I just randomly felt like writing about this movie. I’ve been avoiding it, because this is one that is really close to my heart and I know it isn’t close to the heart of most people, which is going to be heard for me to take when you comment. But then on the other hand, I should write about it for that very reason, so you can understand what I am thinking, and I can understand what you are thinking. And anyway, it’s Autism Pride Day today, and it was Eid a couple of days ago, so it seems like the perfect time. Plus, I am planning to cover Vishwaroop tomorrow and the two kind of go together.
In 2009, I was going through a confusing emotional time in my life. I had graduated college two years earlier to discover that all my friends had moved away and I knew no one in the city. And then I got a job which I hated and felt like it was killing me inside, quit that job and got another which started out good and turned so bad that after I left my boss was sued by the state labor board, and then got a third job that I really liked and then I lost it, and finally found myself working 4 separate part time jobs in order to just barely scrap by so long as I stopped taking public transit and walked everywhere instead. And I still had no friends. And in the middle of all of this, there came an announcement: Karan Johar and Shahrukh and Kajol were reuniting for a movie.
With nothing else going on in my life, I obsessively followed the coverage, the early glimpses of stills from the film, the speculation on the plot, the excitement over the SRKajol chemistry that was still apparent. By the time the release neared, I was pumped and ready for an amazing experience.
And then less than 48 hours before the release date, the news came that the movie might not come out after all, at least not everywhere in the world. Shahrukh had said something not-negative about Pakistan related to his cricket team, and in response the Shiv Sena had called for a boycott of the film. They published an open letter in the Bombay newspapers threatening theater owners that “for their own safety” they should not show this movie, there was a march to Mannat with slogans and chanting and effigies burned, billboards and posters all over Bombay were torn down or vandalized. And then the news came out that, one by one, the major theater chains were backing out and would not be showing the film.
Shahrukh and Karan were in Germany getting ready for the premiere. Karan was in meeting after meeting, trying to convince those back in India to change their minds, to release the film. And Shahrukh was on twitter having a mental breakdown in front of our eyes. It was extremely disturbing, the things other people were saying (“go back to Pakistan” was the kindest). And even more disturbing was his reaction. Not because I am a Shahrukh fan, but just to see play out in public the emotions of a victim of communal violence. He went from confusion to despair to remembering his father to thinking about his children to finally a simple prayer for peace.
By midnight the night before release, Karan had finally brokered a deal with a few of the big chains to release the film for the morning shows and, depending on how those went, the other theaters would follow their lead. The film industry stood by, declaring their intention of buying tickets for their whole families and showing up for the first show. The Bombay police turned out in force, all leaves were canceled, and over 100 protesters were arrested. And Gauri Khan and little Suhana went to the theater, surrounded by security, and gave a press conference in front. Which, it came up later, Shahrukh had no idea that they were going to do. Gauri just decided to do it herself, and to bring along Suhana, showing that Shahrukh’s women were standing by in Bombay even if he was overseas.
So, that is the mental space I was in when I went to see this movie. I’d been committed to it for over a year, following the development. And then I spent 48 hours of highs and lows following the drama around the release, and wondering what it was that the Shiv Sena was so desperate to keep off of screens, that Karan Johar and Shahrukh were willing to risk their careers to try to release, and that Gauri was ready to put her life and the life of her daughter on the line to protect.
And yes, the ultimate film has flaws. Lots and lots of them. It is the absolute worst example of the “Karan doesn’t know how to end movies” problem. There are moments of ridiculous sentiment, a stereotypical view of America, and dialogue that veers between good and way too literal.
But there is also something there that is very very brave. I’m not saying the film is perfect, or even necessarily good, but I can see why it scared the Shiv Sena enough to want to make sure it never hit theater screens, and I can see why Shahrukh was willing to put his career on the line to get it made, and his family was ready to put their lives on the line to support it.
This is Autism Pride day, and yes Shahrukh’s character is on the Autism spectrum. And Shahrukh does a good job with it (I think). He creates a real character, one we can relate to and understand, without any simple “breakthrough” moment. And there is a narrative reason for him to be like that, he has to have a simple clear view of the world that will not give into emotion based hatred or fear, and giving him Asperger’s does that. And the filmmakers and Shahrukh did their work, met with various organizations, researched, refined, and so on. This isn’t like Kajol playing blind in Fanaa where she just “felt” what it would be like to be blind, they made an effort, up to and including name checking worthy service organizations within the film.
The problem with this film isn’t the problem with most Karan Johar films, that it is empty and has no meaning, it is that it is too full. He couldn’t decide where to land. He had the autism thing, he had the anti-communal violence thing, and he threw in a slam at Homeland Security, and a tribute to Guide (yes, that ridiculous Katrina episode at the end that I secretly love). And a shockingly good Obama imitator. Not as good as rapping Obama from Tere Bin Laden: Dead or Alive, but almost.
But I can’t find it in myself to blame the film for it’s problems. It is sincere and it is brave and it has moments of great power. The end result doesn’t fit together right, but I would still rather have movies like this made then another Student of the Year, or even Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, which seem to say a lot but in the end just add up to nothing.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
For once I said almost all I wanted to say before the SPOILERS, so this section might be fairly short. Shahrukh and Jimmy Shergill are brothers in India. Shahrukh is “special”, his mother isn’t sure how, but she works with him and teaches him to hug her and try to understand people and so on, and also takes him out of regular school and finds him a special tutor who can work with him. Shahrukh is wonderful at mechanical problems, left over from when his father was alive and he used to watch him at the garage. His mother, Zarina Wahab (same mother as he had in Raees) thinks he is wonderful and praises him and sometimes his younger brother feels left out. It’s a lovely picture of a family struggling with an Autistic child. Zarina loves him for what he is and naturally instinctively knows how to help him navigate the world. But in the end, it is the other “normal” child who ends up feeling excluded. Now grown, Shahrukh’s brother Jimmy Shergill moves to America, falls in love and gets married. He plans to bring Zarina and Shahrukh both over to join him, but Zarina dies first, so he is stuck bringing his older brother over out of obligation. Again, the issue is NOT that he has Aspergers, but simply the lingering resentment from how Zarina seemed to care more for him than Jimmy, and how Shahrukh is incapable of being sensitive to that and easing the situation.
Jimmy is a natural beauty products salesman. Which is very satisfying after all of the fancy businessman type jobs we usually see with the NRI heroes. This is what an immigrant without an advanced degree might actually be doing, working his way up a door to door salesman company, eventually getting his own branch office supervising his own salesman. And it makes sense that Jimmy, without the emotional energy to try to understand Shahrukh, might give him the very bad fit of a job as a salesman.
There are a lot of complex relationships in this film, Jimmy and Shahrukh’s is one of the best, and also Shahrukh and his sister-in-law Sonya Jehen. Sonya is a psychiatrist and quickly identifies and diagnoses Shahrukh’s issues. But it’s not just that, she is an outsider. When she explains what is happening to Jimmy, you can see things that he just accepted as how things were, resentments that he buried rather than identify, slowly slide into place. To Jimmy, his older brother was like all older brothers, because he was the only one he had. Shahrukh’s behavior wasn’t abnormal, it was just Shahrukh. Now he is facing the reality that it is a recognized condition, and that all those things he secretly resented, have an explanation.
(Sonya Jehen is just lovely, and also Noor Jehan’s granddaughter! Karan is a big fan, so I am sure he got a kick out of working with her)
And so Shahrukh goes out in the world, armed with some more moderate coping strategies. A camera to look through when he needs to, and explanation he can fall back on when he has to introduce himself, and a general sense of who he is. And that is when he meets and falls in love with Kajol. It’s not because he is magically “cured”, he can just cope ever so slightly better than before.
Their romance is delightful. Shahrukh is in love right away, wants to be with her always. But she never tells him to go away. Shahrukh may not see the signs, but we in the audience can tell that she likes him back, even if she hasn’t admitted it to herself. There are no big magic moments in their romance, just Shahrukh making her laugh with the things he says and does and not knowing why she is laughing but liking it. And Shahrukh being kind and understanding with her son, and accepting everything she says to him without argument, and just generally being nice. Kajol isn’t the typical heroine either, divorced with a son and supporting herself with her own hair salon. She is not a woman who is looking to ever come second again, she wants to control her own life and Shahrukh is a man who will let her do that. They fit together, their broken pieces matching.
And the proposal scene is beautiful. Both proposals. Shahrukh has avoided being touched over and over, and then finally asks Kajol to cut his hair. It is beautifully intimate, her working over and around his head, and finally she finishes, and he bursts out “will you marry me?” She says “no” but after he argues, offers that if he can find one place in San Francisco that she hasn’t seen before, she will agree.
And so we have a series of visits to different places that slowly change from just the challenge to telling stories and getting closer. Including one outing that is to a park Shahrukh knows she has been to before, but her son likes to feed the ducks, so he is taking them anyway so her son can enjoy himself. And another outing to a beach where Kajol remembers coming after her divorce, deciding she was going to stand on her own two feet. Until, finally, Shahrukh shows up early in the morning, Kajol asking him where he has been, it’s been two weeks (clearly she missed him), and he drags her up the street to the top of a hill to show her the sun rise over the city. And she watches it and then turns back and says “Will you marry me?” to him, and he gives this lovely little joyful giggle and hides his head.
Such a delicate balancing act with this romance. Shahrukh is given a task, to show her a place she has not been before, and he goes about it. But from Kajol’s side, this is a bigger test. Will he be faithful, will he be caring, can he accept everything about her life? He passes both tests, and along the way makes her realize she misses him when he is gone, and so she proposes to him.
And that’s when we get our first scene telling us why Shahrukh’s character really had to have Aspergers. He tells Jimmy he is getting married, and Jimmy refuses to approve of marrying a Hindu women, not after what “they” did when Jimmy and Shahrukh were children (probably referring to the 1984 Bhiwandi riots). And Shahrukh refuses to accept this argument. His mother told him that good people do good things and bad people do bad things and that is all that matters. In another movie, this would be a big noble speech from the hero using perfect language. But it is so much more powerful, to me, to have it said by our hero with Aspergers, who hardly raises his voice before this, because he is so sure it is a clear and obvious fact. And to have his brother Jimmy not be entirely in the wrong either. He saw and felt things that were beyond the scope of Shahrukh’s ability to translate, Jimmy had greater knowledge of what happened and deeper scars. And so the two brothers separate.
Shahrukh and Kajol’s wedding is gloriously American. Two immigrants who found each other, the bride’s best friend is a white woman and her only attendant, and Shahrukh’s only guest is his sister-in-law in an Hijab. Kajol wears a sari, Shahrukh wears a suit with bow tie. And everything is wonderful. They buy a house in a small suburb, Kajol opens another salon, Shahrukh takes care of his stepson and acts as her receptionist, their best friends live next door, it’s all perfect. And they have an active satisfying sex life as well, not an unimportant learning moment for people who might be new to Autism.
And then 9/11 happens. And the initial aftermath is handled so well. The shock, the confusion, and finally a candlelight vigil at which Shahrukh says a prayer naturally in Urdu and everyone slowly moves away from him. He also donates 2.5% of their income, the Zakat, to 9/11 relief efforts. We see the discomfort, suddenly, with Islam from others, Shahrukh’s complete unawareness of it, and how he uses it to encourage him to be his best most generous self.
The rest of the film, it’s just messy. With moments of brilliance. I’ve been going through chronologically, but it flashes back and forth, opening with Shahrukh being pulled aside at the airport and searched for saying a prayer before getting on the plane. And then with him traveling the country by bus and foot and hitch hiking because he missed that plane. All of this intercut with flashbacks of his childhood and life.
But through out his travels, we see those moments of racism and prejudice over and over again. A hotel owner in the south who goes from having a friendly “Indians together” conversation with Shahrukh to shooting a gun to scare off a truck full of hillbillies throwing rocks at his sign, screaming at them “I’m not even Muslim! There are on Muslims here!” A nice young couple on a bus who recognize Shahrukh as a fellow Muslim and offer to share their food with him, but nervously abstain when he reminds them it is time for Namaz. And other moments unrelated to Shahrukh in his flashbacks, a Sikh holding his daughter and running from a crowd, an electronics store owner standing helplessly by as his merchandise is destroyed.
I thought this was a bit hyperbolic when I first watched the film. But then a couple years later I prepared a talk on it for a conference and I tracked down statistics on hate crimes against Muslims or those perceived as Muslim in America. The first murder occurred within 24 hours of 9/11, of a cab driver. And it just went up from there. All the incidents in this film are not directly related to a particular crime, but they are things that happened, and continue to happen at a rapidly increasing rate, in America.
But at the same time, there are things that are so tone-deaf. Most of all that the big deal is Shahrukh’s name, “Khan”. That it has blackened even his Hindu wife and stepson. But see, in America, we don’t know Khan is a Muslim name. And we don’t know Kumar is NOT a Muslim name. We’re very very stupid. Anyone with brown skin is open to attack just for having brown skin. Kajol’s salon fails, which I find believable, but it wouldn’t be because she chose to take Shahrukh’s name, it’s that it is a salon owned by a “foreigner” with brown skin. I can also believe her son being teased at school and so on and so on, just not that it’s because of the name. It’s because of the skin color, that’s it. The name thing, that’s an Indian thing, not an American one.
What is handled completely perfectly is Sonya Jehan and Jimmy Shergill’s reaction when she is attacked, her Hijab pulled off. It’s not, seemingly, terribly important. After all, a moment of attack, a small scrape where the pins came out, what does it matter? But it is important, and the way it is filmed, and how we have come to know this couple, let’s us know it is important. She is such a gentle, open-minded, kind woman. And dignified. And she wears the Hijab naturally, part of herself and her outfit, not just for special occasions but every time we see her onscreen, moving about her house or out in the world. When it is pulled off, she is also shoved to the ground and told to leave America. It destroys her dignity, her sense of self. And we can see in Jimmy’s reaction the pain of that. Most of all the pain that he could not protect her. Instead all he can do is, very gently, suggest that she stop wearing it, “God will understand, they will not”. It’s a loving scene, him very softly pulling the scarf away from her hair and rubbing the sore spot on her temple and telling her the practical realities. It doesn’t feel dramatic or forced, just the way two real people would struggle to deal with this situation, to figure out what is the best way forward.
And it is that moment, that moment of seeing there are no simple answers and easy roles and all he can do is love his wife as best he knows how, that finally lets Jimmy and Shahrukh have their breakthrough. A very subtle one. First, Kajol comes to the door of the house, saying she heard what happened and Shahrukh brought her, but he won’t come inside. Jimmy thanks her and calls her “Bhabhi” and there is just the barest flicker of a reaction on Kajol’s face as that word lands, but from Jimmy’s side you can see it wasn’t even noticed, he is so broken he just really wants his “Bhabhi” and his big brother to show up and take care of him. And Shahrukh does, the way he can. Jimmy goes over to talk to him at the car, tries to apologize, and suddenly turns away in tears, clearly everything is hitting him now, he can feel weak and scared and a failure in a way he wouldn’t let himself when in front of his wife. And Shahrukh reaches out and holds him and calls him “my little prince, my good little prince”, the same words their mother used to use to comfort him. It’s not a breakthrough, not for Shahrukh, he is still just repeating behavior that he knows is comforting without fully understanding why. But it is a breakthrough for Jimmy, to see that in his own way Shahrukh loves him and he is expressing it as he can. This sequence brings together the themes of Islamophobia in America, Autism, and the forbidden marriage and family disunity all at once.
And then the film falls apart again, just a little bit. The next section is acted by Kajol so beautifully, that it is hard to watch. And then on the other hand, it sometimes feels so over the top and melodramatic that it is hard to watch in a different way. Shahrukh’s stepson, Kajol’s son, is killed in a beating on the soccer field. Which I can believe, again my research showed there was one little boy beaten bad enough to break his arm (I think. Break something anyway). It’s a short step from there to death. Especially the way this is established, a freak hit by a soccer ball harder than intended. Kajol is told by the police that it is most likely a hate crime, and is frustrated by Shahrukh’s inability to give her what she needs in this moment, to sense what she needs. And so she turns it on him, telling him it is because of his name, her boy would be alive if his last name wasn’t Khan, and demanding that Shahrukh leave and not come back until he has told everyone including the president of the United States, “My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist”. Thus, the title and the travel through the US that frames the film.
Once we reach this point, the film becomes as lost as Shahrukh. There were things Karan wanted to hit, Shahrukh at one point confronts an actual corrupted Iman and defeats him using superior understanding of the Koran, and then calls in a tip to the FBI on him. So a lesson both that their are “good” Muslims, and that in fact the deeper understanding of the Koran preaches peace and love. But kind of ridiculous. And there is him getting arrested for following the president around with a detailed notebook of his movements, and then freed following a protest by both Muslim organizations and Autistic ones. A satisfying victory over America’s corrupt racist security forces. It also brings him to the attention of two young student journalists, which leads to an interesting discussion between them over whether they might be more like to defend Shahrukh and tell his story if he was named “Kumar” instead, if the community itself is afraid and divided. And there is the first introduction of the African-American town of “Wilhemina”. Which feels really really stereotypical and uncomfortable to an American audience. But it’s more than that, I think, it’s the Indian ideal of the perfect village, the small town with cows and a church and good people helping others. Shahrukh has his catharsis there, when he is invited to talk at the service about his son. That’s a nice scene, if only it weren’t surrounded by so much ridiculousness.
And then there is the Guide moment. Shahrukh is on his way to another chance to meet the President when he sees the news of a hurricane hitting Wilhemina. And for once, I think Karan wasn’t melodramatic ENOUGH. It took me several watches to catch on that part of this was Shahrukh turning his back on worldly desires, on his quest with the goal of winning back Kajol, in order to help others.
That’s what this section is about. Shahrukh walks into the storm to try to help. And in so doing, inspires others. Which leads to the scene that makes me cry every single time. Shahrukh is shown on TV by not-Oprah and his story told, we see various people watching at home, and then just as all seems darkest Shahrukh opens the church doors and the hymn “Allah Hi Rehim” starts up as he sees a crowd of people coming towards, him, including his brother and sister-in-law, coming to help.
(I don’t like that they recut it for this video AT ALL)
I haven’t talked to anyone else who is so deeply effected by this one moment of the film. Some of them find Kajol’s breakdown the moment they can’t get over, others Shahrukh’s release from prison, or the death scene of Kajol’s son. Karan threw everything but the kitchen sink into this picture, and the end result was that something “stuck” for every viewer. For me, it’s this moment.
It’s the combination of the hymn and the people. This is a miracle, this is God, God is other people. The greatness of God is in all these people showing up to help, in this group that could have reacted in hatred and resentment to the larger community that has rejected them (because it is clear most if not all of them are Muslim) instead choosing to sacrifice and try to help, reacting to hate with love.
If only Karan had known how to end it!!!! The Kajol reunion had been teased all along, we saw her on her own journey, sleeping in her son’s little bed every night, going to the police over and over again, putting up posters, asking for witnesses. And finally her son’s best friend told what happened and she had closure. And the community came together for her, she was not alone. Now was the time for her to reunite with Shahrukh, also healed, his community having come to help him. And then Shahrukh is STABBED IN THE CHEST!!!! What the heck??? There is really no reason for this. And there’s also no reason for Shahrukh to sleep and wake to find Obama the president, and then go to his speech and meet him and have his hand shaken by the really remarkably good imitator. And then, after all of that, the actual ending is just sort of bleh. Shahrukh and Kajol walking off together back home. This is what we had to stick 5 different tags on to reach? Walking home together? We could have been there 20 minutes ago!!!!!
You see, I really like this movie, and even I have a hard time with parts of it. But then other parts are so powerful. I can see why the Shiv Sena might have been afraid to have it released. Because it doesn’t just make the radical statement that Muslims are human, it makes the even more radical statement that Islam is a worthy religion, one that teaches charity and love and kindness and faith. That having your last name be Khan is not just unshameful, it is something to be proud of.