2010 Week! My Name is Khan, a Very Very Dark Film and a Surprisingly Good Film

This is a very good deep review that did not get many readers or comments the first time around. I’m okay if the same is true this time. It’s a dark dark movie. I don’t want DCIB to become a dark place, so if you do comment, try to find a brightness in it somewhere. For instance, “this is a dark movie, and I am so proud that Shahrukh Khan was one of the first people to speak out about Islamophobia in America”. Or just keep it superficial, “this movie is so frustrating because there is so much well done in it, but the plot just makes no sense.”

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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19 thoughts on “2010 Week! My Name is Khan, a Very Very Dark Film and a Surprisingly Good Film

  1. OK so to avoid getting into the darkness of this film I will say that I think your analysis is spot on. There’s so much to like because of the messaging and some of the storytelling and then there’s so much to be confused by (ahem, KJo.) I’m not sure that I agree with your thought that they could have told a better story with making it about brown versus white and letting his name be something other than Khan. Yes, Americans are stupid and don’t know that Khan is a Muslim name versus Kapoor being a Hindu name, but I don’t think that was really the intended audience. The first stories that came out after 911 tended to be about Sikhs because of Americans’ misunderstanding that turban wearing somehow made you Muslim, whic in peoples eyes at that time made you bad. I think this film did a really good job at exposing this underlying Islamophobia by using a timeframe where it was so much in the public discourse. I think we took a slight break from it up until the most recent president was elected and he’s brought Islamophobia back with a vengeance. So I may re-watch the film now (skipping over the son’s death and Kajol’s breakdown) because I want to see it with new eyes re: the current political climate. Based on my limited experience but some experience with people on the spectrum, Shahrukh did a fantastic job. I’m no expert, but I think that he understood how to play the subtleties of a character like that and combine it with Being Indian, losing a mother, etc.

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    • I think he did a fantastic job too! At some point, maybe while writing this review, I went back and read about how he prepared. He spent a lot of time with a particular couple who had written about their relationship, I think they were British, and that is where the romance stuff came from. Along with his general mannerisms. He and Karan also consulted with advocacy groups and so on while putting together the script. It’s a ridiculous script in many ways, but I never felt like his character in particular broke the bounds of his condition.

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  2. I grew up in the Bay Area. I went to a private school in Oakland that was surrounded by barbed wire fencing, but we would run track meets at the Danville Public High School (Banville in the movie). In Danville, the public high school had a landscaped manicured track with manmade hills a stream and a pond, all of which was on the high school grounds. The disparity between what the kids in wealthy suburbs get, versus the kids in urban centers was a bit hard to stomach. The movie, with Banville, was pretty much PERFECT in its depiction of the community. Wealthy, white, liberal but not diverse, with those manicured lawns that some people will never be welcomed on.

    I loved that Kajol, as a grieving parent, was not perfect. She ignored and sidelined her husband in her moments of grief, just like a real person.

    I hated Wilhemina. It felt like racist do-gooder pretension – but I don’t feel I can expand on that while maintaining the happy tone you desire in comments.

    And as you mentioned, the part I had a real issue with is that, as an American, it isn’t just that we don’t know the name Khan is Muslim, we don’t attach religion to last names. People emigrate and live here for generations, individual family members can practice different religions. Regardless of origin, a last name just doesn’t give as much social and cultural information here as it does in other parts of the world. Now if his first name was Muhammad? That is cultural information an American can understand.

    Perfume was a big deal in this film. I read an interview with some actress who said SRK always smelled good, even though he smoked all the time. In my own life I have multiple friends who get headaches from perfume, so I don’t wear it and I don’t really notice it around me. Is perfume more widely used in India?

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    • Starting at the end, have you seen the movie Aiyyaa? I think that is probably related to the interview you read. Rani Mukherjee was the lead actress and the plot revolves around her being intoxicated by the smell of the man she loves. So related to that, they asked her about good smelling co-stars. I don’t think it would have been a thing otherwise. And yes, she said that SRK always smelled good! And the few DCIBers who have met him in person said the same, it’s just intoxicatingly good smelling partly because he uses really really good expensive cologne in order to mask the cigarette smell, and partly because he is Magic. As for why it is a big deal in this movie, maybe just because it is how they met? Shahrukh as a cosmetic salesman?

      I can’t remember if I mentioned it in the review, but I had such a feeling of doom and familiarity when Kajol was having those discussions about moving out of the city into the suburbs. Yes, the city has problems, but the ethnic enclaves are so cozy and “safe” in so many ways. The suburbs bring with them such danger and difficulty for a minority of any kind. Is it really worth it? Just for the good schools and the pretty parks and all that?

      You can expand on Wilhimenia. Maybe? My rule is that I don’t want this to become a dark place where we all go to be depressed about the world and encourage each other to have less and less hope and see less and less good. You can be critical for sure, just there’s a difference between saying “this movie shows how it is impossible for races to ever get along, racism is a basic part of American culture, and I look at the newspaper and see it going worse and worse, there is no hope, let me share the most depressing and shocking story I have read recently so we can all be depressed together”. And saying “this movie shows a really racist view of American Black culture, and here is how it does that”. Do you see?

      Love your point about Kajol not being perfect! And the flip side of that, Shahrukh is trying to hide from his grief until the Wilhelmina church speech. In a very lowkey way, it was a perfect picture of grieving parents, one of them giving in to her grief and cutting everything out of her life, and the other running from his grief and trying to fix things.

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  3. I’ve avoided watching this movie because I just can’t get past the title. I know that sounds like a pretty silly reason to not watch a film, but it’s not…at least not entirely. So, why am I so turned off by the title? It’s not because we American are too stupid to know that “Khan” is a Muslim name and so the title holds no significance to us. It’s because Khan is indeed NOT a Muslim name. Khan is a title, much like Shah or Chowdhury, and like those two is used as a surname across denominations throughout the Indian sub-continent. I should know, as there are branches of my decidedly and entirely Hindu clan that have Khan as their last name.

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    • Yep, that is part of my issue too! The only way I can make sense of it is if I think of this film as aimed at two audiences simultaneously, the native South Asian audience where the name “Khan” would have a significance, and the American audience where that part of it makes no sense but the rest of it resonates more strongly. The film spends a lot of time talking about hate crimes against all American desis, Hindu and Sikh and Muslim. I appreciate that, but am still irritated by their assumption that “Khan” means anything in particular to dumb Americans.

      On Mon, Nov 18, 2019 at 4:10 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  4. The making of the film itself would make a fascinating movie. Starting with 9/11 to set the context, Karan’’s career and motivation to make this film, and his relationship with ShahRukh, ShahRukh’s high profile detention at the airport, one of several but this the first to make headlines, The whole Shiv Sena thing where theatres were literally attacked as a warning, screens shredded and seats torn up, and then Gauri’s amazing courage in attending the opening day with Suhana. I remember I was so overwrought by it all that when I went to see it on opening day I was literally sobbing through the opening sequence.

    I have a love hate relationship with the film itself. Karan does what he does best brilliantly – the human relationships are magic. ShahRukh and his mother, with Kajol, the little family they make with her son, these are so delightful and moving. It works with the tragic parts too – both Kajol and ShahRukh at the hospital, and the eulogy ShahRukh delivers in the church gets me every time.

    Where it falls down is when Karan moves away from his characters and tackles the big issues through other means. The two reporters running around lost the rhythm of the story, I found the flood a bit ridiculous, the stabbing unnecessary, just another element thrown in there, and even the sequences showing the anti-Muslim sentiment were a bit corny, except for that dealing with the sister-in-law. I had no problem with the title, but were those really Indian cows in Wilhelmina? He clearly had no idea.

    It was a brave film to make but I think Karan got a bit carried away, This is not a masala movie where anything can be thrown in for a bit of fun. I wish he had stopped about 3/5 of the way through and kept the focus on people and how they cope with their lives in a personal way.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I had the same experience with the release. I wrote a really intense paper on it for grad school, which tragically was swallowed by my computer. I do still have the original sources I used though, which are invaluable. Especially Shahrukh’s tweets, that was insane, it was watching someone in real time have their heart broken by their country and eventually find their way back to some kind of sanity. And yeah, the Shiv Sena weren’t kidding around, I didn’t realize until I did research that they actually took out ads in newspapers threatening theater owners if they played the film.

      Interesting idea of the film. I continue to love the “Allah Hi Rahim” sequence more than any other part of the film, the “God is Other People” message is so clear and so beautiful, and the idea that what gets through to the little brat in Bonville is the goodness of Shahrukh’s love, not Kajol’s anger. But there must be another way to get there, some simpler disaster that Shahrukh writes to his brother about and Jimmy pulls together people to help who show up just when all seems lost. And then perhaps the little brat overhears his mother talking about it rather than seeing Not-Oprah talking about it on TV. It could be tied to the main theme, perhaps a desi family whose house is burned down. But then we lose the idea of the community selflessly helping “outsiders”. I don’t know how to crack it, and I sympathize with Karan’s struggle. You start with needing our hero to give up his own crusade and everything else in order to help other people, and then that sacrifice being rewarded by God in the form of other people, and finally getting through to the little Brat. But what would be a thing that needs him to give up everything else to help? And that would need more people to help too? A natural disaster seems like the best bet, the execution was just horrible and confused. Maybe a bus accident instead? But then, there’s no long term need there that would give Jimmy time to show up. House burning down? Too small to need Jimmy’s help if it is just one household. Orphanage burning down? Or hospital? Or nursing home? And now it feels ridiculous again. Also, now I need to close my office door and watch teh “Allah Hi Rahim” sequence and cry for a bit.

      On Tue, Nov 19, 2019 at 9:09 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  5. Your review is spot on. It’s such a mess and gets so melodramatic and on the nose quite a bit but it also has these lovely moments now and then. The interpersonal relationships within the family are so well done (the hijab scene with Jimmy and Sonya is the standout scene for me) but once it goes outside of that it’s just so head scratchingly confusing! As much as I appreciated the parallels between Indian Independence and Civil Rights movement and the bit with the hurricane everything else about Wilhemina makes me so uncomfortable. As for the name thing, yeah it’s quite an indicator that this is an Indian movie made for Indian audiences. Once you step out into a western country being hindu, muslim, or sikh doesn’t matter anymore because you’re all “brown” which is something a non-diaspora Indian wouldn’t have experience with.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can’t think of another movie that is such a strange combination of laughably bad moments, and heartbreakingly good. And yet I can’t seem to untangle the mess because the good is so connected to the bad. Maybe it’s the most accurate possible representation of this moment in history? When bad and good and confusion and misunderstanding were all mixed together?

      On Tue, Nov 19, 2019 at 11:08 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  6. Oh yes, I completely agree, that this movie is close to your heart…and to mine, too.
    I did not comment on your first review-posting “Autism Pride Day, My Name is Khan“ in June 2018, but I did on the second posting ( https://dontcallitbollywood.com/2018/09/09/sunday-film-school-rerun-my-name-is-khan-shahrukh-khans-take-on-autism-and-activism/#comments )
    Like you, it was a movie that I followed as close as possible in its genesis…I even had plans and saved money to travel to San Francisco to witness the shooting process (but couldn’t because my husband fall ill). I was in Berlin for the premiere, did interviews and witnessed the distress the events in Mumbai caused. I watched the movie a first time at the press screening (before the press conference) and overheard the comments of journalists and critics.
    Although nobody in my family or my professional field is on an autistic spectrum, I had read books about autism and autistic kids long before even knowing ShahRukh (just for interest). Before watching the movie I read “Born on a Blue Day” (Daniel Tammet), “An Asperger Marriage” (the couple Gisela & Christopher Slater-Walker you mentioned), “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” (Mark Haddon) and “A beautiful Mind” (the biography about John Nash by Sylvia Nasar.
    After having watched the movie I got to know the impact of ShahRukh’s performance on people with Asperger or living with someone on the autistic spectrum (some of them became ardent admires of him, deeply touched by his Rizwan).
    I knew that ShahRukh had contact with autistic children during his theatre days and I was sure – before watching the movie – that he would have a feeling for people ‘on the spectrum’. I was even sure that he would – again – relate on own experiences and his own (maybe only very slight) autistic traits. And yes, he would not leave Rizwan during the making of the movie (and even not immediately after the wrap up).
    ShahRukh was against the 2nd part of Wilhelmina which became the most criticized part of the movie. In addition, Karan wasted a looooot of otherwise needed water to film a rather over/beside the top-sequence.
    I wondered that no one mentioned the death of the neighbour son’s father (in the Afghan war) which became a turning point in the only stable relationship after 9/11 Mandira, Rizwan and Sam had with white American people. I think, Rizwan never understood the hate…he just didn’t see any logic there. Yet he understood that he had to do what Mandira told him to do (thought as sarcasm) to take him back exactly the same way he had understood what to do that she would marry him. It was a task to fulfil…a highly stressful task for him. In my eyes, MNIK was a hymn to love…to which extends a man with very restrained social skills is able to “overcome” his inhibitions.
    I think there was a lot of logic in the movie. The title is logical as the movie is from the viewpoint of an Indian. Mandira is Indian, so it is logical that she relates to the name Khan as a denominator for being Muslim.

    I know that Karan wanted to show that one should indeed only distinguish between people who do good things and people who do bad things, that the terrorism is not related to religion but that religion is an excuse to do bad things. However I also think that Karan should have found another way than making Rizwan a hero, then showing that his brother had gathered other Muslim to help and then showing the hateful Muslim stab Rizwan (good Muslim vs bad Muslim a 2nd time – after the Mosque sequence). It’s just too much.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, that is a really good point that “My Name is Khan” is related to Mandira! It goes back to the idea that this whole story is about his love for her, not the outside world. This is the message that is important to Mandira, whether or not it makes sense to anyone else, and that is why it is important to him.

      I ignored the Afganistan death motivation because, well, it was just STUPID. It makes sense in the Indian context where there is this neverending cycle of blame and violence (“it’s okay for me to hate you because my uncle/father/grandfather/family friend was killed by someone from your community”) but in the American context it would both be highly unlikely that there would be such a direct violent connection. On the other hand, your phrasing as “the only stable relationship” makes me think of it in a different way. Forget the violence and the unlikeliness of how it happened, you have a somewhat out of place couple (both because of their ethnicity and Shahrukh’s condition) who enjoy a firm happy place in the community thanks to their close couple friends. If the couple friends had gotten divorced, or moved away, or anything else, it would have had repercussions in terms of Sam not feeling like he has friends at school, and Kajol and SRK struggling in their marriage, and just generally the three of them being a bit more isolated from the larger world and from each other. Come to think of it, that might have been a far better (and more believable) twist. The husband has to travel more for work post 9/11, he and his wife end up getting divorced, somehow in their son’s mind it gets all twisted up and becomes “because” of 9/11. And it adds a big strain to the SRKajol marriage as the concept of marriages just falling apart is added to their world, along with Kajol’s fears that Shahrukh will leave her somehow like her first husband did.

      On Wed, Nov 20, 2019 at 2:01 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I thought about the neighbour’s (=Mark’s) death in another way. The muslim extremists responsible for the events on 9/11 did not change the equation between the two couples and the two boys, However, the personal loss because of Muslims (Talibans) created an emotional rift vis-à-vis the family with an observant Muslim. Sam had to die (following the logic of the movie) by the hands of white Anerican to make clear that a personal loss through violence is what is condemnable, not the race or religion of the culprit.
        I liked very much that, eventually, the both women understood that.
        Rizwan never thought in other terms than good people – bad people…ShahRukh is the flagbearer of secular and ‘uncoloured’ thinking. He is the perfect choice for someone who concentrates on the literal meaning of words and to show that love is the only way to overcome bad things. Oh yes, don’t we all wish to “overcome some day”?

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  7. Oh, I love the ending of this movie. To me, its perfect. Hate, terrorism, and anger are all meant to instill fear in someone, to stifle you, to stop you from just doing what you want. The best way to refute that is to continue living and that is what Kajol and SRK are doing. They are conituing to live their lives!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The end end, with them walking home, that’s good. But everything before it? The stabbing, the near death, and so on? That I could happily cut.

      On Thu, Nov 21, 2019 at 10:00 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Oh completely agree. The whole last 20-30 minutes of the movie need to be edited out. I hate the stupid stabbing! It completely brings me out of the movie.

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  8. I love this movie, but I never realized how messy the latter parts of it are until you pointed them out so eloquently. I just wish I had something more eloquent to say than just that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s good enough for me! Why do you think you didn’t notice the mess? Was it that the performances were so good, or you already cared about the characters so much, or something else that swept you away and made the mess unnoticable?

      On Fri, Nov 22, 2019 at 5:44 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Probably all of the above. And I thought the whole idea of it, an emotional look at post 9/11 America from a brown person’s perspective, was so incredible that I just really wanted to love it.

        Liked by 1 person

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