In deference to the might of the empire that Karan Johar has built in a very short span of time, no other Hindi movie will release alongside his new release, My Name is Khan, on 12 February. Johar’s terrorism-themed drama will have most of the screens in stand-alone cinemas and multiplexes to itself, though there’s no telling if an upstart B-movie producer decides to try his luck.
On paper, there’s so much going for My Name is Khan that it already seems critic-proof. Johar’s three-hankie expertise. Shah Rukh Khan as a simple-minded savant. Kajol as his caring wife. New York. Terrorism. A Muslim of Indian extraction lost in the fog of intolerance that hangs over post-9/11 America. And for good measure, Sufi lite by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy.
Khan (the character, not the actor) has descended on America bearing the message of world peace, beating Munna Bhai and Circuit in the game. Khan, who is afflicted with Asperger’s syndrome (an autistic spectrum disorder), suffers the effects of faith-based stereotyping and decides that enough is enough. He leaves his family and travels to Washington, DC to meet the American president and tell him that all Muslims aren’t terrorists. White House gatecrashers Tareq and Michaele Salahi haven’t seen anything yet. All this I gleaned from the movie’s trailer, which wins the early-bird prize for the most big-hearted teaser of 2010. The trailer of My Name is Khan is the equivalent of the nut graph in journalism. It tells you everything you need to know about the story and lets you decide if you want to stick with the narrative.
My Name is Khan proves that Kabir Khan doesn’t own the copyright to the newly minted genre called “Bollywood does 9/11”. It is the third film after New York and Kurbaan (which Johar produced) to consider the impact of the 11 September 2001 attacks on Muslims in America. The stereotyping of an entire community because of the dastardly acts of a fanatic few is, of course, a matter of grave concern. The real mystery is not about the choice of story, but of location. Could Khan have been a Gujarati Muslim trying to crash into Narendra Modi’s motorcade to give him a few Gandhian lessons in tolerance? Or could he have been a resident of Mumbai’s Bhendi Bazaar neighbourhood who found that he couldn’t move out of the Muslim ghetto into a so-called cosmopolitan neighbourhood because nobody would rent or sell him an apartment?
Geography is history, declared the advertising campaign of Iridium, the failed satellite telephone service. In Bollywood, geography is plain inconvenience.
Far from home: Khan and Kajol in New York in My Name is Khan.
In between dreaming up My Name is Khan, Johar has been producing noteworthy movies (the gay-friendly and subversive Dostana and the pseudo-indie Wake Up Sid) and cultivating television audiences through his chat show Koffee with Karan. Johar is a gifted anchorman with a talent for repartee that is unmatched by experienced television hosts. However, his finger on the box-office pulse has weakened somewhat. The last movie he directed, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (KANK, 2006), appealed much more to non-resident viewers than to domestic audiences. Yet, some critics take Johar’s treatment of melodrama very seriously. In a review of KANK in the respected British journal Sight and Sound, Naman Ramachandran praised the movie’s “wringing, acute look at modern urban Indian marriage” and predicted about Johar that “film historians will no doubt eventually re-evaluate his career as much as they have done that of Douglas Sirk”.
Johar seems to have taken the comparison with one of America’s greatest directors to heart. My Name is Khan’s 3-minute-plus trailer promises to be a serious look at a global problem. As the year’s first putative blockbuster, it is trying hard to win both hearts and minds, audiences and awards. Whichever direction Johar’s directorial career takes, there is only one name for his game: success. He has squeezed laughs, tears and money from audiences with his films and his television appearances.
Last year was unkind to Johar’s ambitions. Paa stole Wake Up Sid’s low-budget thunder, while Kurbaan collapsed loudly and clumsily at the box office. Dharma Productions’ immediate reputation now rests on an autistic gent who loves to toy with the Rubik’s Cube and wants some face time with the US president.
My Name is Khan releases on 12 February.
Nandini Ramnath is the managing editor of Time Out Mumbai (www.timeoutmumbai.net).
Write to Nandini at firstname.lastname@example.org