To be of the South Asian persuasion means there are several cultural observations you must oblige to, ideally without much verbal protest: spicy foods, a severe lack of emphasis on the virtue of the outdoors, engineering/medicine, being felt up and checked out by very investigative mothers of single young men at dinner parties. The most cherished and simultaneously cringed upon of these cultural observations, growing up, was the presence of pirated Bollywood films in the comfort of your family room every Friday and Saturday night. While you would sometimes groan in response to your mother beckoning you to join her in the latest love story starring Salman Khan and Madhuri Dixit, you secretly loved every moment of it. There was something familiar, something calming and something genuinely fun about the often ridiculous, the sometimes sincerely intimate and touching and the always entertaining – in both a negative and positive way – stories you’d be forced to stomach for a little over three hours.
Being a Pakistani Muslim brought with it a different perspective to Indian cinema. The anti-Pakistani storylines, references, and the demonization of Muslims always were and still are noticeable – be the movie about war, about a historical period or just a simple unrequited love story. While India comprises of the third largest Muslim population in the world, the portrayal of Muslims on the big screen has been less than anything pleasant for the most part. Extremism, betrayal to the country, Qawwali song sequences almost tokenizingly laced with images of questionable Sufi mysticism are but a few of the various characteristics given to Muslims in Indian cinema films. This is certainly, however, not to deny the positive Muslim characters and storylines which have also been represented – but these, unfortunately, have been few and far in between.
My Name is Khan is the story of a brilliant young Indian Muslim man, afflicted with Asperger’s syndrome and a commitment to goodness, seeking to reclaim his faith and his love in a post-9/11 America.
Rizvan Khan, played by Shahrukh Khan, is brought to America by virtue of being sponsored for citizenship by his younger brother, a successful businessman. Inspired by the love and encouragement given to him by his mother throughout his life, Khan does not allow his condition – or really anything else – to serve as an impediment to living a fulfilling life. Part of this fulfillment is Mandira, a young Indian woman living and working at a hair salon in San Francisco, played by Kajol. A brief moment of somewhat rare sincerity and kindness expressed by Mandira towards Khan sparks a friendship rooted deeply in love for the latter.
Mandira is a divorcee with a young son, and after initial hesitation and much persistence on the part of Khan, comes to love him and the two marry. The three – Mandira, Khan and their son Sameer – lead a loving life, despite the fact that Mandira is a practicing Hindu, holding both religious and historical significance and conflict for the two Indians. However, given a lesson taught to Khan as a child by his mother, he believes strongly that only truly two types of people exist in this world – those who are good and do good deeds and those who are bad and do bad deeds. This simple piece of advice comes to completely encompass Khan’s outlook on humanity and relations and is at the core of the message of the film. When tragedy strikes the family, Khan sets out to fulfill an almost impossible promise and along the way inspires millions to believe in that a person must be judged by the deeds that s/he does – be they good or bad, big or small.
The film is a refreshing breakaway from mainstream Indian cinema productions. Often times, taboo subjects or socially-conscious films are reserved for the more independent, low-budget filmmakers or production companies (the only other example from the top of my head is the recent film New York which also explores discrimination against Muslims in a post-9/11 America). Very rarely does a mainstream director and producer the calibre of Karan Johar create a film that challenges misconceptions and traditions. Thus, MNIK comes as a rather major shock to those well-acquainted with Indian cinema. It is not the subject of the film which proves to be surprising but rather the content. Aside from the few groan-inducing Bollywood-esque instances here and there throughout the film, it is remarkably well done. The film tackles several taboo and socially conscious subjects – autism, interreligious marriage, Hindu-Muslim relations, terrorism, journalistic selectivism, torture, homegrown extremism, the hijab and Islamophobia – surprisingly without much tokenization.
Each issue is carefully discussed beyond a superfluous level but done so in a manner which isn’t necessarily on the nose. Instead, all the issues are laced together and tied back to the core message of the film which is a zygote of the holy union of the Golden Rule and karma. The portrayal of Islam and Muslim life in the states strikes a chord in particular, especially for those who are Muslim. There is an earnest and sincere depiction of and silent discussion on the everyday life and struggle of the American Muslim in his/her interspersed life of faith and of public. Perhaps one of the most touching scenes in the film shows Khan sitting, in a diner, across a Muslim couple he has met during his travels, casually chatting. All of sudden, he breaks conversation and begins to grab his things. The couple asks him why he is rushing as there is still time before they are called back onto the bus. Khan mentions how it is time to pray, to which the husband replies that while it certainly may be time to pray, it is important to take into consideration the people and place around which one finds himself. Khan responds by simply stating that prayer is not dependent on others or on place – only on belief. He goes on to pray in public, drawing much attention and confusion from his fellow passengers, who have begun returning to the bus. Instances such as these, as well as another memorable scene in a mosque where there is a discussion on the meaning of the story of Abraham and his attempted sacrifice of Ishmael and stereotype-breaking characters such as Khan’s hijab-clad sister-in-law, provide an unprecedented perspective in Indian cinema – or almost anywhere else.
Of course, the release of this film hasn’t been without controversy and backlash. Hindu nationalist group, Shiv Sena, responded to the film with angry threats and vandalism in the province of Maharashtra. Despite this, however, movie-goers flooded the cinemas and the film has become a blockbuster internationally and at home:
Moviegoers across the country made sure they dropped all plans to watch the new Shahrukh Khan flick – My Name is Khan, which is directed by Karan Johar grossed an astounding Rs 250 million on the opening day alone, breaking all kinds of box office records. The worldwide gross of $5.5 million is among the highest ever recorded for a Bollywood film.
The film is only expected to rake in more [money] over the next two months as it expands to more international markets. Next week Bollywood fans in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Oman and Lebanon get to watch the movie. In the US, ‘My Name is Khan’ distributed by Fox Searchlight and by 20th Century Fox International in other countries across the globe. The film grossed $9,727 in New Zealand and made 50 percent more money than any other Bollywood film in the Middle East. In the UK, MNIK scored $193,000 in just paid previews, which is another opening day record. However the film opened at the 11th spot all time stats in Australia.
MNIK isn’t The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It isn’t Rainman. It isn’t I am Sam. It isn’t Crash. It’s not going to change your outlook on life or open your eyes to unrecognized discrimination or inspire you to be a better person. But it will evoke emotion and thought given the almost universality in its approach and message. And if there is anything that this film should be recognized and be seen for it is the positive road towards which it takes Indian cinema, a film industry with vast reach and influence over millions within and beyond the borders of the religious and ethnic conflict ridden Sub-continent. In country like India, where Hindu-Muslim tensions still run wild as indicated by the 2002 Gujarat pogrom and the attacks in Mumbai last year, MNIK humanizes an overwhelming and integral minority. If we can find this sort of attempt in Indian cinema, renowned within the region for its usual negative tokenizing, marginalizing and propagandistic portrayal of Islam and Muslims (as well as Pakistanis), as well as even instances in Pakistani cinema with films such as 2007’s controversial Khuda Ke Liye (which addresses issues of extremism), perhaps it is not completely idealistic to hold on to some hope.
Just a little.
[The film is playing in various cinemas around North America and while it is primarily in Hindi, it is available with subtitles. For more information please visit the official site]