Sunday Film School Rerun: My Name is Khan, Shahrukh Khan’s Take on Autism, and Activism

This is a very good deep review that did not get many readers or comments the first time around. So this time I gave you a weeks warning, so you could rewatch the film and know when the review is coming. Let’s see how it does this time! I don’t care as much about the views, but I really want to read your comments. It’s an important film to me, and I want to know what other people think about it.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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 referencing specific real life 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 seemed to say a lot but in the end just add up to nothing.

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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. They are Muslim, and Shahrukh has Aspergers. 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, that’s not why Jimmy doesn’t want him, but simply the lingering resentment from how Zarina seemed to care more for him than Jimmy, and the Aspergers only has an effect in 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.

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(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 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. He falls in love at this moment not because he is magically “cured”, but he might be open to it because 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 his religion to respond to tragedy and 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 no 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. The incidents that flash by 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.

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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 Indian-American 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.

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31 thoughts on “Sunday Film School Rerun: My Name is Khan, Shahrukh Khan’s Take on Autism, and Activism

  1. I have a much more deeply involved autistic son than the one portrayed by Khan in this film. The moment I can’t get over is the “my little prince” scene. This scene rings so true, so accurate. It is lovely and heartbreaking.

    Shahrukh does very well overall with autism. Maybe a little RainMan-ish, but quite good.

    I agree. The first half is very good, although I do have some provisos. The brothers and their complex relationship is great. The family break seems, sadly, a very likely possible consequence. There seems to be no sense that the mother is ever overwhelmed, which seems unrealistic, but perhaps to much to fit in this overpacked film. The romance seems somewhat believable, but I’m not sure. I don’t know enough Aspergers adults to decide from experience. It just seems like it would be more difficult to really make work, but again, I don’t really now.

    The part that utterly bothered me was the Wilhemina section. The stereotypical vision of where black people live and how they act. And replacing a white savior trope with a brown savior trope did not make me one bit happier than I would have been otherwise. I would have been much happier with a black person in the community as leader and Khan happily lending a hand and his expertise. Anyway, the whole section is just a disaster.

    It would have been nice if things could be as nuanced for the Americans, white and black, Christian and otherwise, as they were for Muslims and the autistic person. It would have been a very different film. Perhaps not in any conceivable world one made by Karan Johar, though, I suppose.

    I do wish Indian filmmakers would get critiques from Westerners before portraying them. They think they know, but their idea is often so skewed. Perhaps Westerners who make movies about other cultures need this even more, come to think of it. The world would be a more understanding place.

    Liked by 1 person

    • For the mother, I wonder if it is because we are seeing her from the perspective of her son? I could believe there were moments she cried and yelled and just generally couldn’t cope for a minute. But children are forgiving, in their memory those moments never seem to happen.

      I suppose the same could be true of the romance, so many moments that Kajol was struggling just didn’t register for Shahrukh, perhaps. Or maybe it was just the usual magical filmi romance and love at first sight.

      I’ve watched the Wilhemina section many times, and it is so close to acceptable! A lot of moments do show “Mama Jenny” as that local leader. But then there are other moments with slight overacting to make them seem too helpless, or the music cues being a little over the top, and it all falls apart. I guess it’s just the usual Karan Johar instinct to go a bit over the top.

      On Sun, Sep 9, 2018 at 2:04 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I think also that in communities where you have multi-generational families and people share the work of child care that the mothers are individually less burdened by children who are disabled. I don’t want to romanticize it too much because there’s definitely problems with people not accepting disability in all societies. but sharing childcare among all the women means that if the mom is just totally overwhelmed one day, her sister or cousin or an aunt will take the kids and give her a break.

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        • That’s one small thing I find interesting about MNIK. That the family is so isolated, they establish in Shahrukh’s flashback that his father died, and his mother seemed to have to work long hours all alone to take care of the kids. And once she is gone, it’s just the two brothers. Not unrealistic certainly, we come in when little Shahrukh is maybe 12, it’s possible that both his parents were only children and his grandparents are dead. But I can feel the weight of the two brothers coming from a society where it is expected that family takes care of family, and they are the only family left. There’s also a deleted scene where Kajol tries to reach her parents in India after Sam dies, and ends up talking to strangers because the phone number she has is out of date and new people are using it. It’s lovely and heartbreaking, her parents haven’t spoken to her since the divorce and marriage to SRK, and now they are just gone, she has no way of reaching them, but the people who answer the phone at the other end bless her and wish her luck. So, she has strangers who are praying for her even if her own people have cast her out.

          On Mon, Sep 10, 2018 at 7:51 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • Yep, this is one I recommend to people with two asterisks. First, that it might be too sad and real and powerful for you to feel able to watch. And second, that it might be too tone-deaf and stupid for you to be able to watch. An odd movie that combines both in one.

            Anyway, hopefully you will be able to watch Angamaly Diaries! That one is much more fun.

            On Mon, Sep 10, 2018 at 9:22 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • Oh, and next week’s movie Befikre is just a love story/farce with great songs.

            On Mon, Sep 10, 2018 at 9:22 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. Eight years later, the movie has kept its intensity and all the messages conveyed (shown or uttered, subtle or striking) are still valid, at least imo.
    MyNameIsKhan is one of the ShahRukh movies were I don’t think “ShahRukh“… I always think “Rizwan“.

    I agree with you, Margret, that the protagonist had to be a person who would not be able to fake or to lie, who would take the words litterally…it is something that makes it possible to reveal the impact of words.
    Therefore, I think that the scene in the Mosque is very important, because Rizwan does not phone the FBI to inform them about a terrorist but about a bad man, (a man as bad as the devil) because that man lies about what the Islam teaches. Rizwan doesn’t ponder about indoctrination, manipulation, agitation (that is the task of the audience). However he knows that bad Islamic men are held responsible for the extremely bad deeds that has brought so much misery for Mandira and him and others in its train and that the FBI deals with bad Islamic people.
    Unfortunately, the bad seed Dr. Rahman spreads, has already born bad fruit, especially in the man at his side (like a disciple). When this man recognizes Rizwan on TV, all his built-up bad feelings concentrate in one goal. (Okay, in real life he may not have stabbed Rizwan by just coming in-between Mandira and Rizwan, but it had to be a close encounter…and when Mandira comes to him there are still some days left until Obama is President, right? 😉 . It was also a good opportunity to give Mandira the time to read the diary, to join his journey, feelings and thoughts to her’s.

    ShahRukh wasn’t very happy about especially the second Wilhelmina part and there are indeed moments when he can’t keep Rizwan’s expression (the only time I felt that he went out of character, understandable with all the action he had to do.) Yet apart from that, I have no mayor qualms concerning the Wilhelmina parts. The place is so obviously artificial that it came across – in my eyes – as a kind of allegory (like in fairy-tales), a symbol for a place where you get shelter, where you are among non-judgemental people, a place that helps you to overcome hardships and traumas. The name „Wilhelmina“ means womanly spirit, helmet and protection. It also had to be afro-american people living there, I think, because of the kind of church service and the gospel song „We shall overcome“. And the church had to be a „rock church“, with a solid foundation where the outside demolition cannot destroy the strength or belief inside of people.

    There are so many deeply emotional moments (happy, funny and sad ones) that I wouldn’t be able to name one that impressed me the most.
    As for the name Khan as a recognisable Muslim name, it is only mentioned by Mandira and – honestly – with such an emotional shock and upsetting situation and not knowing what exactly happened, it is understandable that due to the hostile feelings one could see on TV and read about she as a desi woman equates the reason for her misery with Rizwan’s family name. At the airport, it is his ‘odd’ behaviour which causes the ‘special treatment’, not his name.
    The same logique applies to Mandira’s sarcastic answer to Rizwan’s “and when can I come back?“ because he takes her “go, go“ as a “go“ for a certain time until she has calmed down…he understands Mandira’s words as an order. He has to make clear that the name Khan isn’t threatening. To go back to Mandira, to repair her love for him he has to overcome a lot of anguish, but he has a focus, a task to fulfil. That he is destined to fulfil an additional task, is not something he is aware of, helping Mama Jenny and Funny Hair Joel is a given.

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    • Agree about Wilhemina being an allegory, or a fairy tale kind of place. As I said to the last comment from Dteaj, it is so close to being an acceptable section. there are just little moments of overacting and musical cues that aren’t quite right and so on. For the narrative it was just supposed to be a loving welcoming unquestioning community, a haven in the world that distrusted Shahrukh, where he could be himself (both autistic and Muslim) without judgement. And then he turned away from his private quest in order to pay back their love. But then it had to be an all-Black community, and they had to go over the top with the accents and everything and it just wasn’t right. But it was so close to right. Could have been helped by something as simple as making it integrated, there are a lot of dirt poor remote American southern communities that mix together poor whites and poor Blacks.

      Interesting about the idea of Shahrukh confronting those who misuse Islam’s teachings. What bothers me about that section is, so far as I know, it isn’t actually a common occurrence in America. Or an “ever” occurrence possibly. I don’t like the idea that this movie is suggesting you can wander into a Mosque in America and find a radical preaching hatred just at random. Especially not that kind of mosque, a large established wealthy looking one. It would have dozens or hundreds of members and participate in the community and so on and so forth, just a terrible place to spread extremism. Maybe if he had wandered into some strange little storefront somewhere?

      On Sun, Sep 9, 2018 at 3:22 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • It seems that all the research work done had not involved to narrate/present the details of the story to people having grown up and/or living permanently in the US. Maybe Karan did not realize that he used stereotypes instead of realities.

        In any way, he made a movie which had could be really great ‘smaller’.

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  3. Agree with your review and so much of what has been said in the comments. A wonderful and deeply flawed film. I’ve also explained to the few close people I’ve recommended MNIK to that I see the second half–the quest/s and Wilhelmina section–as more like a fable than a real world story. One or two Black southern consultants on the script could have helped so very much. I mean, even having Rizwan NOT call the kid “funny hair Joel” would have been a big improvement–so very cringe worthy.

    The main reason it bothers me is that I think Karan was trying to convey real outrage over the deadly incompetent response to Katrina. But the cartoonish portrayal of Wilhelmina and its people undercut that deserved outrage. It could have been such a powerful reflection of America’s failures in taking care of our own while we react violently and inaccurately to the external threat that manifested in 9/11. A rare mirror to show Americans how we look to the rest of the world when something like Katrina (or Mike Brown in Ferguson, or poisoned water in Flint) happens. So, just sad about a missed opportunity.

    I love all of the family dynamics. I think the relationship between Rizwan and Mandira could work in real life. As my therapist says, there are as many kinds of successful marriages as there are people. I often watch just the first half for a pick me up, because I love the music also. As soon as that phone rings after Rizwan says he found his happiness, I’m outta there. 🙂

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    • The “Funny Hair Joel” name is a perfect example of that well-meaning ignorance. Because, setting aside different hair norms, Joel did have funny hair. He clearly didn’t let his mother trim it, it wasn’t so much an Afro as just a big poofy mess. If there had been a group of kids, all different, and Shahrukh called one “cool shoes Jacob” and another “bandana Sam” and so on, it wouldn’t have stood out. I feel like that’s the way it was used, not in a “this kid needs a haircut” or “this kid has the wrong kind of hair” way, just that it was the first obviously distinctive thing about him, and also obviously on purpose, not like “funny nose Joel”, but related to how he wanted his hair to be. Without knowing all the cultural weight involved around African American hair, it could have seemed like a perfectly normal thing to call a kid. But then, it would also have taken about 30 seconds for someone to say “hey, by the way, there is a lot of complicated emotions around African-American hair, maybe you should call him ‘funny shoes Joel’ instead” and then they could just find and replace the script and call it a day and no more issues. But of course, they had no one on set to tell them that.

      On Mon, Sep 10, 2018 at 6:59 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  4. This was probably the third time I’ve seen the film, and I totally agree with the responses here — all of the, It summons up very mixed feelings. I have not shown it to any friends yet, because of all the problem areas you mention. At the very least, it is a great conversation starter about all kinds of things — outsider images of ANY culture (not just ours), the War on Terror, racism, ableism, etc. That being said, it is probably my favorite Kajol role, and close to my favorite SRK role,and the best evidence of their artistic chemistry, because they really get to show off their acting ability, and not just make goo-goo eyes at each other.

    I just wish it felt MORE like a period piece, but 17 years after 9/11, it feels like things have only gotten worse. The anniversary makes me both angry and depressed. Four members of a family were on the plane that went into the Pentagon. A former colleague (I was on the search committee that hired her), her husband and two daughters, aged 9 and 3. I used to babysit for the little girls. They were ardently antiwar (I also knew them from our UU church and summer camp) and would be appalled at the country’s reaction to that attack.

    Whew.

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    • I am sure you remember one of the comments on the original review was from a young desi raised in America who didn’t remember a time before 9/11, who talked about how watching this movie with her mother was what started a conversation between them about the prejudice her mother had experienced here and how things changed post-9/11. It’s not a perfect movie by any means, but there are so few cultural artifacts that deal with this part of the story, it has value for filling that gap, however imperfectly it did it.

      Also, I honestly forgot that the anniversary was coming up. I mean, I didn’t really “forget”, it was just sort of floating there in my mind and I didn’t connect it to re-posting this review this weekend. At least not consciously, but I am sure I did it unconsciously. It’s funny, the talk about events like this as “national tragedies” and so on, but they are also personal, aren’t they? Far more personal for some people like you, but even for people only tenuously connected like me, there is still a psychological scar that goes deeper than the public mourning. That’s another thing I feel like this film did well, the sense of it as a personal tragedy and shock even for people far away in California.

      On Mon, Sep 10, 2018 at 10:00 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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    • I’m so sorry for your loss, Jo. I think so much of what we’re experiencing today are repercussions of our leaders’ wrong headed reactions to 9/11.

      I agree that watching this movie is an object lesson in what it feels like to come from a culture that a movie is getting things wrong about. A taste of what Hollywood and European film industries do in movies about sub-cultures or other countries all the time. Eeesh.

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  5. I think the three movies, Karan did with ShahRukh and Kajol were more seen as different takes on love by him than anything else.
    If I remember rightly, he initially had another kind of film in mind with ShahRukh and Kajol (titled “Khan”) and then he read – on a flight to NewYork – Katrin Bently’s book “Alone together” and made Sunita Banerjee write a script: with the angles about the romance and now, as he had found the angle of “taking something verbatim” he changed the Muslim angle. But I am almost sure that he already had the hurricane – plot in mind with the helpful Muslim(s) and the TV coverage and meeting the President because during the shooting of KalHoNaaHo, they experienced Katrina and the mess around. I think, that’s why he didn’t listen to ShahRukh when he told him to completely skip this part. And ShahRukh had been right, it would not have been necessary…the young students filming his desperate attempt to tell Bush what he had to tell to go back to Mandira and what happened to him would have been enough. The mosque-scene, however, is understandable from my point of view and crucial for the movie (and Rizwan).
    MNIK is such a special film for me that I always try to find something to forgive Karan, but I simply can’t forgive him that he stuck to this whole Katrina/Wilhelmina mess (the first Wilhelmina part would not have harmed the movie that much). I guess, Karan simply wanted a looooot of emotion…toooo much emotion (with a second kid dying!!!!)…bad move.
    He already did something similar in KabhiAlvida where ShahRukh also tried to suggest a change but Karan stuck to his idea and promptly that what he didn’t change was critizised the most (if I remember correctly).
    Honestly, I am almost sure that ShahRukh would not have done another film with Karan, when Karan hadn’t succeeded to convince Kajol to do a third movie together…
    Instead – when he got the opportunity with Rohit Shetty and a loooong gap before Fan would be ready, he made his fourth movie with Kajol with Rohit. Unfortunately, Rohit knows comedy and action, but the rather short experience of trying his hand in romance with Chennai Express wasn’t enough, so he filled the movie with too much silly comedy (the side plots with the stealing friend and with Johnny Lever, imho, killed the movie)…and I don’t forgive him that he did not bring Varun’s & Kriti’s second song!

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  6. I finally rewatched this on Sunday night, “technically” by the deadline in my time zone 😉

    As you suggest in your write-up, this movie really needs to exist and be watched, even if it’s imperfect as a film, and watched by everyone – Hindus, Muslims, Americans (of all colors), Indians. Replace 9/11 with Donald Trump, and you have a movie that could have been shot yesterday.

    Kudos to Karan for his heartfelt and grand vision, and for his chutzpah in implementing it.

    The movie is as big as it is small, as macro as it is micro. For every scene making a grand statement about society, there is another scene about simple human emotions and interpersonal relations.

    Kajol crying over her dead son’s body was heart wrenching. I don’t think she overacted imo. But this scene takes place in her bedroom at home. I found this odd. In the USA, can you bring a deceased body home, after it’s already been declared deceased in a hospital?

    Wilhelmina, oh man…. “Funny hair Joel” is so completely inappropriate, plus Karan was filming in the USA, so it’s not like he couldn’t have asked anyone about it lol. Heck he could just ask a passerby. Mama Jenny either introduced herself as Mama Jenny, or else Rizwaan heard others in the community call her that. But why call her son “Funny hair Joel”? Why not just call him “Joel”? He didn’t call Reece “blond hair Reece”. Per above comments, I can see how Rizwaan being married to a hair salon owner might notice hair on people, hence “Funny hair” instead of “cool shoes”.

    Maybe KJO was interested in addressing Indian diaspora racism towards blacks. Except in places where they truly interact (like some countries in Africa), IMO modern Indian diaspora racism towards blacks is mostly white-adopted racism, due to unfamiliarity with blacks combined with wanting to stay above zero in the racism pecking order. So KJos tactic might have been to first throw in some mild mannered poking fun at the culture (mama Jenny, funny hair Joel, and wilhelmina might as well have been lifted directly from “Song of the South” or a Shirley temple movie) to disarm the Indian viewer who might otherwise conclude either of the following
    A. The blacks are a menace, the villains, etc
    B. The movie is going to preach to me about how it is wrong to be racist against blacks. By calling him Funny Hair Joel, kjo is telling his Indian audience “I’m one of you”.
    Now once the viewer is disarmed re both A and B, the movie guess ahead and subversively preaches to the Indian audience that they are wrong to be racist against blacks. AfAms are the one group that is singularly and uniform painted as good kind people, family and community oriented, using religion to good aim, as well as emotionally mature (taking to community about problems). Essentially, everything that Indian diaspora see themselves as.

    IMO if Kjo is throwing so much at the movie anyways, it would have been interesting to have AfAm Muslims noted, addressed, or involved as characters in the movie somehow. Maybe a citizen of wilhelmina had left home, over time converted to Islam, returns for a visit, he’s included in the church session, accepted with brotherly live despite conversion, etc. It would have been great for the Indian diaspora to learn via this movie that American blacks have converted to Islam (or born into it via converted parents) in far greater percentages than American whites have.

    What this movie gets right is juxtaposing wilhelmina with the broader American community, but I don’t know if it’s obvious to the viewer. In every racism, vandalism, or terror incident in the movie, it’s a terror-driven Muslim, a Hindu (frustrated to be at the receiving end of racism not intended for them), or an American White doing the terror. Movies never make white Americans look like terrorists, yet in my experience as a lifelong PoC American, the only people who have created terror in my life – egged and teepeed my home, left notes on my car, told me to go back to my country, stopped talking and stared at me as I entered a restaurant (yes the entire restaurant did this), run my Indian friend off the road on a highway, spat on my face, shoved me into walls, threatened sodomy, sent me hate emails, etc etc etc, have been white American males. Just this weekend a white American male barked at me like a dog every time he passed me on the local expressway. Because there were many traffic lights, he had the opp to pass me multiple times, he must have passed and barked at me at least ten times in ten minutes. “Hate crime” and “lone gun man” and “mentally or emotionally disturbed” are nice ways to gloss over a systemic problem of culturally accepted and encouraged terror by the majority towards the minorities, be it in USA or India, as a way to express frustration. So the movie showed terror from whites, but not in a coordinated way, like they did for the Muslims in the mosque planning their revenge. By not doing so, it subtly empathizes with the white Americans as just being upset re 9/11, essentially a bunch of angry lone gunmen running around. Instead if they had showed a similar group of whites discussing revenge, either purposefully gathered (like disgruntled folks after a post-9/11 mtg), or inadvertently gathered (like a party conversation takes a heated turn), then the movie could have even better hit home that the majority group also contains terrorists, just with different motives.

    Random thought – I thought it was cute that they addressed sex and physical intimacy a couple of times. I’m sure most people in the audience were a bit befuddled, wondering how this marriage was going to work sexually.

    Finally, I love Kajols acting job here, and I like SRKs also, and the white actors were ok (could have been better, but doesn’t look like they used passersby). Maybe the first movie chronologically where I didn’t think “SRK” while watching him. It’s tough to balance emotionally challenged with challenging emotions, I think he gets it mostly right.

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    • Really interesting thought about how this film treats African Americans. Looking at it from the American perspective, they are turned into the “magical Negro” trope. But from the Indian American perspective, is that a trope? Or is it an original way of looking at the community?

      One thing that really struck me when you were talking about where you have experienced terror, the first time I saw the movie, even without knowing exactly what was coming, I had this tingle of doom when Kajol announced she had decided to move out to the suburbs. Because it is the suburbs were baaaaad things happen. Which is a new thing for a film to address, that the “American dream” immigrants are sold “move out of your ethnic enclaves in the city and buy a house in the suburbs and be free and safe”, has a danger to it. There is a reason those ethnic enclaves were built up and you are safer from some things while you are there than you are in the suburbs. And then as the film goes on we see that the poor rural very non-white community (Wilhemina) is a far safer place than the white community that Kajol was so excited about moving to.

      I was also thinking about the Nation of Islam. Partly because there is this general problem of all Muslims being considered the same, and Muslim being made their primary identity. Which gets into the whole “Muslim terrorist” problem. In my reviews, I try very hard to never use the word “terrorist”, because it stops people from thinking, you know? There is never any effort to learn more about the situation, you might as well just call them “the bad guys”, except then everyone knows it is made up and somehow this imaginary “terrorist” has become something that is believed to exist in the real world. There are angry violent activists for racial justice from the Nation of Islam. There are Kashmiri separatists and mentally disturbed individuals and disgruntled office workers and all kinds of people who also happen to be Muslim. And their violence is not because they are Muslim, and none of them would call themselves “terrorists”, they would have a reason for it. In this movie, I would have loved for the mosque preaching hate that Shahrukh stumbles into to be a Nation of Islam mosque. Or one with a mixed community. And for the discussion to include a justification specifically related to the experience of this community.

      I guess this is going back to your argument, only from the other way around. I don’t want white men called terrorists, because I don’t want anyone called that. You know? Call them racist or criminal or murderers or treasonous even, but give their actions a real name, not a term that has stopped having any meaning. And while I would appreciate more acknowledgement of the existence of the people who think of themselves as Christian and use that as justification for terrible acts, I definitely don’t want people called “Christian terrorists” any more than I want them called “Muslim terrorist”. Which I know wasn’t what you were saying, but it is something I think about every time “Muslim terrorist” trips off the tongue of some newscaster. Would they so casually call Timothy McVeigh a “Christian terrorist”? Of course not!

      And now I have swung all the way back to this movie. I don’t like the idea of some random person preaching hate at a random mosque in America, because I don’t think that exists. I want to know why he preached hate, what was his bigger purpose. But I do like that the film showed Shahrukh defeating him through theological discussion, through showing that he was not truly Muslim, because true Islam does not preach violence. And I also really liked the brief moment when we see Sam in school suffering through his teacher giving misinformation about the religion. This is the one rare film that rejects the “good Muslim” and “bad Muslim” concept and instead says “If you are bad, you are not truly Muslim. The religion teaches you to be good, learn about it and you will understand that”.

      On Tue, Sep 11, 2018 at 5:23 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  7. As a fellow American, I grew up knowing about the Magical Negro trope, as I cited some examples in my above comment that I grew up with. All Americans were watching these things, never mind their race or ethnic ancestry. Even Sambos restaurants were everywhere that Dennys is now, and Sambos was part of every road trip back then.
    My guess is that a younger Indo Americans or Indians who migrated to America might be less aware of the trope, as I don’t know of an equivalent trope within India, but someone else here could inform us if there is one.

    I’ve lived in suburbs, small cities, and big cities, and my personal experience is similar in each, I.e. Not worse in the suburbs. That might mean that you are wrong, or that might speak to the era I grew up in and the particular places I lived. Most people obviously aren’t terrorists, and I’ve met amazing & kind people everywhere, especially in the burbs. But it might be easier in the burbs to enact terror simply because you aren’t in close proximity to your neighbors, but that might also mean it’s easier to escape terror, just depends on the situation.
    What I have never lived in is an Indian enclave. Actually that idea sounds scary to me – trading white terror on minorities for Indian male terror on females. I briefly dated a guy who lived in such an enclave. Other Indian men would come onto their balconies and porches to watch me as I would leave his home, and would approach me with suggestive “hellos” and stares as I arrived. I think they thought that if I was willing to have an Indian bf, that I was therefore willing to be with any Indian man. I think I’d rather be barked at on the expressway lol. Plus it’s easier to drive away than to run away.

    Your Nation of Islam example and explanation is equally valid to mine. My example suggested an AfAm who is Muslim but otherwise leading a happy law abiding life. Your example goes the opposite route. But both types of people exist in all religions, so it’s an interesting callout, but maybe speaks to the unease that white Americans have with AfAm Muslims, especially in cities like Chicago, where Nation of Islam has a certain degree of prevalence, maybe a stereotype, reputation, or history.

    Actually, Timothy McVeigh was called a “right wing terrorist”, maybe not by news anchors, but certainly in print media and colloquial speech. But that was decades ago, I’m not sure if people would call him that if he did it today, see “schoolyard shooter” instead if Schoolyard Terrorist as an example. I think the explanation is than in an earlier era, the term terrorist had a more specific definition. Whether it was Munich Olympics or the myriad of plane and ship hijackings and car bombings, the terrorist usually made his political or religiously motivated intentions clear, perhaps in an announcement or written statement. Nowadays it’s much more nebulous, and the reaction is much more nebulously racist and other-ist as well. McVeigh wasn’t called a Christian terrorist because that would make him one of “us”, and thus “we” are somehow a source of terrorism. But by calling him “right wing” or “Christian fundamentalist”, that now makes him one of “them”, and it’s now safe to disparage “them” as terrorists. The worst examples of the racist non-use of the word Terrorist are the KKK and Westboro, both clear examples of Christian Terrorists, yet no one in America calls them that. KKK burns crosses in people’s lawns… I can’t think of a more apt reason to juxtapose Christian and Terrorist into one phrase. Westboro openly and loudly tormented guests arriving at my friend’s funeral about 5 years ago, chanting verses from the bible while doing so. These people are as much Christian Terrorists, appropriating and misusing Christianity for their own terror tactics, as Islamic/Jihadi/Muslim terrorists are to their religion. Both should be called out as such, so as to create the equivalence, which in turn helps increase empathy and understanding of how it affects target communities, instead of the current racist double standard.
    I understand your desire to eliminate the word Terrorist and instead focus on motivations and causes. But by that token, would you eliminate the term Genocide too, saying that you want to understand core motivation of the perpetrator instead? I’d say of course not, you want both the term Genocide, and an understanding of why the genocide is occuring, and what specific legally defined crime is occurring. Plus we keep the term Genocide not just because it conveys intent, but because it carries the moral weight of Outcome, the effect on the victims. IMO same with Terrorist/Terrorism – it’s an accurate term because it conveys the weight of the affect on its victim communities. Unfortunately it’s used in a racist other-ist fashion, which thus dilutes the word’s power, so we should normalize it by calling KKK/Westboro as Christian Terrorists, schoolyard shooters as School Terrorists, etc, and simultaneously we should investigate the actual crime occurring as well as its root causes. To me this is not a zero sum game. It’s not a choice of Hate Crime or Terror, it can be both.
    Stepping off soapbox now. 😀

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    • I love it when you get on your soapbox! you always have such interesting things to say.

      On Wed, Sep 12, 2018 at 4:35 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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