alienating themselves from what the public wants... they should be telling us if WE want to see a film, not if a film meets some arbitrary standard of "goodness."

@ajnabi That scene angered me so much - the "when you get out of our country" from Riyaaz that we're supposed to cheer?! So, we're all Afghan except when Afghans are scary terrorists who want to blow us all up? Nice one, K.Jo.

@veracious It was disturbing - and I LIKE terrorism movies. I liked Black and White and New York and Fanaa which all feature Muslim terrorists but they didn't have the "even this highly intelligent, supposedly rational individual is a terrorist" subtext. I'd be really curious to hear what you think if you ever watch the film.

Decandent Desi said...

Hey I would recommend a movie "Khuda Ke Liye". I don't know if you reviewed that movie, but if you like "New York", I suppose you will love Khuda Ke Liye. It came out in 2007 from Pakistan.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khuda_Kay_Liye

Filmi Girl said...

@decadent desi I've seen part of that film... we had to watch it in class. :) I never got around to finishing it, maybe I should give it a try...

theBollywoodFan said...

Might've said this before, but 'Khuda Ke Liye' is the most accurate film I have seen on the subject, and I think you should give it a shot again.

Thank you for this post, Filmi Girl. I appreciate your points of view. Haven't seen Kurbaan, and I don't think I'd want to. The subject, in this case, is too real for comfort (which is ironic, I like realistic cinema), which is why I've refrained from discussing New York and KKL in detail.

I'm kinda unsure about My Name is Khan too, esp. after that airport incident and SRK's reaction to it.

TadyLovesDaniel said...

I think the reason I don't hate it as much as other people do is because I LOVED Kareena and Vivek in the film...so it's hard for me to dislike the film...on the other hand...u are completely right on the whole stereotyping of Muslims or non-Indians as terrorists...i hope MNIK does a better job of getting it's message across...fingers crossed.

Banno said...

I haven't seen Kurbaan. But I agree with you completely that film makers like Karan Johar and stars like Saif and Kareena lend a credibility to attitudes and stereotypes that are completely rubbish. That's really dangerous.

Yes, it's been heartening that Kurbaan hasn't done well with the audiences here.

Bollyviewer said...

And I had hoped for something better! I should have known that with KJo involved, its going to be something that enforces stereotypes. Ground breaking filmmaker KJo is NOT. Add SRK to the mix, and I expect that My Name Is Khan will just be a hammier re-iteration of the same message.

Aqeel said...

Yeah "Khuda Ke Liye" is a must watch for filmigirl. It will be a refreshing change, methinks. Though its around 3 hours long. Plus, I loved the songs!!

Also, SRK was detained for an hour at the Airport? haha, that's nothing. Most (male) people I know that have a funny name at the end, get atleast 2. Me, personally, got 4 hours.

ajnabi said...

Okay, I've been thinking about this (I'm sure this clearly shows I have much to learn about time management. In the film, Riyaaz's views about "our country" might work as a method of disclosing his pretend fanaticism to Ehsaan, since clearly it is crazy. However, the fact that people were *cheering* the speech and that Tarun was all excited about that fact shows that the audience didn't perceive it that way, which is more a failure of storytelling. And maybe understanding on the director's part, since didn't he say that scene was like a hugely pointed one for the film? If that's what he saw in it, rather than one moderate character pretending to be a fanatical idiot to get into a real fanatical idiot's group, then that's a shame. Not to mention undoing all of Riyaaz's arguable points about suit-and-tie terrorism, because once they threw the "our country" thing in, all of the audience's sympathy should've been stopped cold with confusion. Okay. I'll stop now.

Filmi Girl said...

@ajnabi That's kind of my thought on the whole thing, as well. :)

The scene should have been Riyaaz attempting to win over Ehsaan with fake-enthusiastic pro-terrorist nonsense. BUT the way the scene was filmed AND there is another scene directly before it that shows Riyaaz being held up at customs because of his last name (!) and the comments of people from Tarun Mansukhani to Renzil d'Silva to Karan Johar lead me to believe that we were supposed to be on Riyaaz's side during the classroom discussion.

I maintain that the scene was cheap theatrics used to handwave away the awful stereotyped Muslims that had appeared in the film from the first frame.

*phew*

And I can't even tell you how glad I am that this film TANKED! (and only partly because it means we might not see more Bebo/Saif beyond Agent Vinod.

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl