This is going to be a shallow dive. But should still be interesting, even if I just skim the surface of the topic.
I think the way Karan Johar feels about New York and London is the way some of you (not me, because I hate travel) feel about India. It’s not his home, he would never choose to leave India, but there is a part of himself that is happier and freer in America and England. Not just “the West” in a general terms, but specifically those two countries and especially those two cities. In his memoir he talks about having kind of writing retreats when he goes there, he wanders the streets and writes movies in his head. It frees a part of himself that he can’t quite unlock anywhere else.
Karan’s American movies (and I am including Dostana since he was so closely involved in both script and production) reflect a greater understanding of America than most Indian filmmakers share. Not a full understanding by any means, but somewhere farther along towards it than the usual “America is muggers and malls” concept.
America in Karan Johar’s films means three things:
- A fresh start
- Balancing the freedom to be yourself with the guilt of betraying your heritage
- Founding a lasting home
That’s a pretty good summary of what America means to most people who come here. Where Karan gets interesting is how be builds on that basic structure in each of his films.
Kal Ho Na Ho
The “fresh start” in this film was primarily in the previous generation, while the current young folks are more dealing with the consequences. Preity’s parents had an interreligious marriage, something that is not an issue in the Indian American community but which was clearly a big deal back in India since her grandmother is still complaining about it. Saif’s parents are loud and over the top and joyful, it’s easy to see how their big blustery joy at life (including strip clubs and struggling to understand and accept their gay son) would make it hard for them to fit in in India.
And then that leaves their children, Preity and Saif, firmly established within America and no going back. For them, there is no “guilt” around their heritage exactly, there is responsibility to their parents of course, but they live in an American world. They go to school, they flirt, they make friends, the Indian family and community is there, but it is something they casually balance in their lives through a lifetime of practice. The pressure on them is the third point, “founding a lasting home”.
Saif and Preity’s parents don’t care who they marry, they just want them to marry and have children and give a sense of continuity to their sacrifice. If they don’t marry, and don’t have children, then what was it all for? Their parents worked hard and founded a new life for their children, and also their children’s children. If there are no children’s children, that cheapens the sacrifice.
And then of course there’s Shahrukh. He came to America for a fresh start, not to find a new life but a new death. He wanted to be in a place where no one knew he was dying, where he could have one last time of freedom. He had no guilt for his choice, no hope of building a future, nothing but that Fresh Start dream. Only then his Fresh Start ended up interacting with Preity and Saif’s need to found a lasting home. They are in such a fragile position, Preity and Saif, they have family now but they won’t have it forever, they are the first anchors holding on to a new shore. If Shahrukh were to marry Preity, she would be left in an even more precarious position afterwards. But if he gets Preity married to Saif, that gives her the security and forever home she wants. The American Dream.
This is a fun one, because it deals with 4 young Indian Americans of the personal preference rather than economic necessity type. Bobby, Priyanka, John, and Abhishek came to America purely because they wanted to come. They like being in America, they like having fun, they like being far away from their families. And they don’t care about building a home or planning for the future or any of that. They aren’t in America to suffer and build a better life for their families, they are here to have a better life NOW.
So, very much the “Fresh Start” motivation. What this movie does that is interesting is slowly bring our characters forward to the conflict and guilt, and then the founding a home. Only not in a way any of them planned for it to happen.
John and Abhishek have no guilt over being unmarried, having low paying jobs with little chance of advancement, not planning for the future. The guilt pops up unexpectedly when Abhishek’s mother visits and is confronted with the massive social differences between India and America. Abhishek and John and Priyanka have changed their values and ways of thinking far beyond what even they realized, until Kirron arrives to confront them with what their former country thinks and how they used to think. The guilt for them comes from both sides, how can they betray the values they have unconsciously come to accept in the new country, but how can they betray their old values either? They have to make a choice, one side or the other.
The thing is, that change from your old country to the new and the pull between them, and the founding of a new family, that happens whether you plan it or not. John and Abhishek thought they had broken all boundaries with their initial decision to come to America and be free. But they kept living and changing and had new boundaries to break. And they intended to escape the pressure of family, be single and happy. But you can’t live a life alone, they ended up creating an unexpected bond and an unexpected family based on friendship.
Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna
This is kind of a mix of Kal Ho Na Ho and Dostana for our leads. They had a plan, they were the children who were intended to marry and form perfect lives and confirm the family’s place in this new country. But as in Dostana, life doesn’t go as planned and the family you get isn’t the family you intended.
Rani and Abhishek and Shahrukh and Preity are two perfect Indian American second generation couples. They all have careers based in America and unique to America, things they couldn’t do back home (event planner, fashion magazine editor, professional athlete, even teacher relies on Rani having American-specific training). These aren’t folks who set out and planned their life so that they could move back “home” if they wanted to. This is their home, America. And they are doing what perfect Indian American second generation people are supposed to do, marry family approved proper other second generation people and start a family to continue the American line, while revering the first generation who sacrificed to get them this far.
But the thing is, the perfect Indian Americans don’t live in a perfect world, they live in America. There is a reason Karan wanted to set this story in America. The infidelity itself could have been just the same in India, a couple who grew apart through adversity, and a couple who were never truly compatible, and an unhappy husband and wife falling in love. But in America, infidelity is just so much simpler. Rani and Preity both work, for one thing, giving them loads of unaccounted for free time away from their husbands. And no one will really notice the cheating couple just because they are a couple. If this story was in India, Rani and Shahrukh couldn’t meet for coffees, go shopping together, walk around side by side, without SOMEONE noticing and bringing on the gossip. I’ll put it another way, if Rani and Shahrukh were in India, they would know they were having an affair a lot sooner. In India, regularly meeting someone of the opposite sex who is married to someone else, and you are married to someone else, that’s crossing a bit of a line. In America, it is easier to pretend there is nothing wrong, everyone does it, it’s just friendship.
Their parents came to America for a fresh start, the children balanced their own desires as Americans with their parents’ wants (Rani married Abhishek, Shahrukh had the perfect little family for Kirron), but when everything blew up it turns out that what they founded for the future wasn’t what anyone intended. What was founded was 4 independent strong people who could survive a divorce, who could support themselves and find social support for their choices, who weren’t afraid to break everything to reform in a better stronger happier way. Who were personally miserable after the divorce, but otherwise had no punishment. That’s not the American future intended, but it’s what they got.
My Name is Khan
I’m gonna ignore the tragedy of the film, that’s American too but it’s beyond the scope of this post, instead of I am focusing only on the pre-tragedy section. Our hero and our heroine truly had their lives saved by coming to America. Kajol was in a terrible abusive marriage, but she was in America, so she could get a divorce, find support, start a business. Her family in India abandoned her which is a pretty clear sign that she wouldn’t have been allowed to do these things in India. Shahrukh had a wonderful loving childhood with a protective mother in India, but he never had a diagnosis. It wasn’t until he came to America that he got properly diagnosed and found the assistance he needed to thrive. There’s a reason Kajol and Shahrukh never even consider returning to India, America gave them a lot before it started taking things away.
There’s also Jimmy Shergill. America was a simple fresh start for him, he wanted to get away from the shadow of his older brother, he could have gone anywhere for that. But once he was in America the roots started to form. He fell in love with an American woman, he bought a house, and eventually he sent for the rest of his family because he was so firmly rooted it was easier to bring them to him than consider returning home again.
These are 3 immigrants who found a new life in America in many ways. They dreamed of that life expanding and getting better and better, starting business and buying homes and planning for their children. The pull with India was less about feeling guilt, then feeling sadness for what was lost. They did not so much pull away from India as they were rejected by it. And then the founding a new life was about healing old wounds and making new bonds, and eventually gaining new wounds in a new country to match the ones given them by the old country.