Khuda Kay Liye (In The Name Of God)

Reviewed By Abhishek Bandekar
Posted 04/21/08 15:36:56

"‘Progressive’ Discovery of Ignorance"
3 stars (Average)

There’s something to be said of filmmakers who are also lyricists and/or composers. Be it Clint Eastwood or Baz Luhrmann in the West or Bollywood's Gulzar and Vishal Bhardwaj; they all possess a priceless gift at universalizing even the most personal and subjective of stories. I guess it is because they are so connected to music- that precious art form which has in it the wonderful ability to strip away the exclusivity of our joys & sorrows and our hopes & fears, and make them universal. Little wonder then that Khuda Kay Liye, the writing-directing debut of Shoaib Mansoor(of the Pakistani band Vital Signs), ends up being the first ‘9/11’ film that addresses the collective.

Many have jumped the gun in labeling Khuda Kay Liye as a film about the travails of ‘liberal’ Muslims in a post 9/11 world. The tag is not only convenient but also very disturbing, for it supposes two ‘types’ of Muslim, not contained within the parameters of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but simply ‘liberal’ or ‘radical’. So yes, Khuda Kay Liye is about two brothers who, in a subversion of Bollywood trope, end up on different sides of…not the law, but religion. Mansoor(Shan), the older of the two brothers leaves for USA in early 2000 to study music after his kid brother and band-mate Sarmad(Fawad Khan) gets seduced by the religious brainwashing of cleric Maulana Tahiri(Rasheed Naz) and enlists as a clueless jihadi. While Mansoor finds himself questioning the future of a relationship with his newfound love in the US- the blonde American Janie(Austin Marie Sayre), Sarmad agrees to marry his London-raised cousin Mary(Iman Ali) against her wishes because he, like her hypocritical father(Humayun Kazmi), believes it to be in her best interests. Yet, despite this brief summary, the story isn’t so much about ‘liberal’ and ‘radical’ Muslims as much as it’s about misguided beliefs and notions and of course the ludicrousness of it all.

Mary’s father, running a convenient store in London, is in a live-in relationship with an Englishwoman but he cannot fathom the ignominy of having his daughter marry a non-Pakistani. His farmhouse-living affluent ‘progressive’ cousin in Pakistan mocks him for being this rigid but cannot digest his living with a woman he isn’t married to without rolling his eyes. Mansoor can’t believe his brother growing a beard and giving up music in the name of religion but yet claims ownership to the Taj Mahal as belonging to Pakistan simply because it was built by a Muslim ruler, by which yardstick of course the larger tacit implication is that Pakistan is a Muslim state and India a Hindu one. And then there is Maulana Tahiri who falls back on pop-philosophy when rendered speechless.

The point that Shoaib Mansoor is trying to make, I believe, is of irony. The irony in ‘reading’ Arabic but not ‘understanding’ it, the irony in ‘running’ away in a ‘burqa’, the irony in ‘singing’ the ‘azaan’ and so on. Which is why I insist that this film is not about two ‘types’ of Islam, but instead of the doom that stares back at us in a world full of hasty assumptions. Nothing captures this sentiment more perfectly than the tongue-in-cheek moment when Mary’s father, having married off his daughter and leaving her to her fate somewhere in the middle of Afghanistan, insists on heading back to the UK because the toilet facilities aren’t up to his standards!

Moments like the aforementioned one which flow smoothly are few however. And therein lays the problem with the film. Shoaib Mansoor wants to make too many points, all relevant and worthy. But in the process, he handicaps his own film. One can almost imagine Shoaib jotting down points and then crafting a screenplay around it. This is especially unfortunate in regards to the characters, who like the incidents, end up becoming mere tools to further arguments. Take for instance the scene where the American army attacks a Taliban settlement. Sarmad realizes the futility of it all here, and yet one never really feels anything due to the rushed manner of its execution. In contrast, Mary’s forced marriage is handled masterly, a disturbing scene if there ever was.

Sarmad’s character suffers the most, in that his is the least developed of the three leads. His brainwashing and then his un-brainwashing, both aren’t documented plausibly. Mansoor’s character doesn’t really go anywhere post-interval. It is only Mary who has a satisfactory resolution after a sketchy beginning. Even performance-wise Iman Ali, daughter of Abid Ali, gets into her groove after a shaky start. Fawad Khan, sounding very similar to Kunal Kapoor, hits the same notes. Shan however, save a few overacted bits, is very effective. One must also mention Austin Marie Sayre who in her limited screen-time gives the film’s most naturally effervescent performance. The same can’t be said of Humayun Kazmi who makes acting look more difficult than rocket science and puts on the worst acting display I’ve seen in a long, long time.

Naseeruddin Shah, in a guest appearance, steals the show. Arriving on the scene in the penultimate reels, Naseeruddin’s Maulana Wali is the mouthpiece of the director, mouthing lines beautifully in chaste Urdu. What is admirable is that his dialogues, like those of the exchange between KayKay Menon and Aditya Shrivastava in Black Friday, are consciously written as a playing-to-the-gallerymonologue, to avoid sounding like doctrines. I did have a problem however with Wali’s defending Mary by suggesting that she is not a Muslim to begin with. I found this very condescending and will be very thankful to anybody who’d explain what exactly he meant when he said that.

Finally, no review of Khuda Kay Liye can be complete without a mention of its music. This is hands-down one of the best albums in recent times. Every track from the lovely Bande to the trippy Allah to the soulful symphony Tiluk Kamod are a mélange of different sounds and are given justice in their filmed avatars, especially Allah which accompanies a riveting scene of Mary’s attempted escape shot against a rustic backdrop. I am reminded of the Leopold Stokowski quote that “A painter paints pictures on canvas…But musicians paint their pictures on silence.”

For a film made by a composer and this connected to music, both compositionally and thematically, it is only fitting that the film ends by invoking the Prophet Dawood(David)- he who was gifted with the most beautiful of vocal chords.

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