On the opening day of Karan Johar’s film My Name is Khan (2010), the Mumbai police prepared for wide scale violence in theatres across the city. According to The New York Times, they arrested fifty members of the Shiv Sena, the extremist Hindu nationalist party headed by Bal Thackeray and son Uddhav, with apparent intentions to disrupt the premiere. The film has become a perfect platform through which the Shiv Sena can promote their usual message of discrimination and hate toward Indian Muslims. Not only does the film explore issues of discrimination against Muslims, but it also stars the famous Shah Rukh Khan, a Muslim Bollywood superstar of whom Thackeray publicly critiques. Nevertheless, those theaters that remained open experienced packed crowds across India.
My Name is Khan reunites Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol, who starred opposite each other in the Bollywood hit Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1996). The former, although a critique of racial profiling in a post-9/11 United States, confronts issues that are deeply rooted within Indian society. As would be expected of a Bollywood film, all of its Muslim characters come from Indian backgrounds. Consequently, the theme of anti-Muslim sentiment within the United States can easily by applied to Muslim prejudice within India, a connection on which the Shiv Sena easily capitalized. The film is indicative of the way through which Indians recognize and interpret American people and politics, and is speckled with stereotypes and dramatizations of significant events in recent US history. From post-9/11 discrimination, to torture, to Katrina, to the election of Obama—we witness all the major headlines of the Bush administration through the eyes of an autistic Indian Muslim on a quest to meet the president. Khan wanders the country, affecting the entire nation with his determination to promote peace and understanding, all the while spreading his mantra, “My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist.”
The film does not quite follow the pattern that I have described in an earlier post, The Bollywood Cliffs Notes: Returning Home, where I discuss a new trend of internationally recognized films that explore issues of Indian identity within national borders. The latter is a divergence from the more commonly themed Diaspora films that became popular during the privatization of Indian media and economy in the 1990s. This time, director Karen Johar has taken a more unconventional Bollywood route. While My Name is Khan still represents the lives of the Indian Diaspora and the emerging middle class, it exchanges the usual song and dance numbers, as well as the recurrent “finding-ones-lost-Indian-authenticity-through-marriage” trope for the more serious theme of racism.
Nikhat Kazmi from The Times of India believes that the film is a refreshing departure from the usual Bollywood fluff. She writes, “My Name is Khan is indubitably one of the most meaningful and moving films to be rolled out from the Bollywood mills in recent times.” Don’t be fooled, the film still consists of the usual Bollywood drama, peppered with implausible scenes reminiscent of Forest Gump. The film certainly pulls out all the stops—not only does Shah Rukh Khan’s character, Rizvan Khan, single-handedly save Katrina-esque hurricane victims as a first responder, survive a near-fatal stab wound, and prevent a terrorist attack, but he does all this and more while affecting the hearts and minds of an entire nation. Nevertheless, what would a Bollywood film be without its implausible, yet charming, drama? Without it, the audience would not obtain the same level of emotional response. Moreover, it just would not be Bollywood.
In the end, Rizvan Khan finally does meet the president. After having been passed over repeatedly by George W. Bush, Khan eventually finds an ally in President Obama. It mirrors the feeling of hope, of the promise of change that many of us felt at the onset of a new president. The end of the film marks the beginning of new ways of thinking about race for the United States, and allows Indians, both home and abroad, to hope for a better future as well. While only time will tell whether these sentiments will either prevail or simmer to a halt, My Name is Khan is a poignant tale that reminds us of the struggle against hatred and discrimination in all its forms. Of course, the film has its share of implausible drama, but its Bollywood critics appreciate its divergence—in the words of Nikhat Kazmi—from an array of the “crunchiest popcorn flicks.” Whether you’re a Bollywood fan or not, you should definitely put My Name Is Khan on your movie list.