March Issue 2010
Khan’s New Avatar
My Name is Khan has several things going for it.
1. Shah Rukh Khan: For perhaps the third time in his career of about 60 films, SRK is not playing SRK. He is in character. We’ve seen that before in Chak De India and prior to that in Swades. And though we love SRK for being SRK in his movies, it’s nice to be reminded that he can act too — if the role demands it.
2. Kajol: Just three letters: WOW! Kajol has been the most refreshing thing to happen to Hindi cinema in the last two decades. What utter gorgeousness, spontaneity, spunk and unaffectedness. She lights up the screen with her sparkle, and even though she is always Kajol, we wouldn’t want it any other way.
3. Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol: This is sheer heaven! Together after almost a decade (last seen as the doomed-to-disownment couple in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham), My Name is Khan proves that their chemistry is as enchanting as it was in DDLJ.
4. Karan Johar: He has found the magic formula that tugs at millions of heartstrings (though mine are often unyielding), and no, it isn’t just pairing SRK and Kajol, although that’s half the battle won right there. He’s employed elements of the formula here. Setting the story in the US, for example. But omitting to make it about large families and their even larger family values is a welcome change. And there aren’t any item numbers featuring Rani or Preity to jazz things up. We like this new avatar.
5. Sonya Jehan: For us in Pakistan, a proud moment as ‘our woman in Bollywood’ does a wonderfully understated turn as SRK’s sensitive sister-in-law.
6. Post-9/11 theme: Good to know that it is alive and kicking (butt in Bollywood, most notably Hindutva’s).
7. Making history his story: The 1983 Bombay riots, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and Obama’s presidency — they’re all to be found here. (Of course KJo wouldn’t be KJo if he didn’t upsize the menu), these four defining moments in recent history that have brought to the boil issues of race and religion, both tragically and triumphantly. The filmmakers use these events in the employment of plausible plot-making and to remind us, again and again, how polarised the world has become. The lesson a young Rizvan is taught by his wise but unlettered mother (well-played, Zarina Wahab!) — that there are only two kinds of people in the world, good people who do good deeds and bad people who do bad deeds, and that’s the only difference between them. (I can hear George Bush Jr clapping). Yeah, it’s pretty stark in its black-and-white-ness but we’re watching Bollywood not cinema veritas.
That it isn’t just Muslims who are being discriminated against because of the colour of their skin; in homage to Hurricane Katrina survivors, Rizvan retraces his steps back to Wilhemina in Georgia when a hurricane strikes the town where funny-haired Joel and his Mama gave him shelter, food and love. And finally, Obama’s victory in the US presidential election that gives hope to all that “we shall overcome” our prejudice (even if it is for a moment).
“My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist,” Rizvan declares to a Homeland Security official when he is stripped down and frisked at a US airport. His Asian appearance and his persistent rolling of stones in the palm of his hand while speaking to himself arouses suspicion in a passenger and he is pulled aside to be searched. Therein lies the essence of the film — that all Muslims are not terrorists even though all terrorists are invariably Muslim. (For the sake of artistic licence, let’s forget about the Tamil Tigers, the Maoists in Nepal, the Israelis invading Gaza, or Bush and Modi, although the latter two do find mention in the film but by “bad” Muslims who end up getting arrested for their wicked intentions). This clichÃ© is the film’s central message — to be delivered by an Asperger’s Syndrome-stricken Rizvan Khan to the American president — and to dozens along his See America journey by Greyhound.
Another message that will resonate with, inspire and restore lost confidence among Muslim viewers is that we must take pride in being Muslim, in asserting — even celebrating — our Muslim identity whether it is by wearing a hijab or offering prayers without fear of people watching, victimising and judging.
But at heart, My Name is Khan is a love story. No matter how political a message it conveys, the film’s most heart-rending moments (in which KJo succeeded in stirring even my imperturbable heartstrings) are when Rizvan is at his most vulnerable — penniless, he advertises that he can “repair almost anything” in order to earn some cash to finance his journey, and ravenous from days of denying himself food because he can’t afford it, he can’t help but be greedy when offered food by fellow passengers. His penury in the first instance and hunger in the second is heart-breaking, more so because it is love that has driven him to this state of utter vulnerability and desperation.
His journey is not as much to tell the president what he has to tell him, but so that he can return to his beloved Mandira, who in a fit of anger and utter grief tells him not to come home till he has delivered that message.
What stops My Name is Khan short of brilliance is its Bollywood-style climax. Karan Johar just couldn’t help succumbing to the temptation of classic Bollywood melodrama — which is to be found in the unfolding of the hurricane sequence in Wilhemina and the trickle of humanity that sweeps into this town of a couple of hundred people and thrice as many cows, on a wave of empathy.
People who braved Bal Thackeray and his threats of violence and vandalism to see Shah Rukh stating the obvious — “My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist” — will not be disappointed.