4th of July Post: Karan Johar’s American Quodology, Kal Ho Na Ho, Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, Dostana, My Name is Khan

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:

  1. A fresh start
  2. Balancing the freedom to be yourself with the guilt of betraying your heritage
  3. 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.

Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003) 1080p Full HD Movie | Kal ho na ho, Hd movies ...

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.

Dostana

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.

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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.

12 years of 'Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna': 7 behind-the-scenes pics and ...

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.

My Name is KHAN - MNIK (Official International Trailer HD) - YouTube

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.

7 thoughts on “4th of July Post: Karan Johar’s American Quodology, Kal Ho Na Ho, Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, Dostana, My Name is Khan

  1. One small nit-picky detail which may or may not be significant to this discussion. You said, ” 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 comes to America to find a transplant and be under the care of a doctor who is clearly a specialist. She is obviously based here. If it were a story about a transplant we would know more about how they met etc. it isn’t so we don’t. I think that matters because if things had gone according to plan, he would have gotten a new heart, recovered and gone home to India. Priety might have been an incentive to stay and build a home and then be one of the stories you mention. I wonder what bring Shah Rukh to America meant for Karan. He doesn’t get freedom from meddling relative or constraining culture…he just hopes to live. By the by,one thing I love about this film is that he doesn’t not go “gently into that good night”. He rails and cries. Like a real person. So, I am not sure why Karan needed that film to be here.

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    • Thank you for bringing that up! I feel like the movie has a real tension between what Shahrukh says and what he does. Sonali is all about wanting to help with his treatment, his mother is determined as well, but Shahrukh is shown to be focused on making friends, enjoying life, skipping doctor’s appointments. I read it as the transplant, or any treatment, being a very long shot. Shahrukh never really believed in it, was just going through the motions for his mother. Shahrukh came to America for a fresh start, a chance to be free and away from sickness for a while with people who didn’t know about his problems, that’s what his actions tell us. I think maybe if we saw the film about medical treatment, we would see a young man who had never been free of the shadow of sickness, finally not even able to work any more, stuck living life a few hours at a time in between attacks. His Indian doctor tells him there is no real hope, but his mother insists on reaching out to an old friend who is a heart specialist. She meets Shahrukh and tells him to come to New York and dedicate himself to working with her and there might be a chance. Shahrukh agrees to make his mother happy, but in return makes her swear not to tell anyone in New York that he is sick so he can enjoy a holiday from being a patient. His doctor/friend works and worries and asks him for more time, but her husband points out that she is only giving him a small chance, surely he can be forgiven for wanting to live his life while he has it instead of being locked up in a hospital. And then the end of the film is the tension between the doctors wanting to give him days more of life while Shahrukh wants to actually live a little longer, outside of the hospital.

      As for why it is in New York, I think maybe it is just a story Karan thought would be an interesting accurate update to Anand? Anand was about a dying man leaving home to start fresh in a new city and be happy for a while. Today, a lot of people from India go to New York for treatment, so he could have this interesting meeting of the medical tourist and the locals.

      On Thu, Jul 2, 2020 at 1:06 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I just read the synopsis of Anand which I have not seen. Yes, that makes sense. And we know Karan would know that film well. Karan uses(or at least used to before he had kids) NY and an escape and a place to be free as you said. Shah would not have been allowed to “play angel” in India. Too many people would know him. Yes, he does know he is doomed and so makes the most of the end. Also, the tiny gay side plot is a wonderful (albeit stereotyped) way to say , “not to say there is anything wrong with that” to quote Seinfeld. I love how both Saif and Shah Rukh embrace the scenes without camping it up,

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        • Yes! That gay subplot is perfect so far as I am concerned (I know not everyone agrees). And it works with the America themes too. Shahrukh is enjoying the freedom to do something a little crazy in his last days. And Saif was raised in America and is a little more comfortable with American standards than his parents, or his old-fashioned maid. It’s a good reminder of why these are two men who will eventually agree on the surprising rule breaking gambit of marrying Preity to Saif when she is in love with Shahrukh.

          On Thu, Jul 2, 2020 at 3:06 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. I have nothing to add but this shallow observation: why is Preity wearing a see-through bustier in the KANK poster when everyone else is dressed for winter? Is it to make us feel okay about SRK and Rani cheating?

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    • OH! This is the Main Complaint of one of my commenters, who I can’t remember. Anyway, Preity is supposed to be a fashion magazine editor, and she dresses like a 15 year old girl, and it basically ruins the movie. Exactl what you said, how can we take her seriously as a wife and mother and successful career woman when she dresses like that? The whole internal tension of the film just goes away.

      To your “winter” point, this is a fabulous Coat movie. KANK and ADHM should be watched as a pair any time you need good coat porn. Which also means the clothes can be kind of ridiculous and still believable for the weather, because they are under amazing coats.

      On Thu, Jul 2, 2020 at 2:48 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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