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Monday, March 8, 2010

My Name is Khan - A Critical Review


This film created waves before it was released and on its first screening in India - not so much because of its aesthetic value, but more because of the cultural politics associated with it (read my other post on this theme). In essence, this is an attempt by the popular culture of India to initiate a dialogue with the terrorised West, especially America, in the post-9/11 world. However, because of several other issues that got involved with Shah Rukh Khan the actor who plays the leading role in the film, the reviews of this film have got tainted by those issues - the major one being the communalisation attempted by the extremist Hindutva party Shiv Sena on the day of its first screening.  Those who sympathise with the portrayal of a "victimised majority" in India have criticised the film and Shah Rukh Khan and Shiv Sena's opponents have given an excessively undue credit to the film as well as to Shah Rukh Khan. In this post I attempt to distance myself from this politics and look at the film from the aesthetic angle, as a member of audience interested in the art of cinematic narration. I do so after I have watched the film and have allowed the first impressions to sink in for some time.

This is not the first attempt to make an aesthetic assessment of this film. Rama Lakshmi has reviewed this film in the Washington Post. However, it appears as if either she has not watched the film entirely or she has failed to understand the message of the film. Her account of the film is far removed from what the film actually shows. She presents this film as if it is an attempt of the terrorism-afflicted India to talk about terrorism, but for convenience's sake films such as this one are set in the distant USA - another democracy afflicted with terrorism. However, that's not what this film's object is. In fact, this film directly approaches the issue of how Muslims are being perceived by the local people in the West, especially in the US, in the aftermath of 9/11.  Moreover, it attempts to convey a message to the Western audience that all Muslims are not terrorists - quite literally in the film, as this message keeps on getting repeated throughout the narrative as a refrain. Closely intertwined with this message is another message that this film attempts to convey i.e., Islam has many aspects of peaceful living which are getting drowned in the excessive focus on terrorism.

Seen from this perspective, it is significant why this film is set in the US and the way in which the US has been portrayed - a land of prosperity, where hard work is truly acknowledged, where Indian diaspora has truly realised the American Dream and a majestic global power picturised gloriously through the technique of aerial photography. 

This land where every Indian dreams to at least visit if not settle in, is terrorised by the violence of 9/11, which has made the Americans suspect every Muslim who goes there. This has created other kinds of conflicts and violence in the society. Hence, this film tries to convey this message that every Muslim is not a terrorist and Islam also has teachings about peaceful co-existence in it. Hence, they should not look askance at every Muslim. 

And it was only expected that this message had to be conveyed by an Indian Muslim.

This is brought most effectively by including a personal experience of Shah Rukh Khan, who was pulled out for a second-degree interrogation last year at the Newark Airport, when he went there to participate in the Indian Independence Day Parade. This scene has been included in the film in the very beginning and becomes the inspiration for the character of Shah Rukh Khan to spread his message in the US and to convey it to the President of America. In this sense, this film is somewhat autobiographical. 

This film conveys this quite figuratively - till he had this experience, Shah Rukh Khan had been a world-famous popular Bollywood icon. On that eve of India's Independence Day at the Newark Airport, he was suddenly turned into a Muslim. Perhaps he had never given much thought to his religious identity all these years! And he suddenly also realised that all these years he has had a Hindu wife - could he have been a terrorist?

To complete the autobiographical sketch, Shah Rukh Khan's character in the film marries a Hindu woman - enacted by Kajol (see picture above). She continues to worship in the Hindu style even after marriage and there is no evidence that she or her son from her previous marriage convert to Islam. Although there is a strong narrative flaw in the film - his wife and her son are portrayed as having remained Hindus even after this marriage, perhaps to show the tolerant image of Islam. However, this son is killed in the film because "he was a Muslim's son and a Muslim," as is explained in the film. 

Both mother and son acquire the surname Khan after marriage, which gives rise to this "Muslim" identity.  However, there was no need for them to change their surname and in any case they never converted. Hence, this boy's death because he "was a Muslim" is really a product of this narrative flaw in the film. Yet, without this narrative flaw, the film couldn't have taken a critical turn. The makers of the films should have handled this aspect more dexterously.

There is some pretentious symbolism also employed in the film - visually and schematically. The incident showing the flood in a Black-majority village of Georgia is one such symbolic usage. The entire scene has been portrayed to show how Islam saves Christianity while Christianity tries to destroy Islam. There are prolonged shots of the Cross over the village church falling in storm and Shah Rukh Khan helping the villagers to save it. These shots can also be interpreted in a different manner - the falling Cross may be symbolic of a fallen Christianity, while Islam is portrayed as the "rescuing religion."  

About the acting performances in the film - Shah Rukh Khan has the best of intentions to convey a noble message to America. However, he is the one who has done the worst acting in the film. In fact, he has not acted at all! He seems to have taken cover under the fact that his character suffers from Asperger's Syndrome. Hence, there is no need for him to act - his character doesn't understand the nuances of the world's conversations and he doesn't have any emotions and expressions like others around him. This means Shah Rukh Khan doesn't have to act - he doesn't have to work on his facial expressions or his body language or dialogue delivery. He just repeats most of the dialogues twice. I suspect if Shah Rukh Khan is a great actor at all.

In fact, this is another narrative flaw in this film. There is absolutely no need for this character to have the Asperger's Syndrome as far as the film's story goes. If he had been a normal person who showed emotions, expressions and body language, this would have been an extremely challenging role, which only an exceptionally intelligent actor like Aamir Khan - another Bollywood celebrity - could have carried out with his natural flair. I have doubt that Shah Rukh Khan has the capacity to carry out that kind of challenging role. Perhaps that's why his character has Asperger's Syndrome.

Despite his non-existent acting, the film is worth watching - because of the excellent acting of Kajol. She has the natural flair to carry her difficult character with dexterity. The child actors in the film have also done well. In fact, almost everyone in the film has acted well -  except Shah Rukh Khan! Hence, the audience doesn't feel cheated. 

As for the films on terrorism go, the Washington Post review doesn't mention the most complex film on the theme - Khuda Ke Liye, which shows the complexities of the situations in which terrorists are made, how they interact with the society and how they are treated by the State. My Name Is Khan is not in the same class as Khuda Ke Liye, but I would still recommend this film as worth watching.

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