Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The failure of “My Name is Khan”

Karan Johar’s over-hyped film My Name is Khan (MNIK) has dealt with a challenging subject – a subject that is extremely serious, pensive and political. The film has attempted to focus on a number of crucial socio-political issues and tried to make a humane statement concerning racial-religious discrimination and stereotyping. But the wide scope offered by the subject was purposely diminished by the director-producers of the film. The story of Rizwan Khan ended up being another feel-good film depicting Bollywood style heroism, romance and eye-wetting brash emotion – all embedded into a fairy tale arrangement. Based on a political subject, the film deliberately moves out of the political arena to engender flimsy humanism and fails terribly to emerge as a politically conscious film. A pseudo-real, fantasy like milieu and an escapist approach to life are the weakest aspects of the film. The self-styled “sensitive” performance by Shah Rukh Khan in the role of Rizwan, burdened with make believe mannerisms, have not only failed to cover-up these shortcomings but has actually become an integral part of it. By exaggerating on the “just a good man in love” side of the character, Shah Rukh’s celebrity presence has diluted the sternness of the subject as well as the film. A hoopla manufactured by the infamous idiots of the Thackeray clan surrounding MNIK’s release, the grand presence of Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol – super-hit duo of Indian mainstream cinema, the arty efforts of a bubbly director or the genuine technical excellence could not lift MNIK from its mediocre rank.

Good people, bad people

There is little doubt that the September 11 attacks were a huge turning point for millions of Muslims living in America. Impact of this catastrophic event had generated a significant amount of hostility towards the Muslims in general and had sharply polarized the American society down to street level. Islam and the Muslims turned into a subject of grave concern for the American state and became an important political issue. Though anti-Muslim bias and prejudices had existed before September 11, the attitude to connect the Muslim community to terrorism and perceiving the entire community as a threat, as a grave security risk, has intensified drastically following the incident. Post September 11, it became more difficult to be a Muslim in America. Non Muslim Americans became haunted by Islamophobia – a common parlance diversely applied today to define the discrimination faced by Muslims or to convey anti-Muslim sentiments. The response of common non-Muslim Americans towards Muslim minorities and their anti-Islamic hostile attitudes against them were also fuelled by certain sections of the mainstream media and political establishment, which had frequently used the term and popularised it among the scared masses. Muslims living in America including the women faced religiously motivated harassment; the Arabs were particularly singled out as objects of suspicion and became victims of official and societal discrimination, especially the younger Muslims who are more exposed to anti-Muslim bias than their parents. They were told to become “good citizens”, instructed to integrate into the multi-religious, multi-cultured American society, reprimanded for exhibiting hate and violence and were strictly warned to keep away from radical activities and extremist influences. The first targets of the American government’s anti-terrorism overdrive were obviously the softest ones – the immigrant Muslims who has arrived in the “land of freedom” virtually from all over the world.

The ambitious screenplay of MNIK had tried hard to depict this turbulent time and the condition of American Muslims. The film opens with the awful airport frisking scene where villain-like security men hounded the hero Rizwan Khan as a terror suspect because he was found to mutter verses from the Holy Koran while standing in a queue. Khan is portrayed in the film as a devoted and duty bound believer. In the backdrop of riot ridden Bombay he has learned from his mother that there are only two kinds of people in the world – good people and bad people. One holds a stick and the other holds a lollipop. In the entire film, Rizwan Khan actually tries to establish himself as the one who belongs to the lollipop holding “good people” class. In the film he is depicted as an extremely devoted Muslim, a loving husband, a caring papa, an innate humanist and ultimately a “good citizen” of America. The film has overstuffed a lot of issues and mishandling them badly. But at the end, it remained principally focused on establishing the “good citizen” aspect of the hero. The director was abetted by an oversimplifying attitude, twisting and fantasising the grim subject into a droopy romantic tale.

American Muslim, Bollywood Muslim

By law, the Census Bureau of America does not count adherents of a particular religious identification. Hence, the account of how many Muslims live in America differs widely in various estimates – from 1.3 to 7 million. This population with its vastly different ethnicity, culture, race and sectarian diversity have constituted a microcosm of the Muslim world. Immigration wave in America has increased rapidly after the American immigration law was reformed in 1965. Between 1989 and 2004, 15.5 million legal immigrants have entered the country. The number of Muslim immigrants is little less than one percent of America’s national population but constitutes the majority of the total Muslim population. Two-third of them is foreign-born, coming from South Asia, Iran, and the Arabic-speaking countries. The single largest group of Muslim immigrants among them are from the three South Asian countries of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Destitution, ethnic- religious discrimination, class repression, Islamism or anti-Islamism and war are some of the major reasons why Muslim immigrants seek refuge from their respective countries to “smell freedom” in the paradise of America.

All immigrants are not necessarily from the socio-economically marginalized class. A large number of them belong to the wealthy and middle class elite group. They are enticed by the candour of American life, the span of opportunities for a better livelihood, superior professional facilities, socio-political freedom and economic rewards. Immigrants in general are aggressive job seekers and hard-working due to their economical motivations. Likewise, immigrant Muslims are also inclined to resolutely focus on their professional and entrepreneurial careers and many of them possess good educational standards. As a result of these qualities they have achieved considerable economic success over time. Muslims in America today appears to be more educated and affluent than the country’s national average. This affluent economic situation could also be a vital reason behind the post September 11 anti-Muslim bias rather than their religious believe. After September 11, the employment-population ratio among Muslims had declined considerably. The arrogant anti-terrorism policy of the government under President Bush has caused enough humiliation and suffering to Muslim communities living across America. Race and ethnicity became deciding factors for opening an investigation against the Muslims. Mosques were raided to find out suspected terrorists. Surveillance and detention without warrant became a commonplace affair that had created an aura of endless fear within the community.

Where does Rizwan Khan fit here? He arrives in San Francisco after his mother’s death to live with his younger brother and his compassionate wife. Though Rizwan has a super ability to repair any broken machines from his early days, the jealous brother forced him to accept the job of an herbal cosmetics salesman. Rizwan is not economically motivated and dislikes his job. Instead, he gets more involved and occupied in winning the love of a Hindu hairstylist named Mandira. In fact, the director is not interested to focuses on the privations and struggles an immigrant usually comes across in a foreign country, particularly if the immigrant is a mentally challenged person. But privation does not sell! The film is thus packaged with lollipop emotion of love and longing, a utopia of its own kind, far away from the hard reality an immigrant might face in a foreign land. Rizwan Khan belongs to the moderate section of Muslims but at the same time he is also a dutiful practitioner of the laws of Islam – carrying a handful of pebbles to throw upon the devil, muttering scriptures and offering namaz wearing his prayer cap. If read in a different way, one might discover that Rizwan Khan’s religious behaviours are fairly deliberate, and at the same time exceedingly provocative.

One must not forget that Rizwan Khan is actually a Bollywood Muslim in America. Bollywood has its own unique way of characterising Muslims, even in the changed times. Syed Ali Mujtaba has observed in an article that, “Bollywood might be coming good in reaching out to the world but when it comes to creating Muslims on screen it’s closed to a dangerous time warp. Cinematic subtleties, community's sensitivity and societal realism are all thrown overboard. What quickly lapped up is, dirty stereotypes and reckless cliche while sketching Muslim characters.” In the same article he has further noted that, “no one likes to disturb the apple cart of set formulas that Bollywood mindlessly follow while making movies.” (Source)

Bush, Obama and Rizwan Khan

At least on one occasion George W Bush was absolutely sincere when he stated that, “the world has changed after September the 11th”. The twin tower attacks had significantly changed America’s relation and dealing with the world, particularly with the antagonistic Islamic nations. Just four weeks after the attacks, the “war president” and war hawks within his “war administration” had unleashed their infamous “war on terror” and successively destroyed the two sovereign countries Afghanistan and Iraq in cold blood. Although for eighteen long years, from 1980 to 1998, successive American governments were romancing the Taliban in Afghanistan. The attack on Iraq in particular, had nothing to do with the attack on the twin towers except oil interests of America’s business mafia. According to the book Plan of Attack by Bob Woodward, the CIA had already concluded that the hard-nut Saddam Hussein could not be removed from power except through a war. This CIA finding along with “pressure from advocates of war inside the administration” led to the secret planning for military action against Iraq. The September 11 incidence made it politically feasible for the coterie to stupefy public opinion and launch a “pre-emptive attacks against countries believed to be a serious threat to the United States”.

America’s war against Afghanistan has helped the film’s storyline to advance further. Rizwan and Mandira Khan’s American neighbour Mark, a journalist by profession, gets killed in Afghanistan while covering the war. The death of Mark changes the attitude of his grieving son Reese who develops racial hatred against his once dear friend Sam – Rizwan Khan’s sweet step-son. Sam gets involved in a brawl with him and dies of his injuries. A devastated Mandira holds Rizwan culpable for her son’s death. She indicts her husband that Sam was dead only because “his name was Khan”. The distressed and irate wife then tells her husband to depart from her life till he is able to ensure the people and the President of America that he is not a terrorist. Dumped by Mandira, Rizwan starts tracking after President Bush across the country to notify him: “My name is Khan, and I’m not a terrorist”.

Although the Afghanistan war is a vital resource to unfold MNIK's storyline, it is surprising that the name of Iraq was never mentioned in the film. When Rizwan Khan was travelling around the country to “fight against the disability that exists in the world”, American military was invading Iraq on phoney grounds “to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger”, bombarding the country and its people into pieces. No “weapons of mass destruction” was ever unearthed from Iraq; no al-Qaeda–Saddam Hussein nexus could ever be proved. America’s Iraq misadventure is completely ignored in the film. Instead, the filmmakers were keen to concentrate on Rizwan Khan’s ultimate goal of fixing the broken relation with his beloved wife. They were less concerned about America’s corporate and military greed. The Iraq war was too insignificant an issue for them to be bothered about.

During his long journey across America, Rizwan Khan lands in a poor African-American neighbourhood in Georgia and finds refuge and console from an affectionate woman, Mama Jenny, who has lost her solider son in Afghanistan. Thus, in one stroke an African-American and an Indian immigrant’s grief becomes one and the same. Sharing the common grief, Rizwan joins the chorus in Mama Jenny’s community church to sing the civil rights anthem We Shall Overcome. From here the story rolls faster to its desired end. Rizwan Khan gets arrested while trying to meet Bush and is tortured in jail as a terror suspect, gets noticed by Indian-American journalists who put him on national news which Senator Obama watches with deep interest. In a mosque he confronts a jihadi doctor, vehemently opposes his devilish views by throwing pebbles at him and immediately informs the FBI. The film has to confirm that in spite of everything Rizwan is essentially a “good citizen” of America! He even performs a superman act to dramatically appear as a saviour at Mama Jenny’s hurricane devastated village to repair the lives of the devastated dwellers. The media follows and make a hero out of him. All of a sudden a disciple of the jihadi doctor stabs him in front of his repentant wife, accusing him for betrayal. But typically, he survives in style.

Rizwan Khan finally succeeds to deliver his message to the President of America. Not to Bush but to the newly elected Barak Hussein Obama who promptly assures him that “he is not a terrorist”. Here the director has clearly made a statement by projecting Obama as a responsive President against Bush. This is a loose statement and one should not read too much from it. The Obama effect or the colour of his skin might have also inspired the director and screenwriter to give prominence to the African-Americans and favorably linking Rizwan with them in the film.

This focal point seems to be essential for a film which is marketed and distributed by Fox STAR Entertainment, a joint venture between Twentieth Century Fox and STAR. Trade news has suggested that MNIK is selling extremely well across the globe through its lollipop message to “repair the world with love”. In America it has “turned out to be the largest weekend grosser Bollywood film ever”. (Source) The film has earned Rs 150 crore from its first week of release in India and abroad.

Everyone looks good against the pathological liar and hypocrite George W Bush. But what are those steps the populist Obama is taking that are significantly different from Bush policies? This is the pertinent question which doesn’t have an easy answer. And the problem with MNIK is that, it has not even attempted to raise any pertinent question. The world has gradually started to taste Barak Obama’s “audacity of hope”. “I think people are dazzled by Obama's rhetoric,” observed eminent historian Howard Zinn who has passed away recently, “and that people ought to begin to understand that Obama is going to be a mediocre president – which means, in our time, a dangerous president – unless there is some national movement to push him in a better direction.” (Source)

Rain Man syndrome

The makers of MNIK were definitely aware of the huge success of Barry Levinson’s 1988 Hollywood film Rain Man where Dustin Hoffman gave a fabulous performance as an autistic savant. To authentically portray the autistic-like traits of his character, Shah Rukh Khan spoke with an emotionless intoning voice, walked in mincing steps, always has his head tilting sideways and never makes eye contact with his addressee – not even in romantic scenes. All these mannerisms can’t help but remind us about Hoffman’s performance as Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man. A critic has objected about comparing Hoffman and Shah Rukh’s performance. The comparison, according to the critic, is “childish and naïve” because “Hoffman plays a highly gifted autistic savant while Khan is just a good man, in love, who happens to have Asperger’s Syndrome”. (Source) This point of view is certainly not of a film critic. It can only be a humble opinion by an ardent fan of Bollywood's “de facto super-star”.

Depicting the hero Rizwan Khan with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism spectrum disorder, did not really help to carry any lofty message except for raising high-pitch sympathy and emotion for the character in the audience’s mind. The idea to portray the hero as an autistic is basically a discreet commercial formula applied by the makers of MNIK. People with Asperger’s have significant difficulties in social interaction and communication which includes “a failure to develop friendships or to seek shared enjoyments or achievements with others”. Throughout the film, Rizwan Khan acted quite the opposite. Just like a regular Bollywood hero, he had absolutely no problem to stalk and woo the single-mother heroine, to become close and friendly with her son and develop a deep affectionate relationship with an African-American family in up-country Georgia. Here, the director Karan Johar and his screenwriter Shibani Bhatija’s typical Bollywood mindset have prevailed. They have deliberately twisted the basic aspects of the disorder to fit them into a popular Bollywood schema. Asperger’s syndrome became a marketing tool to sell the film. Carried away by this fantasizing feint of MNIK, a mainstream critic has claimed that the film “uses familiar devices to create new meaning”. (Source)

The film has indeed created a “new meaning” of king-size profiteering by effectively exploiting many disabilities of the post-modern world to achieve record-breaking box office success.

NYT image courtesy:
MNIK poster courtesy: