Mansoor, the young protagonist and emotional axis of Khuda Ke Liye, is a conscientious student of music in Chicago. He is at home in two worlds—the one he has left behind in Lahore, shaped by religion and his liberal family; and the one he has discovered in the US, which promises creative and intellectual freedom. Both worlds merge seamlessly in his music— grounded in classical ragas of the subcontinent, but eclectic in flavour and rhythm. He lives and makes music passionately, and ends up as a deranged inmate at a Chicago mental rehabilitation centre.
Karachi-based director Shoaib Mansoor presents the dark and compelling story of Mansoor (played by Pakistani actor Shaan) with extreme care in his debut feature, the first film from Pakistan to be released in Indian theatres.
Criss-crossing three cities— London, Chicago and Lahore— and exploring three interconnected lives, Mansoor adopts a plot structure that has been explored, and often abused, by directors. There is little to applaud in the acting, casting or technical abilities of its makers. Yet, Khuda Ke Liye—already a festival favourite in Europe, the US and India—is important because of its message.
Mansoor’s intent—to portray the complexities and contradictions of Muslim identity in the post 9/11 world—is indeed what shines through. It is the film’s soul.
Mansoor is loved as well as loathed in Karachi and Lahore. Khuda Ke Liye, which released in Pakistan in July last year, irked the religious clergy enough to resort to their ritualistic hooliganism—the film was banned in some cities, posters were vandalized and effigies burnt. Hate blogs about him proliferated; even fans of his music videos and TV plays slandered him (Shoaib is known for the lavishly produced Supreme Ishq series of music videos in Pakistan, and for having patronized many Pakistani pop bands). At the same time, he is hailed as the new, independent voice of film-making in a country that is known for its obsession with our stars and commercial films.
As Percept Picture Co. was preparing to release the film in India, Shoaib was in the middle of shooting a second feature. “Pakistan doesn’t have a vibrant film culture. Films are not up to international standards and creativity is still not encouraged,” he said in a telephone interview. Through the character of Mansoor, he touches upon the pain Pakistanis face because they are seen as citizens of a shadow nation. In the US, the young music student gets instant respect when he says he is from a country close to India; his friendly Sikh neighbour turns hostile after the 11 September catastrophe, calling him “a Paki terrorist”.
Being Muslim in a world that is theoretically divided into evil and good, Islam and the West, had a profound impact on Shoaib, and inspired this film. But the real germ was a newspaper article he read in 2006: “It was an interview with my old friend and associate, the very talented musician Junaid Jamshed. He had grown a beard, gave up music because religious clerics had made him believe that Islam deems music evil, and had become a mouthpiece for the ugliest, most rigid form of Islam. I felt betrayed. How could he let my efforts to promote and encourage him go waste?”
It took one conversation with Naseeruddin Shah to convince the Indian actor that this was a script worth going for. Shah didn’t accept any money for his role. As an Islamic scholar representing the voice of reason in Islam, he delivers a powerful cameo. Some of the best lines in the film, indeed the director’s own views on religious fundamentalism, are Shah’s: Daarhi mein mazhab nahin, mazhab mein daarhi hai (Religion is not in the beard).
It was an easy choice for Shah, who represented the film-makers at the launch of the film’s energetic music score by the young Pakistani duo Shuja Haider and Ahmed Jahanzeb, at a Mumbai nightclub in the second week of March. “I refused the role of Mohammad Ali Jinnah in Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday because I don’t subscribe to his politics. These are dilemmas I face when my own small identity as a Muslim and my own political beliefs clash with my creative work. I wanted to be the agent that unveils the myths about Islam and this was an opportunity,” Shah says.
He considers Khuda Ke Liyea pathbreaking film. The three lives that it delves into—Mariyam (Imaan Ali), a London-bred Muslim girl who is abandoned in Afghanistan by her own father in a loveless marriage, her husband Sarmad (Fawhad Husain), a former musician who falls prey to fundamentalist beliefs, and Mansoor, the versatile musician who is detained and tortured by US officials after 9/11—are the kind we have read about in newspapers, and perhaps felt no affinity with because their reality is far from ours. Despite being an amateurish effort cinematically, this film zooms you in to the reality of being a Muslim today.
Khuda Ke Liye released in Mumbai on Friday