Note: I’m not kidding about that title, so consider yourself warned.
The trend in Bollywood these days appears to be the well-made indie movie that slips so smoothly past the viewer, it’s all but impossible to find an interestingly gnarled corner to catch and react to. My Name is Khan is the extreme opposite with all the things it manages to pack in, not always happily, so that I came away thinking I’d seen several movies in the span of one and wasn’t particularly thrilled with any of them.
Odd as it seems, My Name is Khan is merely Karan Johar’s fourth outing as a director. It has turned into an event. It is a cause celebre, a media circus, an expression of public sentiment, a celebration of our democracy and anything else you want to throw at it. Unfortunately for all of us, it is all these things due to the moronic actions of a bunch of self-styled “patriots” who don’t think twice about terrorizing their fellow citizens in the name of national pride, rather than any cinematic merit the movie itself might possess. Somewhere in Mumbai, Aamir Khan takes a moment off from needling Javed Akhtar to stick a few pins into his SRK voodoo doll.
The Good Will Bring a Tear to Your Eye
I’m not one of those people maddened by the sight of a movie star acting like a movie star. There are people from whom I expect art and craft, and others from whom I expect craft and charisma. A happy few will give me both but I’ve never understood why I ought to sneer at those who will give me only one of the two. If artistry takes a considerable amount of effort, so does stardom – you have to earn your audience the same as anything else. Consequently, the thing I was dreading the most in MNIK was Rizwan Khan (Shahrukh Khan) and his Autism! Face!
SRK also happens to be one of the few actors we have today with a really distinctive voice and command of language. He doesn’t lisp his way through his dialogues in carefully neutral urbanized accents – he has a cadence to his speech (insert your favorite K-K-Kiran joke here) that sticks in your mind and knows how to enunciate without making it sound like a painful lesson he memorized for class. So by the time Autism! Face! was followed in the promos with Autism! Voice! I was looking forward to this movie about as much as getting syphilis.
And for the first twenty minutes or so, I found it fairly difficult. It wasn’t as cringe inducing as I’d feared but nor was it particularly good. It was SRK talking funny. And that’s where he deployed his movie stardom to good effect because all of a sudden, as he bantered with various women onscreen the way he’s done a million times before, he managed to transform himself into SRK with a speech defect. Then came the moment in which the object of Rizwan’s affection turns around and asks him to marry her and Rizwan blushes, giggles and hides his face.
The sheer charm of that moment is why SRK is a movie star. It was also the moment in which I saw the character rather than the actor. It didn’t last (more on that below) but if ever a single scene elevated a movie, that was it.
The other scene that left me shattered was when Rizwan’s stepson gets the shit kicked out of him. Mere seene mein bhi dil hai – black, withered and three parts concrete but it is still a dil and occasionally it goes splat. Especially at the movies. Johar’s greatest flair is not for romance, it is melodrama; in MNIK, he really goes the distance with an extended sequence that manages to harness the audience’s natural aversion to watching a child get fatally hurt and hitch it to outrage sparked by the bigotry that set it in motion.
The tragedy of MNIK is that it could have been a lovely little intimate drama about a family coping with the butterfly effect of world events. A bunch of rotten apples fly a plane into a building on one coast and across the country it costs a little boy his best friend, his innocence and his life – how does a family pick up from there? When Mandira (Kajol, bringing tons of natural charm to an underwritten role) tells her friend that she simply doesn’t have the time to be Rizwan’s wife because she’s consumed by the urgency of being her son’s mother, you see that most useless and terrible thing a viewer can see – the movie that could have been.
The Bad Will Enrage Your Tear Ducts Dry
But this is a movie that has higher aspirations! Which forces you to think that if Johar really wanted to kick his game up a notch, maybe he ought to have looked into hiring a research assistant or perhaps a culture consultant as Beth (read her review here) suggested. That would have been the smart thing to do. If you’re going to set your movie in someone else’s country, against a backdrop of events that have a deep and ongoing cultural and political significance to them, then maybe you ought to know what you’re talking about. Even if you don’t particularly care about that country’s feelings, it might help your film in the long run.
From the strange sight of San Francisco, California doubling up as Hicksville, USA – the kind of cheery place where people get off the tram and scream in unison at a man clearly having some sort of psychotic episode in the middle of the street – to the creepy environs of Wilhelmina, Georgia aka the Town That Time Lifted Its Leg On, Johar’s Amreeka is a troubling mishmash of ugly stereotypes that does not pause to acquaint itself with its surroundings.
I’m sure there are federal agents who make you want to pop them one, it is a universally acknowledged truth that the TSA is terrible, and perhaps there even exist federal judges who get relevant info from the BBC (the fuck?) but do any of them address brownies as “bloody Pakis” is the question.
Lest you think I’m nitpicking, this is the sort of relentlessly casual acquaintance with ground reality that Johar continues to build up throughout the movie. A couple of lapses here and there, and the viewer can rise above it; when the entire movie is stacked from top to bottom with lazy stereotypes flung in wherever they can find a space, you start to hold your nose.
Who on earth is the audience for this movie? is the question that kept occurring to me as we exploded gracelessly into the third act. SRK fans and those of us who have a nostalgic fondness for Ye Olde SRK-Kajol Romance, I guess – but if this is a movie about More, about Ideas, and Important Things, the way we were informed all through its making and marketing, surely it speaks to others?
Who are these others?
If it’s people like myself who’ve actually had an opportunity to travel to some of the places and meet some of the people this movie portrays and stereotypes, we’re hardly going to emerge from the theater brimming with fondness for it or its badly espoused ideas. And if this is a movie for people who’ve never been to these places or met these people and expects them to retain a message about the power of love and understanding – do you expect them to get it in a movie whose makers seem to have made no effort whatsoever to understand the country in which it was set?
The most incredible thing about MNIK’s trainwreck bits is that it got made. The Anil Sharma set get plenty of snark about the way they portray the world but at least they’re honest about who they are and how they view it. Johar & Co. on the other hand are supposed to be the very opposite – and come up with this caricature. There’s a reason why Fox Searchlight chose to premiere this out of competition at the Berlinale. And it’s not because it’s a Bollywood film. Thank you, Fox Searchlight!
The Fugly Makes You Wonder: Was The Shiv Sena Unwittingly Doing Us a Service?
Depending on who you are, there is plenty in this movie to push your buttons. Sometimes several of them at once. The one that everyone talks about is the sequence in which Rizwan journeys back to the weird black hamlet where he’d once happily commandeered an Iraq war veteran’s memorial service to air his grief, to save it from nature’s fury.
It’s terrible for a number of reasons but I find myself less angered by its elevation of Rizwan as a savior and Wilhelmina’s general creepiness (if they wanted to go Southern Gothic, couldn’t they have at least chosen something vaguely contemporary like True Blood as their model? Just erase the vampires and leave their lairs intact and presto!) than the truly stupid thing that the movie manages to uphold as a virtue:
The last thing a catastrophe-stricken area needs is a deluge of well-meaning volunteers. Unless you have specific skills like those of a doctor or a nurse or work for an aid agency that knows what it’s doing, land up at a disaster site with a heart brimful of human kindness and all you’ll be is a useless drain on scarce local resources. Rizwan and his flood-mojo might have worked out but all those people he attracted in his wake? Terrible.
The problem with making a movie about massive real world problems is that they actually exist and they’re… well, massive problems affecting real people. They demand at least a little bit of respect. I’m all for growth and kudos to Johar and his team for trying out something hatke – but they should know better than anyone that different styles of cinema require different approaches. You could create a half-British fantasyland in the middle of New York City for Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna and get away with it, because that’s the kind of movie it was. But My Name is Khan is just sufficiently different for that kind of fantasy to go terribly wrong.
PS – Also? Stop trying to make that “My Name is…” meme happen. I’ve got Eminem on the brain now.