“Spectacles” film series considers religion in film with “My Name is Khan”

Actor Shah Rukh Khan plays Rizwan Khan, the protagonist with Asperger’s Syndrome who embarks on a cross-country journey in the Indian Bollywood film “My Name Is Khan”. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Moviegoers and religious scholars gathered for a film screening Tuesday in the hopes of viewing religion through a cinematic lens.

Spectacles — a film series that analyzes religious and cultural motifs in movies — screened “My Name is Khan” in room 407 of the Cathedral of Learning from 7-9 p.m for an audience of about 15 people.

In addition to holding film discussions, Spectacles’ members — who consist of Pitt religious study majors — analyze religious and cultural themes in mainstream media while also considering public perception of religion in today’s society.

“My Name is Khan,” is a 2010 Indian Bollywood film from director Karan Johar. It tells the story of Rizwan Khan, a Muslim man from India with Asperger’s syndrome who embarks on a journey to the United States.

The film follows Khan’s life, from his impoverished upbringing in India to his immigration and subsequent residence in the United States. He arrives on the shores of San Francisco and quickly falls in love with a Hindu Indian woman, sharing a life that is happy and serene — until the events of 9/11 take place.

The events that follow demonstrate the hardships and anguish Khan and his family experience in a post-9/11 environment, brimming with prejudice and ostracism for Muslim Americans.

After the screening, senior Karam Elahi, a religious studies and biology major, held an open discussion along with fellow club member Mohammad Sajjad, a senior majoring in religious studies and natural sciences.

The speakers asked questions on the main themes of the film, highlighting some of the key points the film conveys — including ideas of acceptance and compassion in times of political conflict.

“The reason I chose this film is because it kind of goes into the nitty-gritty of prejudice in the U.S. after 9/11,” Elahi said. “This was one of the first films to actually illustrate that effectively, so I thought it would be very interesting to show that to everybody else and have a more thought-out discussion regarding it.”

Audience members engaged in questions and comments about the film’s impact in today’s social climate, in addition to discussing how the film brought awareness to Asperger’s syndrome. One audience member said he thought the film did a good job in explaining that the best way to show people your own beliefs is through action.

Elahi said he wanted to include a film in the series with more serious subject matter, as opposed to the more lighthearted films in the series — such as the animated children’s film “Spirited Away” and the comical documentary “Kumare.”

Sajjad said there was one scene in particular that did a good job of accurately characterizing the division in Muslim attitudes post-9/11. In this scene, Khan enters a city mosque to pray, but directly across from him, a man preaches to others his fallacious interpretation of Allah’s will, asking them to sacrifice themselves to destroy their oppressors.

While the man is encouraging hatred, revenge and violence toward Americans, Khan walks over to the group and calmly tells them Allah would never want the sacrifice of his disciples. Rather, Khan says, Allah’s will is for unity and empathy towards your fellow man.

“Khan’s response is that you should be acting out of compassion and love, not vengeance,” Sajjad said. “So I think the movie overall does a pretty good job of showing two sides of the story.”

Speaking about Khan having Asperger’s syndrome, Elahi said it brought an additional depth to the film and translated complicated ideas surrounding racism in America into more basic terms. Sajjid added that it helped the viewer to root for Khan and the values he held dear.

“One thing that stood out to me was his wife telling him to not return home until he tells the president and the rest of the United States that he isn’t a terrorist,” Sajjid said. “Because of his Asperger’s syndrome, he took that literally and, up until the end of the movie, he made sure that he kept that promise.”

First-year student David Steinharter remarked that the film ran a bit too long and was corny at times. Still, it won him over with its emotional and heartfelt message encouraging viewers to separate an individual act of terrorism from the greater religious community.

“I think it had a message of being tolerant of people, to not judge them based on things that aren’t necessarily related to their personality as a whole,” Steinharter said. “And just because they are a certain type of way, it doesn’t mean they’re not valuable.”

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