Can “My Name Is Khan” Deliver?
By Ras H. Siddiqui
Shahrukh Khan and Kajol at the NASDAQ bell-ringing ceremony (left) and in a scene from the film (right)
Little is still known in America about who could possibly be the world’s biggest male movie star. But that could change soon if the long anticipated cultural exchange or even a merger of efforts between the Indian and American movie industries comes to fruition. The Bollywood name still generates an error while writing Microsoft Word documents, but that may disappear one day too.
To date, Hollywood has become somewhat familiar with Indian actress Aishwarya Rai Bachchan ( The Pink Panther 2009), but model and a famous writer’s ex-wife plus food critic and actress ( The Mistress of Spices 2005) Padma Lakshmi currently holds the most familiar face female from India here. On the male side we have Fareed Zakaria and Michigan-born Dr. Sanjay Gupta plus spiritual guru Deepak Chopra (born in Kashmir) as the most familiar faces. But in South and Southeast Asia (including Pakistan and Afghanistan), the Middle East and parts of Africa and even Europe, the most familiar and famous Indian face is currently that of the “King of Bollywood” Shahrukh Khan (also spelled Shah Rukh Khan).
A secular Muslim, married to a Hindu, Shahrukh has ruled Bollywood since our favorite actors Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan entered the senior realm. With competition from the other Khans who also are the major players in Mumbai’s film industry today, namely Amir (The Three Idiots, 2009) and Salman (Veer, 2009), the Muslim contribution to the Urdu-Hindi Indian film industry has been immense. All have played cross-cultural, multi-religious roles in what has been called the world’s largest film industry, but for the first time leading man Shahrukh Khan has embarked on something totally different.
“My Name Is Khan” is his latest and possibly the most controversial effort, opening on February 12, Valentines Day weekend all over America , because like most Indian movies, it is a love story. But in addition to the fact that it was filmed in the United States (mainly in San Francisco and Washington DC), My Name Is Khan (MNIK) is also an American story that many in this country might be able to relate to in more ways than one.
The lead role in the film is that of Rizvan Khan (Shahrukh Khan), a Muslim and a high functioning Autistic individual (the term is Aspergers Syndrome, like Dustin Hoffman’s role in Rain Man), who was born in India and moved to California where he met Mandira (a Hindu lady played by Kajol). The two decide to marry and settle down to live the American dream in a cross-religious marriage which is initially opposed by their families.
All is well till 9/11, the day that changed the world, not only for America but especially for the Muslims living here. And because of that fateful day, not only the American dream but Rizvan and Mandira’s family ties suffer. It appears that Mandira did not sign up to be the target of anti-Muslim hate and wants to break out of the marriage. So what does Rizvan then do? What can anyone do in these circumstances, especially one with Aspergers Syndrome? Rizvan sets out to travel across America in his quest to meet the President of the United States (in this case Barack Obama played by Christopher B. Duncan) to explain his predicament. “My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist,” is the bottom line statement that he wants to make to the President, to explain his situation and to win Mandira back.
This film is directed by Karan Johar. Distributed through Fox Searchlight Pictures and produced by Dharma Productions along with Red Chilies Entertainment, My Name Is Khan is going to be a controversial film that will attempt to bridge many divides created by the events of 9/11/2001 . Its publicity has been helped along by the most unusual sources, including Airport Security here in America that “detained” Shahrukh Khan on his visit here last year and the Hindu right wing party, the Shiv Sena in India, which had threatened to impact the release of this film there in turn adding to the curiosity towards MNIK. The controversy already generated through these episodes has drawn interest in the movie, but will it deliver its message?
We will have to wait for February 12th to find out because the promoters and distributors of this movie are being very tight-lipped about it. The movie is in Hindi-Urdu and English so its universal reach may be via subtitles. I believe that this is an important film that we could benefit from today. The promotional effort has had considerable reach thus far including the ringing of the NASDAQ stock exchange opening bell by Shahrukh Khan and Kajol earlier this month. And Bollywood has always acted as a bridge between India and Pakistan and their respective overseas communities, so efforts like this one cannot hurt.
For music enthusiasts there will be a chance to enjoy the soundtrack which features many favorites like Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Adnan Sami and Shafqat Amanat Ali from Pakistan. Udit Narain, Alka Yagnik and the memorable Sonu Nigam along with others will be the Indian icing on this musical cake. Now all we can do is to wait for the weekend for this movie and form our own opinions about it.