His Name is Khan

Posted: March 7th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Culture, South Asia | Tags: , , | No Comments »

This week, I saw My Name is Khan. Generally, I do not like Bollywood cinema. And Shahrukh Khan, Bollywood’s Alpha Male du jour, specializes in my least favorite Bollywood genre: the “masala,” a saccharine mix of romantic comedy, melodrama and musical. Yet there I was, in line to see his latest venture, my curiosity piqued by the political maelstrom the film has unleashed.

First, the plot: Rizvan Khan, an Indian Muslim with Asperger’s Syndrome, immigrates to America, becomes a beauty products salesman, marries a divorced Indian Hindu beautician, and adopts her son Samir. Then 9/11 happens. Locals boycott the Khans’ beauty salon. A neighbor dies in Afghanistan and his son blames Samir. Samir is killed in a fight between the boys at school, Rizvan’s wife throws him out in a fit of rage, and tells him not to come back till he has convinced America not to hate on Muslims. She says, “Tell the President of the United States, ‘My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist.’” Autistic Rizvan takes her literally and runs off on a road trip across the country trying to convey his message to George W. Bush. At a presidential rally on a Los Angeles university campus, a social security operative overhears Rizvan shouting “terrorist” in the crowd, and has him arrested. A student journalist catches the incident on film and begins investigating, discovering just how harmless Rizvan is. When the story airs, disability rights groups begin phoning government offices, and Khan is released. Instead of going home to his wife, he continues his quest, but is derailed by a major hurricane that Washington is ignoring. [Sound familiar?] Khan takes charge of the relief effort in a small Georgia town, and becomes a national hero, again. By this time, Bush has been replaced by President Obama, who comes to Georgia to meet Khan on his release from the hospital, and the film (finally) ends.

There are no song and dance numbers and there are no long-lost cousins back from the dead. For Bollywood, that’s realistic, but to audiences unused to Indian cinema, the above should sound absurdly far-fetched. Many Indians had hoped that after Hollywood came to them via Slumdog Millionaire, their own work would have crossover appeal. But a plot like this is not going to appeal to American audiences.

Rather, I think MNIK’s merits lie in the conversations it can start inside India. It is these nerves touched that have invited all the outrage

1. Right-wing Hindu nationalists, like the Shiv Sena, disapprove of MNIK’s sympathetic portrayal of Indian Muslims. It’s personal, because Shahrukh Khan is himself an Indian Muslim married to a Hindu woman, and living in Bombay, Sena’s political stronghold. Last year, Khan began to speak out against Sena, prompting protests outside his home, and attempts to keep his films out of Bombay theaters. The majority of Indians are unsympathetic to Sena, but they tolerate it, so long as its ire is directed at the government for being ‘soft.’ But when Sena threatens an apolitical icon, public opinion may change.

2. Indian-Americans try to convince relatives back home that Americans are not all ignorant hicks. Many of the portrayals in MNIK are crude enough to undermine their efforts. But the film actually offers the most important corrective to those stereotypes. When Khan is in jail, it’s the voluntary efforts of groups like the “Autistic Americans Society” and the student journalist that manage to get him out. The diversity and impact of such interest groups, the “grassroots,” aided by the press, is an essential and unique feature of American democracy. De Tocqueville noticed it. Edward Murrow capitalized on it. Denying that racist ignoramuses exist in America is silly. But arguing that their existence undermines America’s democracy is sillier. Rather, we should be pointing out—as this film does—that, in America, communities can organize against illiberal forces.

3. As my mother (who saw the film in New York) put it, “I was surprised to learn that Shahrukh Khan can act!” Indeed, Khan’s portrayal of autism struck me as on par with that of Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump. South Asian culture is still a place where disabilities, mental and physical, are misunderstood and stigmatized. A sympathetic hero suffering from autism who is released from jail because there are whole interest groups devoted to his protection, that is an important data point for Indian audiences to process.

MNIK is part of an important, and relatively new, trend in South Asia, of a popular culture that is willing to engage with contemporary political themes. On the Pakistani side of the border, there’s evidence of this trend in last year’s Khuda Kay Liye (In the Name of God). a film that follows two Pakistani brothers, one an al Qaeda recruit, the other living in the US and picked up as a terror suspect. It is a harrowing work, and less kitsch than MNIK. If you can find it stateside, it is worth watching.

But Indian cinema has a reach that its neighboring countries cannot rival. Indeed, Pakistani audiences prefer watching Bollywood products. Moreover, KKL was an art film; MNIK is a blockbuster release. And starting political discourse usually demands injecting ideas into the mainstream.

All of these are reasons that, despite the absurdity of the story, I’m applauding what Director Karan Johar has done. Happy Oscar Day!

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