I have a real penchant for movies made about America by non-Americans, but particularly when made for a non-American audience. When the filmmakers don’t particularly care what we as Americans will think, they’re just catering to their demographic; for once, it’s not us. Maybe it’s just my American vanity, so that part of me can go “Huh, so that’s what you think of us”. But more than that I think it’s the fact that we do it so often, and it’s strangely refreshing to see that it’s not just us; we’re all apt to project our own cultural understanding onto everyone else.
Take Slumdog for example- I know, if you’re Indian you’re probably sick of the movie in all its capacity, but a good chunk of Indians (of the not born-in-America variety) weren’t too pleased with the depiction of India as a country. I think one of the big criticisms is that it basically showcased the seedy underbelly that exists in all societies, not just Indian society, and then implicated it as a specifically Indian problem. Now me, I liked Slumdog Millionaire; true, it was more in the fashion of the way you have to turn off your brain to enjoy it (like most Will Smith movies, for example), but that I did, and on that level, I was totally down. Plus I was already a huge fan of AR Rahman, who did the music.
But Slumdog is nothing at all like a Bollywood movie; it’s pure Hollywood, and as I was watching My Name is Khan, one of my big thoughts was how different in structure it was to a Hollywood movie- Hollywood has three acts, almost universally. Beginning, middle, and end, and if you learn to spot them they’re hard to miss. Bollywood on the other hand… I can’t really tell. It seems to me that they have one really big act, an intermission, and then another act that if you stretch it might be able to be split into acts two and three. Methinks India really likes its exposition.
But for my interest in Bollywood personally, it’s always come down to AR Rahman, Farah (or is it Farha?) Khan and Shahrukh Khan, the latter in particular. I like international cinema and all, but Bollywood movies do tend to be three hours long and contain an awful lot of extraneous plot points (at least by Western standards), so you need someone to hold your attention for that incredibly long time. So when I first got into it, I felt like I bonded with Shahrukh. He’s kinda like Will Smith- universally likeable, he’s your buddy! Not exceptionally good looking, but charming and accessible. I like him.
So that plus the lure of Muslims in America from an Indian perspective drew me to seek it out, and this is already the highest grossing Bollywood movie in the American box office. Granted, that’s only like… 2 million dollars, but still! I guess people here are finally taking notice of Shahrukh (the audience I was in was probably only about half-Indian), plus, hey, we love movies about us.
Which brings me to the theme of the movie. Basically My Name is Khan is the story of the sort of anti-Muslim hysteria that happened after 9/11 told through the lense of a guy suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome. In a way this is brilliant- since he’s got Asperger’s, he doesn’t really intuit the sort of social changes that are going on around him the same way everyone else does. He prays on schedule same as always, wears his little hats and prays in Arabic in public, even though this might not be the wisest course of action right after 9/11, but he doesn’t get that. In his mind, he’s a Muslim, yes, but he’s a good guy. Being a Muslim and being good aren’t mutually exclusive, why should anyone think otherwise?
But then comes the hyperbole- the movie begins with a disclaimer that the filmmakers worked in tandem with some autism societies to make absolutely sure that they got this depiction right. Only thing is… he doesn’t act like any Asperger’s person I’ve ever met. Granted, autism is a spectrum, so too is Asperger’s, but in my experience Asperger’s people don’t act so out-of-place. The main difference between high functioning autistics and Asperger’s people is that Asperger’s tend not to be so put off by interacting with people (and in fact will talk to you, lots). To me he acted out well the part of a protagonist who was just straight up autistic- and that in and of itself is pretty ballsy, an autistic protagonist. But maybe there are Asperger’s people out there that act like that, and if so, either way, he did a pretty commendable job of making an autistic guy empathetic.
But then there’s the depiction of America. It starts with Riswan Khan getting profiled in an airport in a pretty poignant scene that shows the security workers making him strip down while he acts all neurotic-like (cause he’s autistic, not a terrorist). This is perfectly fair, because this sort of thing happens all the time now. It even happened to Mr. Khan before this movie came out. But once we get into the movie, it starts to get a little bit less… relevant. The young boy goes to school to learn that Islam is the most violent of all religions. Rednecks in Kentucky shoot out the windows of hotels owned by Indians, mistaking them for Muslims, and you know things are a little off when violent schoolboys are calling the young boy a “Paki”. We’re in America! I don’t even know how to spell that.
Once 9/11 happens, that’s where I feel like the movie’s connections to reality start to become tenuous- yes yes, I know, it’s a melodramatic Bollywood movie, but it’s over here trying to make political points so we’ll take that part seriously. I was trying to remember how and even if there was a lot of anti-Muslim violence after 9/11. I remember reading about one Muslim girl getting pushed in front of a subway car, but that was about it. After I saw the movie, I asked some of my friends if they remember any massive anti-muslim sentiment, and they just looked confused. After all, weren’t our only Muslim US Representatives in history elected after 9/11? Yes, there had been a lot of Fucked Up Shit going on at the hands of the CIA and the government, but this was policy, not society. Aside from maybe some grumpy, racist old men getting grumpier and more racist (my father for example), I don’t recall this being the way of things. It wasn’t like Muslims were seamlessly integrated here before, then BOOM 9/11 happened and all of a sudden the whole country was bigoted.
Just like we did with Slumdog, this movie has a lot of pushing America’s cultural woes into an Indian lens. Historically, our problems have been more race-based (and economic!), not religious. India’s problems, conversely, tend to be more based in religion. But most of the strife depicted in America in this movie is religion-based. Riswan, during his trek to track down the president, goes to a function that is for “Christians only”, and he is refused entrance. Maybe this might fly elsewhere, but I’m sitting here thinking, are they kidding? A presidential dinner that excludes admittance for any non-Christians? Even Bush would be crucified for that!
Besides, I’m pretty sure the whole point of Christianity is to spread the gospel. Only the fundiest of fundies would reject the opportunity to convert someone.
The movie gets extra-weird once it sort of goes into this fictionalized Katrina territory. I think for Americans, white Americans especially, who are indoctrinated from birth not to patronize poor black southerners, having Khan in a church singing “We Shall Overcome” during a catastrophic hurricane in a tiny black town in Georgia with Mamma Jenny and Crazy-haired Joel (no, really), it’s just weird. Bad? No. Wrong? Not necessarily. Certainly nowhere near as wrong as a teacher in a public school proclaiming “ISLAM IS A VIOLENT RELIGION!” Just kinda… well, it is ballsy, I’ll say that.
Then Obama shows up. No, really.
Bush spends the whole movie more or less ignoring/avoiding Khan (who’s tracking him down just to inform him that he’s not a terrorist, by the by), so when the election happens, boy does the movie just… go there portraying Obama as the messianic figure that he was purporting.
Interesting, also, though, that the movie does include what Obama meant to Americans, at least right after he was elected. I mean sure, they show, like, CNN footage going “AFRICAN AMERICAN ELECTED PRESIDENT!!” stuff that you wouldn’t see on election night. Yeah, we know he’s black. The media reminded us constantly. They didn’t harp on it when he won. But I guess, in the context of this movie, it’s more or less a signifier of our changing attitudes. Curious, in that case, why they didn’t mention that Obama had a Muslim father, and sports the middle name “Hussein”. Would that defeat the point of the movie? I think it might… just a little. It does, after all, prove that we’re not that scared of the dirty Muslim taint. Most of us. Some of us.
Also, the guy they got to play Obama looks nothing like him.
Here’s the thing about how Muslims were treated after 9/11- did it get particularly better? No. But it wasn’t that bad, nothing that we’re getting tried at the Hague for. I suppose my point is it’s not that we don’t have shit… oh we have shit in spades, we just have a different kind of shit. I suppose it’s sad, but true; in India, the shit tends to come more from religion, in America, it’s more about race (and the corresponding socioeconomic awesomeness). But I don’t see why both our countries don’t give ourselves a little credit, though; Barack Obama, a black guy, is now our president, and Shahrukh Khan, a Muslim, is the biggest star in India.
Now, is that to say I think the movie is reprehensible? No, not any more than Slumdog is to westerners. I think my only problem with portraying us in such a way is that it might keep Muslims out of America out of fear; I certainly don’t think that’s helping anything. I, for one, welcome our Muslim brothers and sisters! Your food is universally delicious! But here’s an interesting doc made by Al-Jazeera’s English network about Muslims in America: give it a look.