Kabir Khan’s ‘Phantom’ sticks to the Hindu right wing’s definition of a ‘good Muslim’

Beyond the themes of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ Muslim and justifying the need for India to undertake covert operations against Pakistan, Phantom can be seen, and experienced, as the fantasy of the non-religious Muslim middle class to have their loyalty to the nation believed in and accepted. This is the class which is minuscule, largely English-speaking, even deracinated and westernized, a category to which this writer too would perhaps belong.
No doubt, the perceived suspicion about the Muslim community’s allegiance to India perturbs its members across the class divide. Yet it rattles the non-religious, English-speaking Muslims infinitely more, largely because in their sensibilities they are no different from their Hindu middle class counterparts.
Unlike most Hindi films involving Muslim protagonists, the community identity of Phantom’s Col Daniyal Khan, essayed by Saif Ali Khan, is not revealed through his expressions of religiosity. He doesn’t take the name of Allah even once in the film, doesn’t visit a mosque or prays, and though he sports a beard, it does not have what is widely recognised as the Islamic cut. Long before the intermission, we are told Col Khan isn’t averse to tippling, a taboo in Islam.
The question to ask is: Could the non-religious, or secular, dimensions of Col Khan’s persona have been inadvertent, or spring from unfamiliarity with the Muslim’s cultural and religious system?
This is unlikely. Phantom’s director is Muslim (Kabir Khan), who teamed up with other Muslims (Kausar Munir and Parvez Shaikh) to write the story and the screenplay for the film. Phantom is based on Mumbai Avengers, whose author is Hussain Zaidi, yet another Muslim. It is inconceivable that not one of them would know the tenets of Islam or the dominant cultural practices of Indian Muslims. We have to assume, therefore, that the character traits of Col Khan were deliberate choices of those who invented him.
In India, the community identity of a person doesn’t necessarily have to be known through his or her performance of religious rituals or the makers of their religion he or she wears, a beard, sindoor, tilak, turban, a cross, etc. The identity of the person is revealed through his or her name, quite unlike, say, in West Asia. Thus, even an atheist is deemed Muslim, in case he or she has a Muslim name.
Viewed from this perspective, Phantom seems so much the fantasy of the deracinated Muslim middle class for acceptance. But what makes this fantasy a little startling are the implicit assumptions on which it is based. (Those who intend seeing Phantom are advised to stop reading at this point, because of disclosure of its plot.)
To cut to the story, Phantom is about a group of spooks in the external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), which decides that the only way to deter Pakistan from carrying out terror strikes in India is to punish the masterminds of the horrific 26\11 Mumbai attacks. Though the group fails to get clearance from the political masters, it decides to undertake the covert operation, codenamed Phantom, which requires an agent to kill the plotters of 26\11 residing in Pakistan and elsewhere in the world. Who’s the “pagal” or madman who would undertake the veritable suicide mission, asks the RAW chief.
They hit upon the madman in Col Daniyal Khan, who lives the life of recluse in the snowy mountains, after having been dismissed from the Indian army on the mistaken grounds of deserting his post when under attack from the Pakistanis. The dismissal of Col Khan has even his father, a former defence personnel himself, disown him.
The RAW strikes a deal with Khan– should he liquidate the masterminds and manage to return to India alive, he would be reinstated in the Army. Col Khan agrees to this proposal, after having earlier rejected the offer of money. As he says to Nawaz Mistry (Katrina Kaif), a RAW agent in London, he wants his izzat to be restored. Restoration of respect is his prime motivation then.
His fervent wish to be reinstated in the Indian Army establishes his loyalty to the nation. The film doesn’t explicitly say this, but depends on the viewers to draw this conclusion. After all, to work in the Army, to defend the border, symbolises the utmost fealty to the nation, as also selflessness, in the popular discourse. Col Khan the Muslim is a true Indian, resembling in every way the non-religious Hindu from the middle class, barring, obviously, his name.
Not only Col Khan, but even his father is a true nationalist, evident from his refusal to speak to his son who has been dismissed because he deserted his post. No, father Khan would rather believe the Army than his son. The father, in this sense, has passed the loyalty test. Can his son do the same?
Against this backdrop, it becomes tricky to interpret the dismissal of Col Khan from the Army. Is it a mistake or a case of discrimination? The evidence is such it suggests it was a mistake. The RAW chief even knows Col Khan and his father are not on talking terms. Could he have been then oblivious of the circumstance in which Col Khan was found far away from the post at the time it blew up – and which was consequently misconstrued as desertion? Would the RAW chief have hired a deserter to undertake a risky, suicidal mission?
Regardless of whether or not it was a case of discrimination, Col Khan accepts the RAW mission because it is his only chance of redeeming himself before his father. Redemption for a Muslim who has been wronged lies in displaying reckless valour in the service of the country.
But winning the confidence of his father is just one side of the story. The other side, the more powerful impulse, for him is to see, once again, the same respect and honour in the eyes of the Hindu soldier every time he would salute him at the time he was the colonel. The conclusion – the arbiter of the Muslim’s loyalty to the nation is always the Hindu, whose respect he must win.
So Col Khan goes on an odyssey – from Delhi to the UK, to the USA, to Lebanon and Syria, killing the Lashkar footsoldiers and their patrons. He, then, enters Pakistan, with assistance from Nawaz Mistry. She and Col Khan are out to hunt and kill the two principals of the Lashkar, who enjoy the ISI’s protection.
But before Col Khan gets them, there is the debate, skillfully executed, between who is a good Muslim and who is a bad one. The RAW undercover agents in Pakistan are all good Muslims, as is the ageing Pakistani nurse, whose son joined the jihad only to end up as a dismembered body. The unmistakable conclusion is that for a Pakistani to be a good Muslim, to be even a good citizen, he and she must betray their state, the unconscionable sponsors of terrorism, to reclaim their faith and nation hijacked by the blood-thirsty radicals.
Between this binary of good and bad Muslim, where is Col Khan located? He doesn’t enter the debate; in fact, the Pakistani nurse is persuaded to betray her employer and the state by Nawaz, a Parsi from Mumbai. Col Khan is indifferent to religion. Nationalism is his religion. Before shooting the Lashkar boss, Col Khan doesn’t throw lines at him about the true meaning of Islam. He simply declares, “India only wants insaaf (justice).”