Picture courtesy: nytimes.com
MY NAME IS CORN?
Shah Rukh Khan shines in a dully earnest drama that bites off too much and chews on too little.
FEB 14, 2010 – THE RHYTHMS OF MY NAME IS KHAN aren’t at all what you’d expect from a Karan Johar extravaganza – or, for that matter, a standard-issue Indian melodrama. Take, for instance, the moment where Rizwan Khan (Shah Rukh Khan, in an endearing performance that organically showcases his natural hyper-energy) is almost flattened by a San Franciscan tram. We’re at a point in the film where we’re primed for the introduction of the heroine (the hairdresser Mandira, played by Kajol), and we expect her to charge across the street and push Rizwan out of harm’s way (especially as, by now, we’ve gotten used to the heroines in Shah Rukh-starrers being more heroic than the hero; the actor continues his charming on-screen emasculation by sporting, in a later scene, a woman’s oversized overalls) – but that’s not how things happen, and neither do we catch that long-awaited glimpse of Mandira. It’s a muted introduction. We hear her voice – that distinctive nasal screech – and we see the back of her head, and then she vanishes into the wings, waiting to resurface in dazzling, full-frontal glory.
Take this other scene where, after a few shy encounters with Mandira, Rizwan proposes marriage. At that precise instant, as if ordained by the gods of Classic Melodrama, she receives a call. It’s from someone named (gasp!) Sameer, and Mandira signs off by declaring (gasp!), “I love you.” Even if we recognise fully well that this is but the reddest of herrings, we expect a degree of emotional conflict before Rizwan (and we) discover who Sameer really is – but, again, this revelation comes through quietly, and through a completely unexpected agency. In a similar fashion, the true-love moment, the point where we know Rizwan is well and truly besotted by Mandira, is also free of fireworks. He’s an autistic (the specific condition is Asperger’s Syndrome) and he cannot bear to be touched, and yet he allows her to cut his hair, which is as close as he can probably come to clambering onto a rooftop and announcing to the world that he’s in love.
In a childhood flashback, Rizwan sees his younger brother Zakir (Jimmy Shergill) in tears and muses, “Zakir bahut khushnaseeb tha… Ro sakta tha.” Rizwan is incapable of expressing that kind – or possibly any kind – of emotion, and it’s as if Johar and his writers adopted a similar strategy, deciding not to wallow in that kind of emotion, the kind we expect from our melodramas. There are certainly passages intended to bulldoze us to tears, but My Name is Khan is unusually (and unnecessarily) restrained – even the palette is drained of the bright colours of, say, the Chandni Chowk stretches from Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, and there’s no adrenaline-busting Rock ‘n’ Roll Soniye shot with every available Klieg light from every single Mumbai studio. (Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, meanwhile, contribute a shockingly generic score.) You are left with the feeling that, stung by criticisms of his larger-than-larger-than-life filmmaking style, the director retreated all the way to the other end, at least to the extent possible while still retaining the must-haves of the Great Indian Melodrama.
The niggling question, inevitably, is why anyone would bother with the apparently oxymoronic conceit of a muted melodrama – but the more pressing issue is how a film could pack in so much and yet accomplish so little. There is the story thread of a mother (an effective Zarina Wahab, who makes a difference simply by virtue of not having played this part in a hundred other movies) so obsessed with her elder son that the younger child ends up neglected. Sanjay Leela Bhansali milked a similar situation for a very affecting dinner-table showdown in Black, and you’d think that such a turn of events would make Johar salivate with shiny eyes – but he isn’t interested in pursuing that path. There is the other storyline, reminiscent of Swathi Muthyam and its remake Eeshwar, about a not-quite-there man adapting to domesticity with a woman and her son (in a seriously cute moment, Rizwan prepares for his wedding night by poring over “Intercourse for Dummies,” which, he declares, has excellent pictures) – but Johar doesn’t want to go down that route either.
Either of these developments – along with a detour about a mother’s quest for justice – would have made for an entire (and altogether more fascinating) movie, but Johar relegates them to the background, as half-hearted subplots, in order to clear the stage for a bleeding-heard screed about the plight of the modern-day Muslim, after the events of 9/11 branded even innocent practitioners of the religion with the scar of suspicion. My Name is Khan is a sprawling lesson on Islam as narrated by a Gump-like holy fool, an innocent, a man-child fashioned along the lines of the child in the Capra-esque Ab Dilli Door Nahin who set out to meet the Indian Prime Minister in order to right wrongs. The crux of the film’s message is embedded in this single statement that Rizwan seeks to deliver to the American president: “My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist.”
And with his ambition of weaving a tapestry that encompasses every imaginable stripe of humankind – an East Asian who suspects Rizwan of being a terrorist, a Latin American detective who heads a murder investigation, an African American family that offers Rizwan refuge, the white all-Americans who live next door to Rizwan and Mandira – Johar becomes slack with the threads involving the locals we could have come to care about. (Mandira, in particular, is mercilessly lopped off from the latter portions. She declares, at one point, that she cannot be a wife as she has to be, first, a mother to her child, but her role as mother is written as an apparent afterthought. She’s, first and foremost, Khan’s wife.) The intriguing complications in these lives are insultingly smoothed over – even a victim of stabbing wakes up barely a few seconds later, because we cannot stoop to bother with the petty problems of people when there’s such a Higher Noble Purpose to be served – and as a result, most characters end up being abstract manifestations of ideology, not so much personalities as pawns to hammer home a one-note agenda.
And that is the film’s undoing, at least for a certain type of viewer. Early on, Rizwan’s mother instills in him that the schism that splits people isn’t about being Hindu or Muslim but about being good or bad – and I’d venture that a similar rift exists between people outside of the movie screen. There’s one kind of moviegoer who values well-intentioned purpose over personality-driven conflict – the kind that assesses the impact of a narrative based on the heft of its neon-lit message – and then there’s the moviegoer who’d rather watch stories about people and not issues, and who doesn’t mind message-movies as long as the message is buried someplace deep below the lives of the characters. The former is the type of viewer who possibly wakes up with a broad smile and hugs everyone in the vicinity and is complacent in the belief that the ills of the world can be cured by a celluloid-strip band-aid, preferably one with tiny heart-shaped designs.
I am not that viewer, and I’m sure there are other crusty curmudgeons who feel borderline-insulted when lectured at by fat-cat filmmakers with more money than they know what to do with, so that they can ease their conscience about having made all that money in the first place. (It’s like those disaffected rock stars who make their millions and then whine, through their lyrics, about how lousy life is, how everything is just doom and gloom.) My Name is Khan is filled with this spirit of atonement. It’s a film with a single-minded purpose, and with sequence after Muslims-are-people-too sequence, I began to long for Johar to step off the podium and revert to what he’s good at, la-la land stories about The Bowled-over and the Beautiful. His idea about life elsewhere is alarmingly simplistic. One of the most embarrassing passages here involves a Southern black family right out of Gone with the Wind – they sho’ ah po’ but ah’ll be damned if dem don’t take time off their cotton-pickin’ lives to praise the Lawd. (And when disaster strikes, wouldn’t you know it, Khan is the only man in all of America who hunkers down to help.)
Other broad-strokes depictions include an incipient terrorist organisation that discusses its plans in the great wide open, a schoolteacher who instructs tiny tots that Islam is the most violent religion, and a candle-light vigil for the 9/11 departed where Rizwan sports the traditional taqiyah simply so that the camera can pull back and isolate this sole white-capped skull in the midst of hundreds of blonde heads. The compensatory aspects are equally generalised – a kindly white-American employer who doesn’t care that Mandira’s last name is Khan, the visual of Rizwan fearlessly kneeling down for namaaz in the presence of potentially hostile whites, and a clarification about the Abrahamic religion of Islam that invokes the story of Abraham himself. (A rabble rouser insists that it was God that demanded the sacrifice of Ibrahim/Abraham’s son; Rizwan counters that it was shaitaan, Satan, and that God would never demand the sacrifice of innocents for any cause.)
In the midst of all this blandly naïve ennoblement, the entertainment-seekers among us are left utterly stranded. The moments I took away were a mere handful, like Zakir comforting his wife while asking her to discard the hijab, “Allah samajh jayenge magar yeh log nahin,” that God will understand but the Americans won’t. This is an exquisitely sculpted line, like the one Rizwan delivers about his son’s soccer shoes or the rebuke a cub reporter hurls at a television producer who refuses to air Khan’s story. And there’s a smattering of scenes that hark back to our ancient narrative traditions – after Rizwan moves away from Mandira, he stops by a salon and peers in, recalling Mandira at work, and hundreds of miles away, Mandira looks outside her salon, as if sensing an emotion that has been carried to her doorstep by the wind. This is the sort of unabashedly sentimental storytelling that comes so naturally to Johar – even the death of Rizwan’s mother is due to congestive cardiomyopathy. “Dil zaroorat se zyada bada ho gaya tha,” Rizwan informs us, that her heart had swelled so much to accommodate her love for him that it eventually burst.
I worry that these traditions will vanish if filmmakers like Johar (who, along with Aditya Chopra and Sooraj Barjatya, is among the few still interested in the romantic melodrama) begin to feel ashamed about their roots – about the instincts that come so easily to them – and end up emulating the relatively naturalistic style preferred by today’s hip multiplex audiences. The envelope needs edgy pushing, surely, but we also need filmmakers harking back to times when Indian movies were still “Indian.” Subhash Ghai is a prime example of a director who lost his way when he abandoned his innate flair for vulgar showmanship and sought out “classy” ways of storytelling. My Name is Khan is extremely well crafted at a basic level, and it’ll probably do mind-boggling business, so I hope this is a one-off that will satisfy Johar that he can grow up if he wants to (as if the relationships in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna weren’t the very definition of grown-up in a mainstream context). And I hope he returns to chronicling the lives and loves of people, leaving issue-oriented narratives to directors more suited to dour message-movies seeking to rehabilitate a world stricken with ills. Come on, Mr. Johar, be yourself. Raise a hand and repeat: “My name is Karan, and I am not a therapist.”
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