Friday, September 03, 2010

On Terrorism & Culture (A Response to Manan Ahmed's Essay)

An interesting piece by Manan Ahmed in The National. [UPDATED 9/3/10: Lapata's piece HERE predates Ahmed's, and should also be kept in mind for my response below.]

A rambling response:

I found this to be a superb piece, as well as personally useful inasmuch as it provided a pathway into Daisy Rockwell's work that had hitherto been denied to me (I had always found her images compelling, but inaccessible and "closed" to me, and Ahmed's reading was thus suggestive and welcome). No reader of this blog will be surprised to read that I found Ahmed's invocation of Bollywood (and its contrast with American discourses on terrorism) useful -- it would be too bureaucratic, too much like the 9/11 Commission, to gauge imaginative work in terms of its utility (especially given that the Bollywood films co-exist with horrific state abuses, within or without the paradigm of counter-terrorism operations), but, nevertheless, the tradition of imagining the terrorist as borne from the state's own excesses (Dil Se is the best, by far; Fiza and Dhoka are crappily part of the same vein) is valuable work. More importantly, eschewing the tendency to imagine the terrorist as completely other, which Ahmed reads American discourses as doing, is ethical work, and when harnessed to the extraordinary appeal of the mass stars (Hrithik Roshan, Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, and so on), Bollywood representations of the terrorist open up a space where empathy (not so much for the terrorist as for the people caught up in the vice-like grip of conflict, suspicion, and cruelty; from among whom the ranks of terrorists might be drawn) might be imagined.

For Ahmed, then, America imagines the terrorist as other, whereas Bollywood can present a sympathetic portrayal -- but is this so only if the terrorist is not completely other? i.e., Where the terrorist is portrayed as completely other, are Indian representations no different in kind than American ones, and might this account for why Bollywood portrayals of Pakistani or Afghani terrorists seem seem completely "off"? (For instance, even in the otherwise fantastic Black Friday, not to speak of more mediocre fare like Deewar - Let's Bring Our Heroes Home, one is struck by how un-recognizable Pakistan is, almost as if Umberto Eco's Baudolino were telling the tale.) Perhaps the Bollywood model simply re-inscribes empathy in the nationalistic framework: we are asked to sympathize, and by the end of the film, we are asked to affirm the best that is in India, including the very sympathy the film elicits from us for our (misguided) own. But not universally (the film cited by Ahmed -- Dil Se -- is a good, if atypical, example), and perhaps, occasionally, there is sympathy for others as well: for instance, in Sarfarosh, it is the "muhajir" ISI agent played by Naseeruddin Shah who articulates the pain of Partition most frankly (although, there can be little doubt that the one-time countryman, the Pakistani, especially the "muhajir" with roots in areas that form part of even post-1947 India, is not an "other" in the same way that, e.g., the trans-national jihadi of Anil Sharma's The Hero is). Such imaginative sympathy, borne of liberal nationalism, might well be problematic, but I agree with Ahmed's implication that it remains a more self-aware and nuanced position than the civilizational/apocalyptic tone of struggle we have all become familiar with in post-9/11 American culture. Ahmed does well to make that last word the focus of his piece: one can only have realistic (that is to say banal) expectations from states and bureaucracies -- the real failure of imagination is occurring elsewhere.


Lapata said...

Dear Qalandar,

So sorry you felt shut out from my artwork! If you had just knocked, I would have let you in. :)



Qalandar said...

I knew that didn't come out right when i wrote it...

Lapata said...

well, all I have to say is:

Anonymous said...

Good Post.

Rathesh said...

I feel not only terrorist but bollywood doesn't understand anything foreign. For e.g. see the portrayal of foreign white woman or any black man. Any kind of understanding is lacking even in the films made by somebody as smart as Imtiaz Ali ( Love aaj Kal)