By Cheryl Hudson
My Name is Khan broke global box office records as the largest grossing Bollywood movie worldwide in its opening weekend, including in the United States, Britain, Australia, and the Middle East, while in Mumbai itself, the film opened successfully despite advance opposition from chauvinist politicians who objected to its cosmopolitan message. The film also made a critical splash internationally, receiving rave reviews from Mumbai to New York.
The movie’s critical and commercial success can be explained in part by its fusionist approach, its merging of mainstream Hollywood and Bollywood themes and techniques. Its two main characters, Rizvan Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) and Mandira (Kajol), and its director Karan Johar are all up-and-coming Bollywood stars. The film is shot on location in India and the US (it contains some magnificent cinematography), and is distributed by the Fox International studio group. The global appeal of My Name is Khan is also no doubt due to the fact that it deals with the themes of terrorism and the West’s war upon it, tracing the devastating impact of 9/11 on a Muslim man (and his family) living in America.
But Khan is no ordinary Muslim. He has Asperger’s Syndrome, which, rather than acting as an affliction, allows him to break convention, see through and overcome intolerance, and speak truth to power. Khan grows up in Mumbai under the loving and watchful eye of his mother, following his brother to San Francisco after she dies. He spends much of the first half of the film clumsily but successfully wooing Mandira, an American-born Hindu woman with a young son. Following the 9/11 attack and the subsequent increase in anti-Muslim prejudice, a family tragedy impels him to journey across the United States in search of the president so that he may tell him ‘My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist’.
The opening scene is among the most powerful of the film. It traces the painful progression of Khan through a post-9/11 American airport full of fearful and paranoid people. He is a Muslim man wearing a backpack and acting in a visibly nervous and socially awkward way, never making eye contact (symptoms of Asperger’s rather than evidence of guilty wrongdoing), and draws stares and suspicion from his fellow passengers. Finally, airport security guards lead him away for a full body and baggage search but when they find nothing incriminating, Khan tells them of his innocence and how he plans to meet the president. The security guard laughs and asks Khan to ‘Say howdy’ to the president from him too. Noting the guard’s name badge, Khan writes in his notebook that ‘John Marshall’ wishes to pass his regards to George W Bush. John Marshall, of course, was also the name of the greatest Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in US history.
Unfortunately, the film fails to live up to the promise of this opening. While the love story is moving and there are some emotionally powerful scenes, the film’s central message is finally banal. As a boy, Khan learns from his mother that the fighting between Hindu and Muslim is pointless and wrong since there are only two kinds of people in the world, ‘good’ people and ‘bad’ people. The only result of hatred and intolerance is, we learn, many mothers’ tears. Khan’s marriage to a Hindu woman demonstrates his own inability to hate, his own ‘goodness’. Yet, rather than the message being a means to overcome divisions caused by identity politics, the tolerance the film preaches is a means of reinforcing an acceptance of separate identities. The post-9/11 discrimination Muslims face forces them to hide the outward symbols of their ethnic and religious identities. Khan’s determination to overcome this prejudice encourages other Muslims to reclaim these symbols again, pointedly demonstrated by Khan’s sister-in-law Haseena (Sonya Jeehan) who re-embraces her hijab as a part of her denied self.
In post-9/11 America, Khan remembers his mother’s teaching well. So, rather than a serious and intelligent study of the political impact of the 9/11 attacks on American Muslims, the film unfortunately descends into a simplistic morality tale. While the landscapes of Khan’s American travels are spectacular, the people he meets are grotesque caricatures. White America is unrelentingly ‘bad’, racist, and violent, while black America is depicted as ‘good’ in the soulful victims of a hurricane ‘Mama Jenny’ (Jennifer Echols) and her son ‘Crazy Hair’ Joel (Adrian Kali Turner).
The most grotesque caricatures come, however, in the person of the US presidents. George W Bush and his followers represent the hate and fear that must be overcome by dark-skinned people in the US and worldwide. Obama represents a new dawn, the possibilities of love, hope, and peace: not just in his politics but in the colour of his skin, he offers something new, something ‘good’. It bears pointing out that the black-and-white morality of the film is a mirror image of the War on Terror itself, with Bush’s position that ‘You are either with us or against us’ flipped; the good guys are differently cast but no political complexity is added—indeed, it is simplified further.
It is perhaps refreshing to see a depiction of black America redeeming the sins of white America and interesting to have a portrait of post-9/11 politics as seen through Muslim eyes. In one of the best scenes, Khan is refused entry to a charity dinner at which the president is speaking, despite having the £500 entrance fee, since he is not a Christian. He instructs the administrator to keep his entrance fee ‘for all the non-Christians in Africa’. The film admirably punctures hypocrisy but ultimately it tries to do too much, to be too many things, to be too worthy, and to solve the world’s problems.
The central and most interesting issue the film sets out to deal with—how Muslims experience and respond to life in post-9/11 America—becomes obscured and caricatured and finally obliterated so that what is left is a kind of postcolonial Forrest Gump. Is life really just a box of chocolates?
Written under a Creative Commons License, with edits: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0/
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