Review: "Khuda ke Liye": Oh, For God's Sake!

(apologies that this is old news: KkL came out in Pakistan on July 20th, 2007 and in the US / UK in November. But it has just come out in India, which is fascinating and worrisome at the same time).

Khuda Ke Liye, the first Pakistani-made movie to hit the worldwide art film market, is the worst possible attempt -- made by anybody, ever -- to grapple with issues close to the hearts of people in the country and South Asian region: religious extremism, community identity, generational conflict, racial profiling. While I don't stand with the mullahs who condemn it for blasphemy, it deserves condemnation of an entirely different sort, from anyone with taste and political imagination, for setting the quest for understanding the complexities of Pakistan's politics back decades.

For a film that has the artistic and political sensitivities of 'Springtime for Hitler', Shoaib Mansoor's KkL has done remarkably well. It is the biggest Pakistani box-office hit of all time, and has won critical acclaim, including the best picture award at the Cairo Film Festival. That success in itself is not surprising, given the cynical combination of topicality and novelty in the hyping of independent film. Also not surprising is the boring succession of fatwas and denunciations by the Islamist right. What bothers me is how 'liberals', both in Pakistan and abroad, have fallen in love with the film, its 'courage' and 'insight' in particular. This is perverse, for reasons that will I hope become clear. But it's instructive to see how the film's failings demonstrate the hollow heart of liberal Pakistan.

The film follows three basic plot lines. Musician brothers, Mansoor and Sarmad, go in two different directions after an extremist gang attacks a concert rehearsal. Sarmad starts talking to the extremist maulvi who ordered the attack, and gets drawn into this evil maulvi's vision of Islam. He (inevitably?!) ends up fighting we-can-only-guess-who on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Sarmad, meanwhile, goes to Chicago to study music, falls in love with a white chick called Janie, gets married, but ends up being picked up as a terrorist suspect after September 11th and tortured by shadowy government agents, presumably for being Pakistani. He ends up a vegetable, and is deported back home.

Meanwhile in London, the brothers' evil uncle, not liking his daughter Mary / Mariam's love of a white boy called Dave, packs her off to Pakistan to get her married to one of the cousins. Mansoor isn't interested, but Sarnad is. Sarnad's family, being good liberals, oppose this forced marriage. So Mary / Mariam and her dad trek out to a picturesque village / terrorist camp in Waziristan (of all places!), for a wedding: little does Mary know it's going to be her own! She is forced to marry Sarnad and gets stuck in the village / camp place. But she eventually smuggles a letter out to Dave and is rescued by the Pakistan Army along with Sarnad, and all is put right by the Lahore High Court.

The deepest problem I saw, perhaps the root of the film's problems, is a frightening lack of place. Ostensibly, most of the action takes place in Chicago, London and Lahore, as well as this village in (North? South?) Waziristan. Both the Chicago and London settings are vapid western set-pieces of houses in the suburbs. The action of the film calls for not more than that, but there is no indication of the lived experience of minorities and immigrants, nothing in fact to prefigure the passions and prejudices of the characters involved.

The village is pretty enough, but could really be anywhere in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Himalayan India. Apart from a couple of mountains here or there, there is nowhere to place it. Clearly, the lack of clarity is intentional, but these are regions where place takes on deep and lasting meaning, much more so than religion and nationality. The filmmakers even made the villagers speak chaste Urdu rather than Pushto with subtitles, giving you a glimpse of the North as seen by Lahori elites.

And Lahore! Such a tragedy! Apart from brief recognisable scenes of the Pearl Continental Hotel, the airport, the High Court, and the beautiful view from Coco's Restaurant overlooking the Badshahi Mosque, Lahore is dully anonymous; it consists of a 'farmhouse' out by the Raiwind Road, a mosque where religious indoctrination occurs, a random haveli where a good Muslim cleric lives. There is nothing to convey the beautiful and interesting city of Lahore: no monuments to modernity like the Minar-e-Pakistan, no crumbling maze-like Old City, no Gurudwara by the Fort, no Anakali market, no upmarket neighbourhoods like Gulberg, no outlying suburbs like DHA, no beautiful parks, no intersecting canal, no Mall with the Zamzamma in the middle and the Museum to your right. In short, no indication what-so-ever that many different lives and many different experiences cohabitate in this intricate and very old city.

[on a side-note, there are millions of partition refugees all over North India who would love a glimpse of their beloved lost city, but that alas, was not forthcoming. Can you imagine the disappointment?].

The lack of location shooting creates a narrative free of social context. That can be superbly effective in some cinematic arenas, but this is definitely not one of them: here, the devil needs to be in the details of daily life and interaction, not conjured in some generic space with adequate enough lighting. Pakistan, especially, as a country visually unknown to viewers in the west, needs to shown as a place with lots of different possibilities, not a symbol drawn only in relation to extremism.

Such an painful oversight could be mitigated by strong characterisation, but unfortunately this is not evident. Most 'characters' are no more than cardboard cutouts of stock parts, who don't do much more than look pretty and occasionally sing. And on top of that, they seem to have been recruited solely from a universe of idiots.

For example, Sarmad, a well-educated member of Lahore's elite with a stable and loving family, is convinced by a militant maulvi sahib because he tells Sarmad that music is forbidden in Islam. So he not only gives up music, but grows a beard and heads off to fight on the border. What gives?

Mary / Mariam, too, is presumably savvy enough to realise what her father is doing, first by taking her to Pakistan, and second by taking her to Waziristan. She is not introduced as someone too young, too gullible or too weak-willed to avoid being forced into marriage and to a life of listlessness and boredom in the terrorist village. What's really a tragedy is that many young women are forced into marriages like this, but in much worse conditions: abducted by Pakistani family members while too young to escape, locked up, raped, and beaten into submission. By contrast, Mary / Mariam is a college student who, in London, has definitely seen films and read accounts of this sort of thing happening. All the female characters -- from Mary / Mariam to Mansoor's gora wife Janie to evil uncle's girlfriend -- are about as energetic as toadstools: there is a lot of sighing and despondency, but not much real activity until the very end. Women are ground-down in Pakistan as elsewhere, but the women portrayed in this film would have had a great deal more power, presence and authority than they actually do.

Perhaps the stupidest of all the moronic characters are the American interrogators who capture and torture Mansoor. Based on the most ridiculous circumstantial evidence -- oh, he's a Pakistani and he can afford a convertible? and he flies recreationally! -- he's locked up and tortured, in Chicago, for weeks and weeks. The evil interrogator asks why 'you' (meaning Muslims) hate America. Bernard Lewis, anyone? 'Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay' is more credible. America is responsible for some egregious assaults on freedom and dignity since September 11th, but painting with such a broad brush feeds into America-bashing of the most boring kind.

The thing about someone like Mansoor is that his class would protect him from such ridiculously bad targeting, beyond, say, a night in local lockup based on ungrounded suspicion, and then lawyers would be storming the scene with writs of habeas corpus. The vast majority of South Asians and other Muslims targeted by the War on Terror's ridiculously blunt methods are from marginal communities, illegal immigrants, those picked up abroad from associating with the wrong crowd. Their stories, like the ones of abducted women in Pakistan, need to be told in more honest, less stilted ways.

The character that is completely missing in this entire fiasco is the Pakistani state. I don't care how worried a man is for the welfare of his niece and son, but the Pakistani just army does not fly helicopters in to villages in (let's say South) Waziristan to pick them up. They would almost certainly blow it away first. And if perchance Sarnad gets into custody, he would be subject to the tortures that Mansoor is supposed to have been, to get names of his compatriots, or perhaps for the fun of it. Neither Sarmad nor evil maulvi sahib would ever see the inside of a courtroom; such is how the war on terror is being fought in Pakistan. Only a couple of weeks before this movie came out, the military stormed the Lal Masjid in Islamabad after a months-long standoff, with 173 casualties. The state is a powerful force in Pakistan, and not passive.

The reactions to Khuda ke Liye in the Desi blogosphere (see, for example, review from desipundit) are in line with the liberal perspective on Islamic extremism as existing solely at the level of ideas, which can be won by the blinding eloquence of moderation.

Are there different interpretations of the Qura'an, especially when taken as guide to human action? Of course! But that 'realisation' (so blatantly obvious to everyone apart from the most hard-line or brain-washed) is hardly revolutionary. The religious philosophies are hardly the root of the problem, which is located in very grounded struggles that have very little to do with theology and a lot to do with the use and abuse of power. 'Liberal Pakistan', mostly rich and Punjabi, prefers to keep things theoretical, because then they don't have to examine their own culpability through the exercise of their own privilege.

The moment that Pakistanis, including those involved in post-Emergency activism, are able to see the country as a landscape of class, power and deep inequality -- fertile ground for the disaffected to take up weapons readily available anywhere -- then we might actually get honest and brave representations of the challenges. Until then, though, we must content ourselves with this sh*t.

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Shoaib Mansoor (Calls himself

Shoaib Mansoor (Calls himself Shoman for short) the film-maker has insinuated some slices of true life intot he movie. The musician turned extremist mullah has elements of Junaid Jamshed the founder of the pop band Strings, who later left it all for the Tabiligi Jamaat. He still sings though (and beautifully). Shoman himself cannot accept separating hiumself from music. Unconsciously some Pakistatani exclusivism seeps into the movie. When the hero introduces Pakistan to his girl friend he talks about it being located near Afghanistan, China, etc., before he comes to its closest neighbor India. And India is also the home of the Taj that the hero says, "We built," and the country "we ruled over for a 1000 years." So even our liberal/moderate neighbour thinks like a conqueror and can't help giving the game away, that Pakistan was founded by a bunch of religiously motivated elite who could not tolerate the idea of living in a democracy where the numerically larger Hindus would now come to power through the ballot box. You wonder if Shoman sees the reality of a non-existent Hindu bloc that consists of several politcal groups whose members apart living as Hindus share almost nothing else in common. Does he see the Muslims in India who share none of his doubts? does he learn from the life of Naseeruddin Shah who is married to a Hindu and lends his voice to every organization that condemns bigotry and promotes amity? Does Shoman learn from the life of Naseeruddin our most gifted actor whose brother Lt.Gen. Zameeruddin Shah is among the three officers most likely to become the next Chief of Army Staff of India? Jinnah it is said wanted the term India to refer to the region at large and its two largest units be known as Pakistan and Hindustan. Shoman the next time you should make your movie in India about India as a Pakistani and we want to see ourselves through your eyes.

Tablighi Jamaat is the least

Tablighi Jamaat is the least of either Pakistan or India's problems! I might find them distasteful because of their obsessiveness and their labour-repressing tendencies, but they are about as likely to send kids to Afghanistan as the Bombay Asiatic Society. That the film-maker can't tell the difference is absolutely shocking.

The slippage between 'Pakistani' and 'Muslim' in the film is deeply, deeply problematic, and you're right to point that out. What's all this 'we ruled Spain for 800 years'?! But I would take it more as insularity and an inferiority complex than a 'conquerer's mentality'.

Shoman is clearly an irresponsible moron, and this is the worst possible representation of Pakistan to India and the rest of the world.

I do take issue with your characterisation that 'Pakistan was founded by a bunch of religiously motivated elites'. Can you find me a more deeply secular -- nay, even English -- individual than Jinnah? How was his mosque attendance? What were his drinking habits? And even Iqbal, a devout Muslim, would've been decried as a heretic if the clerics bothered to read his religioud philosophy
in English. The Muslim League at the time was worried about anti-Muslim discrimination in North India, mostly stoked by many decades' worth of colonial policies designed to create enmity between communities. The solution they provided was to have a federation with a weak central government, and stronger provinces divided into Hindu- and Muslim-majority. It was an unworkable plan, but by not institutionally addressing the concerns the AIML had, figures like Patel were as responsible for Partition as Jinnah was.

I personally don't find arguing back and forth about the intentions of what happened 60 years ago all that helpful. Pakistan in 2008 is a completely different creature than it was in 1947, and so much worse in so many ways -- cut off from the world except through self-serving elites, economically backward and rife with internal division.

What it badly needs is greater understanding and sympathy, and this movie -- marketed to international audiences -- does not do that at all. It's a blinkered self-referential guide to the perspective of the padded classes on extremism.

[...] Pass the Roti on the

[...] Pass the Roti on the Left Side reviews the internationally acclaimed Pakistani movie ‘Khuda Ke Liye‘ (For God's Sake), which was recently released in Indian Theaters. Posted by Rezwan Share This [...]

I (unfortunately) agree with

I (unfortunately) agree with the review of this film - unfortunately because I expected and hoped for so much more. I widely covered its India release on my blog ( in order to discuss the issue of film diplomacy and how its wide commercial release in Indian theaters was significant. I only was able to watch the film myself recently, and was very disappointed. First of all, the acting was TERRIBLE - I would be interested to know if anyone felt Iman Ali put on a good British accent - I cringed everytime she wasn't speaking in Urdu. While some of the other actors were okay, the storyline treatment was far too simplistic to merit the acclaim it received. However, to be fair, the fact that the film did receive so much attention should be applauded, particularly since the Pakistani film industry is attempting to gain credibility. However, the bar should frankly be set a little higher - the idea and the effort was there, but in order to truly better our industry and support our filmmakers we should give credit where credit was due, and point out the flaws and shortcomings in order to better the product the next time around. Anyway, great review, thanks!

I don't agree at all with

I don't agree at all with your reviews. You guys are not grounded in reality and unaware of current affairs of the world. First of all the moview KKL was devoid of any unnecessary details (and wastage of film stock). At least (thankfully) it did not have a surrealistic storyline like "Om Shanti Om" which is a ridiculous movie in every aspect of the word. I am just surprised how kaawa ignores the blatant exaggerations in this movie: Om and Shanti dying and them reborning into the same bodies, in the same family, on the same stage of action. How convenient!!!.

Whatever criticism Kaawa has made surprised me to his ignorance about our world. Post 9/11 American public became so ridiculously paranoid that they killed few sikh men with headgear assuming them to be terrorists. There were a groups of American Muslim friends who were raised in USA and happened to keep beard. These students were on their way to their medical school and stopped at a restaurant for food. They were joking among themselves and were dumb enough to mention the word "bomb". All hell broke loose. This woman who was sitting behind them, reported these guys to police. They were interrogated on the spot. It happened to me when my car was rear-ended by some guy. I got out of my car with my briefcase to save my life and stood by the freeway waiting for help to come. When police came they treated me like criminals instead of helping me out. They asked me to drop my briefcase and put my hands on the car while they searched me for weapon. How humiliating it was for Pakistani-american to be searched by the police while people were driving by. And Kaawa had the audacity to criticise Shoman for depicting reality as is?

In other instance he doesn't understand how religious muslim will turn extremist. Again he forgets the case of John Walker Lindh (an American Taliban). How he became an extremist. He also conveniently ignores the stores of Junaid Jumshaid, Yusuf Islam and countless other converts/reverts who initially become very very devout muslims to the point of pain.

KKL is a wonderful work of art. It proves good movies can be made with less budget if the talented people team up.

hey don't knock springtime

hey don't knock springtime for's a classic, and did really well at the box office :)

Yes manvantara I am agree

Yes manvantara I am agree with you that Junaid Jamshed is the best King of POp singer in Pakistan

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