My name is Khan – and this is a film
— TP Saran
As an Indian guy once said, while buying a ticket for a film, ‘when you go to see an Indian film, leave your brains at the counter as you buy the ticket!’ The primary purpose – and concern — of the filmmaker is commercial: to make money. That this is so is confirmed in the case of the film My Name is Khan by the actor Shah Rukh Khan himself in an interview, when he states, ‘I thought if My Name is Khan doesn’t release, it doesn’t. I told my partners Karan and Fox Star Studios, I would make up for the losses.’
This was in the wake of the street protests mounted by the Shiv Sena of Bal and Uddhava Thackeray against the release of the film, which was linked to some remark made earlier by the actor regarding the recruitment of Pakistani cricketers to play in the IPL team which he owns.
Incidentally, the true religion of India and Pakistan is cricket: if all Indians and especially Pakistanis understood that, they would stop their silly fighting, as they would then realize that they are linked more by cricket than divided by any religion.
In that sense I think Shah Rukh Khan was right about inviting players from across the border: he fell short in not sending a call for reciprocation. Imagine India and Pakistan building a relationship on cricket diplomacy, making piles of money out of it and using that — through civil society structures rather than their inefficient governments — to lift their masses out of poverty. The Taliban in Pakistan, and Bal Thackeray and Co. in Mumbai would scurry back into their holes because zotte rôle pou teigne (I will ask Shah Rukh to award a prize to whoever renders that exactly into equivalent and as evocative English!).
There would then be no need for the BBC to have Indian Minister of External Affairs Salman Khursheed and Pakistan’s Ambassador in Washington Maleeha Lodhi confront each other on screen when the graceful Nirupama Rao adroitly makes the case against imported terrorism to her Pakistani counterpart. And if the Pakistani authorities genuinely took matters in hand, the Swat valley would blossom afresh, Indian goods would without doubt soon find their way into the Anarkali market in Lahore, Indian films would not have to be smuggled into Pakistan and Afghanistan, and socialites in Karachi would be able to go about in Indian fashion designer Rohit Bal’s latest sarees and ghagra-cholis more freely rather than in their own private spaces as they are forced to do now. The aesthetics of their choli-enhanced waists will probably be beyond the appreciation of those who would ‘satanize’ the female form, but that would not prevent the tinkling of cash counters as Shah Rukh, Karan and Fox Star kept singing their way to the bank.
Which they did as a matter of fact: all of 19 million US dollars within days of their film’s release across India, the US and UK, even as Shah Rukh and Karan shared a bottle of wine in their Berlin hotel. The stupidity and brashness of the Thackerays may have given them some much-needed though short-lived publicity, but did wonders for the film at the box office. One shouldn’t expect that they would necessarily learn any lesson from this or other episodes, which have been driving investors away from Mumbai. Bollywood, it would appear, has more resilience than the manipulative Thackerays are prepared to grant it.
But remember: reel is not real
The second objective of a film is to entertain. MNIK scored fairly on this count. The story was well-contrived out of elements drawn from contemporary events: NRI-Hindu husbands abandoning their wives to fend for themselves in a foreign environment, the election of an American President with Black and Islamic roots, the post-9/11 negative perception of Muslims and their religion, the successful climb up the corporate ladder of the educated and hardworking Asiatic immigrant to the US, cyclone Katrina devastating a southern state in America. Clever use is made of the Asperger syndrome* from which the character Rizwan, played by Shah Rukh Khan, suffers, granting a kind of angelic innocence which attracts some pity on the part of ‘good people’ in the shape of Kajol, fresh and skilled as ever.
And so it is that, exploiting intelligently these bits and pieces, and in spite of the rather overdone melodrama of the events in relation to the cyclone that affects the lives of the 214 persons of stricken Wilhemina, Shah Rukh makes a case for Islam and Muslims. It is too early to say whether he has succeeded.
Nevertheless, he must be given credit for having the audacity and the conviction to use the medium which is his natural playground to carry the message that is part of his global agenda. And we can only hope that the positive aspects that he portrays will gain more followers.
When will a Hindu actor from Bollywood come forward to similarly articulate the core messages of Hinduism, for example? And again, have Hindu NRI’s got the wake-up call and will they start a movement to support the vulnerable widow, divorcee or of single status who are in dire need of being taken care of? Wonder whether Karan Johar would be interested in taking up this challenge, even having Shah Rukh in that social-messaging lead role for that matter.
* Asperger syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder, and people with it therefore show significant difficulties in social interaction, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests.