[The clever and evocative bit of lingo in the title of this post is brought to you by my friend and viewing companion Christy, who was also a force of sanity and levity at the SRK gawkfest event back in August. We were also lucky to have Bitten by Bollywood with us! Central midwest represent!]
For a film that tries to show us the evils of judging people, or making assumptions about them, without getting to know them as individuals, the second half of My Name Is Khan is maddeningly ignorant about contemporary American culture. For me, this carelessness really undercut some of the good work it effectively conveyed and noble attempts it tried so hard to make elsewhere. Sometimes it was just little stuff, like the visual glories of the locations of San Francisco and the southwest (and even the southwest masquerading humorously as "Bowling Green, Kentucky") getting undone by the gray, tropical, almost jungle look of "Wilhelmina, Georgia" (let alone the curious time travel required to get there) and a character going to "Michigan University" (google those two words and see what you get - hey howdy, a real college). Or an actor playing President Obama who mispronounces "Khan," when in reality I have no doubt a newly-elected Obama would do his very darndest to get it right. Or how all Muslims in California are South Asian. Or how people discussing terrorist action would leave the door to the meeting space open to the general public. But much more importantly, the seeds of of truth and resonant points - US government treatment of prisoners, stupid racism in otherwise comfortable places, misinformation from trusted sources like teachers, kids being afraid of bullies even when much larger and more meaningful issues are at stake - got lost in the mess of the overdone and bizarre second half.
I do recognize that being American might mean this sort of nonsense is much harder for me to take than it is when it is applied to countries and cultures I am less familiar with and less attached to. After all, nobody looks to Karan Johar for realism. Apart from my mild indignation at his depiction of certain aspects of my culture, I worry a lot about what this film is telling audiences around the world about the US. Probably nothing they don't already think, given that he and writer Shibani Bathija (also responsible for and Fanaa and Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna) seem to have invented their concept of contemporary America from news stories about Guantanamo and a few snippets of footage about Hurricane Katrina. Some of the things that seemed so ridiculous to me might have worked well as allegories or somehow more fantasy-like - like the way some song picturizations function in other films, showing us imagination or wishful thinking or past or parallel versions of characters or the story - but mixed in with attempts at truth-telling and point-making they just seemed ugly and foolish.
But for the love of Helen, there's is magical negro trope in this film! And she's a fat, jolly, single mom! Who has suffered great tragedy! In a village full of other devout and ever-so-musical African-Americans! MNIK somehow turns the first episode set in this village into a self-minstrel show. Granted in Bollywood, people spontaneously singing makes a lot of sense, but this one still stuck way, way out to me, probably exacerbated by every other aspect of the scene. (For example, all that struck me about the children's choir at the vigil was that they sounded like ass and were way too lily-white given the careful demographic mosaic of most of the other crowd scenes in the film.) Between all of this and the recurring "We Shall Overcome," I really had to wonder if anyone involved in MNIK thought about what they were doing at all. (I guess I'm grateful that the crucial beating scene contained only one black actor and he was the least active participant in it?) I am not saying that they didn't have the right to do what they did. It was just all so very cringe-inducing. Talk about poverty porn.
It may be almost cruel to laundry-list my problems great and small with this movie when its intentions were clearly good. Especially when these intentions were far better than I had suspected they would be - the film did not present the saccharine and probably hypocritical condemnation of America, broadly, that I guessed it would indulge in. In short, it was not as filmi about the issues as I anticipated. So shame on me for assuming! Lesson learned. (You can see where I'm coming from, though, right? Weren't you just a little bit apprehensive about a Very Special Lesson about Race in 21st Century America?) But COME ON, KJO. COME ON. If you had tried just a little bit harder, you could have supported your message - and your central love story - so much more. Instead of being ridiculous and crass in the ways I feared, it reveled in stereotypes that didn't even make sense to the story.
There were elements of My Name Is Khan that I liked very much. Shahrukh was excellent beyond my wildest hopes. His characterization was impressively consistent in all its components, and I think he, Johar, and Bathija (and dialogue credit Niranjan Iyengar) gave Rizvan depth and subtlety I wasn't expecting. In fact, my only acting complaint overall that comes out of performance rather than source material is for Kajol, whose shrieking giggles never appeal to me, though maybe she would have been better under a director willing to step on her a little bit. I was thrilled to see Parvin Dabas, Arjun Mathur, and Sugandha Garg as the go-getting journalists, and even Vinay Pathak's nutty gun-toting hotel owner was not out of place as comic relief. (And thank you, thank you for letting the first civilian with a gun not be a white or black American. Bless.) I am completely immune to the SRK-Kajol chemistry that so many people rave about - I find her annoying, and he has chemistry with eveyrone from Bindu to Preity to a train car of strangers to the Brooklyn Bridge, so their combination has never struck me as special - but they were plenty cute here. Mandira's pleasant and optimistic frankness was a refreshing example of how to deal with the world and anyone in it who doesn't behave quite as you expect. The "hair porn" (that's Christy talking again) scene in the salon, where he finally lets her touch him, and the straightforward fun of their wedding night were adorable. I didn't quite buy Rizvan's quest to talk to the president as being part of their love story - I think it was more just the way he processed what seemed like an instruction, directions for what he should do after the horrible tragedy, and he would have behaved similarly in response to a suggestion (however flippant and figure-of-speech-y) from any other trusted source. Of course, he didn't really have any other trusted sources at that point. Rizvan followed the instructions that made sense to him: he went to America because his mom told him to, he sold beauty products because his brother told him to, he played basketball in the driveway because his stepson told him to. No mater, though. I liked it more as a personal quest - or even better, a societal one - than a love-fueled feat anyway.
Even the woeful term "Curse of the Second Half" can't capture how disappointed and confused and gobsmacked I was by post-interval My Name Is Khan. I'd love to see a movie that didn't make me say "Why didn't you quit while you were ahead?" Part of me wishes I could shake Karan Johar and say "Stick to what you know!" but that's an awful thing to wish on a person. It's an awful thing to wish on popular culture. If we all stuck to what we know, life would be bland and isolated and we really wouldn't ever have a hope of understanding one another, of learning how many people out there really are holding a lollipop instead of a weapon. [Note from Editor Self: You're making me queasy.] I do want Karan Johar to try things he hasn't already tried - but I'd like him to try more thoroughly and carefully next time. This story, its message of understanding individuals for who they are rather than what they appear to be or you fear them to be, and the impressive words and performance that created Rizvan Khan all deserve better.