My Name Is Khan: "well, we've been Joharred"

[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.


Anonymous said…
VAY! Shabash! Beth thanks for taking the time to write this excellent review. I loved SRK in this ridiculous film, yet hated the film itself, which goes to show how much I love his acting. You state it perfectly:"My Name Is Khan is maddeningly ignorant about contemporary American culture." That "southern" town was like a movie set from 1920, oh wait, it was a movie set. ;) I'm just hoping it was ignorance that lead to all the mistakes in this film about the USA, but I think there was a lot of mean spiritedness behind Johar's message as well. The reason I say this is when I watch the "Audience with SRK" on Love Bollywood, Johar was bitchy in some of his comments about America in the interview, I recall him joking, "Yes we just told them we were making a positive film about America," and then he laughed. I'd like to give him a tight slap to the face. I had to "un-follow" him on twitter too.
And with all the Shiv Sena nonsense over this film release, is it possible that the Shiv Sena are not acting out of political motivation, but simply wanting to save us from a really awful script? (kidding!)
Now Imma gon get mama Jenny to make me some grits, hamhocks, and greens.

All the best,
Rae said…
Well said! And not just because you quoted me. By the way, I now think "I've been Johared and put away wet" is and even better description of how I feel.

Still dealing with the frustration I feel that SRK didn't have a better movie to showcase a truly wonderful performance. Again, how hard would it have been to find one American willing to review it before release and tell them Georgia does not look like an Indonesian island, 99% of Americans have no idea what "bloody Paki" means let alone would they use it as an insult, poor African Americans in the rural South are not made to live in a 1930's time warp and all black people do not look alike so maybe you should at least try to find an Obama impersonator?
Venting feels good! I still want Karan to be my bestie if for no other reason than I could be the one to slap him on the hand and say, "No!"
Pitu said…
Hmm your review makes me want to see MNIK even less. I honestly think the Chopras and the Johars should be kept far, far, far away from serious and complex topics requiring sincerity, research and fairness.

After the torture of Fanaa and Kurbaan, I just don't want to touch this one with a barge pole. As I mentioned to you on twitter, there are racist snippets in Kal Ho Na Ho (also in Kambhakt Ishq but that's not Johar/Chopra prod) and that wasn't even a serious film.

As someone who's lived in the US for a decade and is now an American, I can tell you desis can be pretty snarky towards American culture in general. What is aggravating is that this jaundiced attitude is accompanied with a woe-is-me-they-don't-understand-India-the-magnificent attitude.

And although I haven't seen KJo's interview that Suzy mentions, the three times I've seen Aishwarya on American interview shows makes me go who the heck gave an imbecile like you a Miss World title? :/

The funny part is the Fox Searchlight production bit. I abhor the Fox network so it would be hysterical to see their reaction ;)
Unknown said…
Oh yes, we DID have very different experiences, didn't we?

While I agree with your disappointments I think it was the overall affect the film had on me that kept me from getting exasperated. But there were many moments where I had to shake my head in frustration.

About the singers at the candlelight vigil "sounding like ass"? HAHA! Imagine viewing it with three opera singers. We almost vomited. ;)
Anishok said…
I agree with most of your points, but...

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.

Is it though? If somebody is good at something and keeps getting better at it all the time, why shouldn't he stick to it?

I sincerely believe that if MNIK's first half was a stand-alone with a little added drama it would've been a GREAT movie. Karan knows how to do romance, why shouldn't he evolve in that genre? He ventured out of his comfort zone by introducing an unconventional hero and I applaud him for that. But I don't think he needed to prove anything to anyone and do the whole socio-drama thing. Cause that's what he was doing with MNIK - proving that he's a serious director, who can tackle issues.
a said…
I anticipated the potential cheesiness of this movie way back (before the movie was finished) when the story line was disclosed. I wouldn't see this movie if someone payed me. I am totally embarrassed for the Indian community that this silly movie is being showcased all over the world. I wish SRK would do a movie with a director who has some degree of maturity and sensibilty.
E granada said…
Wow, you guys, now I really don't want to go see it..
It intrigued me initially because of all the hype(and SRK..) but I guess I'll sit this one out.
memsaab said…
Very thoughtful analysis Beth (as usual)...I haven't seen this yet (will wait for dvd mostly because I have to) but I'm already cringing in anticipation of KJo's complacent ignorance. A little research is not that difficult---I think it's great to make films outside one's comfort zone, but DO SOME homework. Otherwise you look like a lazy idiot.
ajnabi said…
Yep, yep, yep. This was precisely what I feared and exactly why I'm debating whether or not to even add the thing to my DVD queue. After KANK, I felt like KJo would really need to prove himself worthy of another 2.5 hours or more of my valuable time. And everything I've read has made me think that this is so totally not up my alley. However, I am unreasonably happy that SRK managed to do a more-than-decent job.
[Bollywood Food Club and I have had some discussion of this off-blog, so I will try to keep me points here short to spare readers.]
BFC - Ditto to all of that! I am fascinated to learn about Johar being snarky about the US, which is exactly what I was afraid he was going to do. I'll try to limit myself for the moment (especially before I hear the comments) that it's a pretty risky and, frankly, rude thing to do to set a non-positive film somewhere other than your own culture, especially if you're not going to do your research about that culture's long-standing issues. You have the right to do so, of course, but it makes you look stupid and mean-spirited.

Mama Jenny don' like no mean-spirited funny little men now. G'on, shoo. G'on home.

Christy - I was thinking about "Joharred and put away wet" too! We could also "Learning that lesson the Joharred way" and "A Joharred act to follow." And on and on.

I forgot about "bloody Paki." So very very confused with K3G location, maybe?

I guffawed out loud as the image of you slapping KJo on the hand to gently reprimand him.

Pitu - I'd like to think they could do serious issues if they really tried - I'd like to think anyone could.

As for desi snarkiness about the US, I have always assumed most people around the world are snarky about the US as an entity (and this is what I have found on my travels to various continents) (but not about Americans as individuals, please note). It's just...well, we're all racist, we're all culturist, we're all self-centered, etc. One of the great things about good stories is that they can help us connect and understand despite all these things, and I don't think MNIK helped much.

GOOD CALL on the Fox thing!

Erin - I have certainly been able to move past major, major flaws in other films. I have yet to figure out or predict exactly when and why this will happen. MNIK just did not move me sufficiently. But hey, to each their own!

You'll have to share your opera-trained comments! :) THOSE KIDS WERE SO BAD. WHYYYYYY?

Anishok - Agreed on the first half. I think KJo (or anyone) should feel free to break out of their comfort zone, and if that includes trying "serious" things or political/social commentary, then more power to them - but do it wisely. Do ANYTHING you do wisely! But I don't mean to say that I think everyone should do new things all the time. It's a tricky balance. You have to try new things so that you don't get stale and boring (even just as an individual, let alone your creative output), but that automatically involves different kinds of thinking than what you're used to.

a - There was one major aspect of the story that I wasn't expecting (and won't mention here so as not to spoil it) and it certainly amped up the cheese factor. As for being embarrassed, well I think most Americans (or at least the ones reading this site) feel your pain on that front :) If I gave Hollywood's misrepresentations and ignorance much of my mental energy, my brain would explode.

E - Get the DVD and just turn it off a few minutes before interval :)

memsaab - Thanks! I think you should watch this with Carla and Marta - having a peanut gallery made it SO much more fun. "Lazy idiot" is definitely the right feeling, I'd say - it wasn't consistently lazy and idiotic, but it had some major problems that would have been so easy to handle better. They stuck out not only for their content but for their implication of sloppiness when other parts of the film were so carefully done. KJo needs to worry more about his brainpower budget and not just how much $ he has for flowers and hair salons. Though you would have LOVED the wallpaper in Kajol's first salon. Will describe to you in email :)
Shellie said…
I've been quite surprised at the reactions to this film. With intials reviews being very positive, I have found it very interesting to read all the negative criticism that the film has created. I often tend to take movies for face value, trying not to overanalyze for the simple fact that many movie makers take very liberal allowances when creating their movies, and I did the same with this one and will go on the record saying that I really loved it.
However, every country has their own stereotypes that they try to overcome whether they are steeped in reality or not, which is what I think happened with the scenes in Georgia. As a Canadian, and particulary someone who has not had the opportunity to travel much, I didn't really know how inaccurate Karan's depiction was until doing a little of my own research. I can clearly see now that his "Wilhemenia" is very off the mark as far as accuracy goes about Katrina, and his Black American stereotypes may also be unnecessarily exaggerated, but one can't deny that every country has their fair share of poverty, which may have been where the town's origin was suppose to lie.
I am seeing the movie again this weekend with my sister, so we'll see how I feel after a second viewing, after the "honeymoon" stage is over! I won't be posting a review until then. Anyway, as always, thanks for a very thought provoking review.
B.H.Harsh said…
Great write up, really! Very few people I know have NOT had a problem with its 2nd half. It really was quite bizarre, esp. last 30 minutes.

I have no idea about the misinformed portrayal of modern American culture though.

But must say You nailed that right about Rizwan's journey being less about what he does for love than his personal quest. ;)

Do read my take on it, if possible.. :)
Unknown said…

Such a good write up. Thank you. A few random thoughts in no particular order. But before I get into that, I would like to state the obvious question. It had a magical disabled person who looked good wearing a dress, and entire friggin village of magical negroes. How could cimematic magic not happen? [/sarcasm]

Have other people seen in the second half an attempt at a version of Forrest Gump? I should note, that Forrest Gump is quite possibly my least favorite movie. Of all time.

However, magical disabled man. On a journey. Journey inspired by greif. Meets the president. Inspires everyday Americans along the way.

2. Has this director ever been anywhere in the states besides the coasts?

2.5 This director, how would he have portrayed a poor village in India?

3. The image that America exports of itself is as problematic as the images in this film. And the image that America exports of American Blacks is even more so. Everything in the second half was overdone, and so was this element.

4. Could no one get a boat? They were in coastal Georgia and no one could find a damn boat? WTF?
Very thought provoking review Beth, and does make me want to eventually catch the movie (when tax season is over). I have been a little afraid for it- commecial cinema tends to be so oblivious, and so apt to jump on to the song and dance wagon when all else fails (the song and dance is good but the cop-out is bad).
Dmul53 said…
I'm so sad to see so many people saying they will not watch this film because of the last 30 minutes (which, I feely admit, require a superhuman amount of suspension of disbelief, and a high pain tolerance) but please PLEASE go see it for Shah Rukh Khan's delightful performance. I promise you will fall in love with Rizwan Khan!
a said…
Its funny how everyone gives SRK a pass and blames all on Johar. I agree that SRK is incredibly charming and likable (and I like him a whole lot believe me) but he seems to be a reasonably smart person - he should have seen this script for what it was. I think he is equally to blame for this nonsense - maybe even more so because he is the chief attraction of this film.
Someone should send Beth's thoughtful critique to both SRK and Karan Johar. Maybe it will bring them back to Earth and possibly encourage both of them to develop more mature sensibilities.
Shalini said…
First of all, I'm so grateful to have found someone else who finds Kajol annoying, loud and shrill. Thanks, Beth!

Second, I'm torn. KJo bores me to death and I have no desire to see MNIK, but...I did the bulk of my growing up in Georgia so now I *desperately* want to see Johar's fictional Georgia town Willhenia. All the reviews promise a orgasm of awfulness.

Anonymous said…

Great review. I must disagree with one thing you wrote though: "It may be almost cruel to laundry-list my problems great and small with this movie when its intentions were clearly good. " - nuh-uh. I doubt KJo had any intentions beyond making a film that will bring him plenty of money and will "elevate" him to being thought of as a "Serious director" - neither of which is a good intention in my book. :-)

Bitterlemons (living up to my name as usual)
Ajnabi – Like other people here, I do not wish to wish this on you, but I also want to know what you think :) It's not dreadful, but it is very problematic indeed.

Shell – The idea of liberal allowances is complicated for me. Yes, it's art, and it should tap into imagination. But this particular one is clearly trying to address some sort of perceived – or dreamt up? - “reality,” and as a result it seems to ASK for critical thought. I'm convinced the film was trying tos ay something, and I can't not think about a message that is offered me. I'm sure I was more sensitive to the stupid portrayals of America in this film than I am of, say, the UK in K3G. I do not think Johar was trying to be malicious in his portrayal of rural southern poverty, but the stereotypes were not only very overblown but also very out of date, which was so troubling. I'm trying to think of a good parallel for Canada but can't come up with anything....

B. H. Harsh – It's probably a good thing that some of the inaccuracies about the US aren't as noticable to others as they are to Americans! Thanks for your comments. I really would like to see this film stop before that death before intermission. The big love story could stand alone just fine. I'm also glad to hear you say you think his quest works on a personal level - I know people are talking about it being something he did for love but I just didn't get that (despite him holding a cop of Don Quixote elsewhere in the film!).

jensc00t – Thanks! Agreed, the village scene was BOUND for greatness! Heehee.

1. I too hate Forrest Gump and have avoided any subsequent rewatches of it since misguidedly trying it in the theater all those years ago.
2. Apparently not. Didn't you know there IS no US between the two coasts? For real! For example, Illinois, where I live, which has the third largest city, is totally fictitious! It's just corn and soy, no people or anything!
2.5. Probably almost as insanely :) We certainly know his depictions of “rich” are pretty crazy.
3. Absolutely agreed. I'm sure that America's own pop culture is Kjo's source material. But he had a responsibility to think about things more than that (all people do!). I've been trying to resist comparisons to Slumdog but I wonder if this is sort of similar in its careless use of silly stereotypes about another country.
4. No boats. No. Couldn't fashion a raft out of some of those wrecked houses either.

Shweta – Thank you! I am particularly interested in the opinions of Indians living in the US on this one - I think you might have the best chance of any of us of understanding what exactly KJo was trying to do and how Indian audiences around the world might interpret the depiction fo the US.

Dmul53 – It's tough! :)

a – The responsibility of SRK in this script and final project is a good question! I'm not sure what I think about that - I have no idea how much stars are involved with the development of films overall (or in what aspects).

Shalini – Eee me too! It's one of those opinions that the bulk of the Bollywood fan community does not want to hear :) I don't hate her, but she does not move me in any way.

As for seeing this...hmmm. I bet it might make you CRAZY but on the other hand I would be very very interested in your reaction! :)

Bitterlemons – You crack me up! The intentions of KJo are a mysterious thing indeed! If he was indeed being snarky about this film and trying to snow us all, then I'm the first in line to give him a tight slap and revoke his priviledges for setting any of his other films here, especially the ones that deal with controversial or complicated issues that he is too chicken to set in India (KANK, Dostana, Kurbaan). :)
Sanket Vyas said…
Having lived in the US for the majority of my life (my parents moved from India when I was 2) I would like to think that I can look at this film culturally from different aspects. I too had some problems with it but I grade Bollywood movies on such a different scale than their Hollywood counterparts. Other than so called 'parallel cinema' I tend to view Bollywood movies as fun entertainment and forgive many of their shortcomings. I feel the same way about the first half of 'Om Shanti Om' as you did about this movie - why oh why did they have to have a second half?

I am pretty taken aback at all the negative feedback this movie has gotten in your comments section. It certainly wasn't high art but I have seen much much MUCH worse. Maybe it was the expectations this movie was carrying and the fact that you often expect greatness when SRK is in a movie. Amitabh went through the same thing and the pressure of delivering hit after hit is something no one can sustain forever.

I wrote up a review on my blog and the only thing I wanted to add was something that you brought up about stereotypes in our culture. What you said about people on the coasts (whether in the movies or in real life) is so true. They consider everything in the middle as 'fly over states' because that's all they see them as when they are doing the JFK-LAX route. Every person in any Hollywood movie I have ever seen has gotten their college degrees from one of three places - Ivy League, USC or UCLA. When I went to school in Austin I honestly had friends who came to visit me from CA & NY and expected to see guys on horses when they landed - and these are people I have known my whole life!

Not to mention people who I meet around the country that just cannot believe I don't have a Southern accent (which of course in any movie means you are either a dumb hick or have a heart of gold). And don't get me started on the subject of stereotypes of Indians in Hollywood movies. When Kumar from 'Harold & Kumar go to White Castle' provides the most accurate portrayal of most of the Indian people I know - there is a problem.

And now that I live in New Orleans, 'that magical Negro troup' is something that didn't shock me at all in the film. Mainly because I see that lady in every movie Hollywood produces about the South and partly because that lady actually exists in real life down here. Granted, it was done to excess in the movie and smacked of Aunt Jemima type racism without being overtly racist imho. Living in the deep south you see things like that everyday and I guess my point is that Bollywood movies are something I see with such escapist glasses that I just don't realize when things get too ridiculous. But then again, that ridiculousness is the main reason I see them in the first place.
Anonymous said…
Hi, Beth. I was perusing various Bollywood blogs, and I came across yours- I was curious to see what I would find, as the majority of the blogs I read about Bollywood are written by desis, and I was looking forward to a fresh perspective on a genre of films I love so much. While I am impressed by your writing style and extensive vocabulary, I must admit that I remain a tad unimpressed by your actual take on the various films you review, esp. MNIK.

Your concerns regarding "what this film [MNIK] is telling audiences around the world about the US" are unfortunately misdirected- firstly, do you think most people would consider a Bollywood film a good source from which to formulate an opinion of the US ? This would be equivalent to A Chinese man being concerned that an American film such as "Rush Hour" was painting a terrible picture of China all around the world. It's really neither here nor there.

Also, if this movie was created with the intents and purposes that "Crash" was, then your concerns would perhaps be more valid. As it stands, it appears that you are bashing this film for not being 100% historically factual and accurate (see: criticism re: representation of only South Asian Muslims in So. Cal), which is irrelevant- it's a fictitious movie. It is not claiming to be a documentary. And for the record, desi Muslims tend to interact, socialize, and worship more with desi muslims than with other muslims - which is why they were pictured rather than the arabs and Africans- when considered, this actually adds an element of accuracy to the film.

Thirdly, no offense, but how do you know that the movie is as inaccurate as you perceive it to be? Have you experienced post-911 life as a desi muslim in America? Did you know that shortly after the attacks on the twin towers, a 9 year old boy in Houston was killed by his neighbor because his name was Osama? Calling Sam's death and its depiction "nonsense" comes across as "maddeningly ignorant" and insensitive- because the fact remains that these situations are indeed American realities.
anon first - I guess I should start by saying that I'm sorry you're unimpressed with what you have read here. Disagreeing is one thing, something anyone who spends much time on blogs about film (or any other art) is probably used to, but I do spend a lot of time and energy thinking and writing about what I see. Oh well, to each their own. Now for your points.

I think we might just disagree about the importance of any film's representation of the cultures (or countries ) of its characters. I think a Chinese person would have ever right to be concerned with what Rush Hour says or implies about China, and that film is a comedy - I feel it's an even more important issue in films that are serious and trying to make social commentary, which I think this one is. As to whether most people think of popular cinema as accurate or a good source, I don't know - I'd hope not, but I think we can probably agree that a lot of people don't think very hard about the media they consume.

I haven't seen Crash but I do think this film was trying very hard to make some points (and for what it's worth, I agree with many of its lessons, like not making assumptions about your neighbors based on what they look like or loving people for what their heart is like rather than their quirks, and I think it succeeded in some of these). I never said I thought MNIK thinks it's a documentary. There's a lot of room between realistic, or interested in realism in some points, which I think MNIK is, and a documentary.
[Part 2 for anon's comments - who knew there was a cut-off length for comments? Yikes!]

The desi Muslim issue stood out to me because there are many other scenes in public or public-ish spaces, like the museum, school, and rallies, that seem to have very carefully crafted ethnic balance, sort of an idealized modern American mosaic. I was expecting something similar in the mosque, but if what you're saying is generally true, then I happily agree with you that the scene as is makes more sense. But I also expected MNIK to be a little broader when it deal with "Muslims in America" than just desi communities. That might have been unfair on my part; given that it's an Indian film, the focus on South Asian Muslims makes sense. But as I said, it was not like the other communities (except the journalists who were mostly South Asian, which I also thought was oddly stacked) in the film.

There are things about the film I know to be inaccurate (the way Georgia and Kentucky look or the liberal-cause protesters at the Bush rally who are very cheerful to be waiting for Bush to arrive for example). There are other things about the film I hope are inaccurate - like the teacher telling her class that Islam is the most violent religion; I work with teachers and students of that age group all the time and have never heard a teacher say anything like that nor discerned from students that the teacher has said that in the classroom, but I also know there are lots of stupid educators out there who might well say something as ignorant as that.

The Houston murder: you are quite right, I did not know that. I did a little ( a very little) investigating about violence against and by children after 9/11 and didn't find this. From an article on Salon here, it appears that the boy's killer was possibly his father; of course wrongful convictions happen all the time, but the father is serving a sentence for the crime. I'm not finding much information on this tragic case, sadly.

And no, of course I have not experienced life as a desi Muslim in post 9/11 America. I don't think that makes most of my criticisms of the film less valid. You will note that I did not say anything about whether the ways Khan is treated by the TSA and police or the mostly white crowd's reaction to Khan praying at the 9/11 vigil are realistic, for example; again, those struck me as distressingly possible - likely, even. The bulk of my complaints about its foolish representations are actually about its treatment of African-Americans, not Muslims. My argument is that the film is flawed enough in how it tries to make its points that its ultimate power is weakened.
Sanket - I've heard you mention before that you hold Bollywood to different standards than you do US popular cinema, and your reasoning behind that that would be a fascinating blog post from you!

As for worse films overall, oh hell yes, I've seen worse films than this. Like KANK, this one is getting lots of attention because of who is in it/who made it, I have no doubt much more than it would if smaller names were involved. I think the big names draw the big reactions, whether that's fair or not.

I totally agree that Hollywood is pretty stupid about "the rest" of America, both the geographical "rest" and the ethnic "rest." By no means did I mean to imply that Bollywood is unique in ethnic and racial stereotyping. I suspect everyone does it. I also think it's very likely the writer and director of this film got their ideas for how to represent southern blacks by watching Hollywood (and eating pancakes with syrup, as you wisely note!) - and in that regard, MNIK is a fascinating and kind of sad mirror for us in the US, seeing what people a bit further removed from American reality do with the wacked-out Hollywood "evidence" they find.

I am all for escapism but I just don't think MNIK was trying to provide that for us - I think it was trying for the opposite, to transport us inward into our own prejudices (at personal, cultural, and even national levels) rather than to let us escape the hard things we need to be thinking about.

Sigh. If only they'd just kept it at the romance :)
Sanket Vyas said…
You know Beth, I have been mulling over doing a blog post on just that particular topic - a 'Why I love Bollywood' kind of thing. The reasons have surprisingly little to do with the movies themselves. Movies such as KANK, K3G, Swades and countless others kind of all run together in my brain. They are all pretty formulatic but I do end up watching most if not all of them.

I know I have brought up the topic of art house Indian cinema to you before and it's there that I go to get my fill of realism and depth in the movies. Aakrosh, Ardh Satya, Chakra and Garam Hawa are all incredibly deep and haunting to the final frame. But good cinema need not be so heavy handed - Gol Maal (the original) and Chotisi Baat are two of the sweetest/funniest films I have ever seen - they both remind me of Chashme Budhoor fyi. And Bollywood gives our fair share of truly great movies with Pakeezah and Abhimaan (my favorite non-masala Amitabh movie).

I tried to think of some titles that were not on your viewed list and know that you have countless recommendations from people about 'must see' movies. I just ask that you put the titles above on your list and get to them at some point. I promise you will not be disappointed and that you will get your fill of romance (in most of them) without a lot of other added filler messing up the sweetness ;)
Sanket - I always love your recommendations! Consider them added :)
Anonymous said…
Thank God - a voice of sanity in the Emperor's New Clothes that is MNIK. The cult of SRK and Karan Johar is responsible for some of the most pompous and uncritical chest thumping I have ever seen surrounding this movie. It is pitifully terrible. Yet the main character is supposed to be a cross between Martin Luther King and Gandhi, and people have treated the movie in the same way, when it is so utterly dire. Thanks for calling this out.

Hans Meier said…
Beth, your review is nicely worded and maybe as an US American you see it all more personally. Still i think you take MNIK much too serious. It's just holly-bolly-disney-kitsch, and well whipped up at that. Rarely have i seen a flick with such a seemless flow.

If you met an Indian who gets angry about the way his country is depicted in US entertainment media, would you take it serious? Or would you say, "relax, it's not realitay anyway, it's just Hollywood"?
yves said…
Hi Beth,
Great post, thanks Beth. Loved it. You write "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": and I'm wondering: yes, 100 times yes, but on the other hand, aren't you a little hard on him because you know America so well (being an American) and he's used so many clichés?
For example, I was almost pissed of with the use of Hindi in that movie, before suddenly realising that this was a film for Indian audiences. So doesn't the same remark work for the rest of the movie: it's difficult to show Indians an America they wouldn't recognise at all! Some of it at least has got to be clichéfied, if you want the audience to relate to the movie, perhaps. And you do say yourself that you were relieved the saccharine etc dimension had been reduced...
Well, what do ya say?
Hans (and Yves a bit too) - Oh definitely, this film is more complicated for me because it's set in the US and depicts some Americans. I thought many times that if it had been set in the UK or Australia - or even Canada, where I have lived as an adult - some of my problems with it wouldn't be so ardent. As for whether to take some of these concern seriously, when the film's protagonist is a lesson in how and why not to judge people by their name or skin color or medical status, or any other superficial trait, I think we have to, or at least as seriously as the film takes its major message. Hypocrisy is a different beast than sloppiness - though I admit I am not sure which of those is more often at play here.

I do find it interesting to observe Indians' (and Indian-Americans') views of how India and Indian culture are treated in US entertainment media. Based on my casual and non-comprehensive observations of both the reactions and of the various shows and books and films they discuss, I think they're totally right when they're upset (and of course have the right to be so and express it, which is a different question). Like the recent Joel Stein article in Time (which is a notch or two "above" mere entertainment) about Edison, New Jersey - that was a giant ball of poorly-thought-out racist bile with no real point. The problem, as ever, is that some people take "entertainment" as factual and/or realistic in ways that it isn't - or they (we, I should say) consume without thinking about what they're consuming. While I'd hope most people would know, rationally, that "it's just a movie," the images and ideas are still out there to be absorbed. Any kind of cultural product has messages and ideas in it, whether or not the product itself directly remarks on them.

yves - I was just talking about this point with Filmi Geek today (she had read your post). I hadn't considered how much the idea of an America recognizable to Indians might have shaped what KJo was doing here, but it makes sense. Though the more I think about it, the more I think he chose his source material oddly - for the Georgia village, for example, I'm convinced he used Katrina footage plus coverage of the Asian tsunami of 2005. I can also accept using certain cultural cliches and shorthand when establishing the feel of a place (or character?), but I still expect authors to be careful with WHICH cliches they choose! I also think it's nice that KJo tried to show sides of a filmified US that aren't just super rich people in New York (which is a tendency US film and tv have too). Too bad he didn't put any informed and sensitive thought into his choices of new settings.
Jody said…
Agree on the portrayal of African Americans. It's so wrong it's hilarious. A great film nonethless. :)
Unknown said…
THank you for being the first person I've come across online who thinks Kajol is loud and over-rated. I think so too; she's so screechy and annoying. God! I've loved SRK in Darr and Dil Se...Not sure if I should see this one though considering how annoying I find KJos and his "cinema"...:-)
And even as I type this, I'm watching Darr..yet again :-) Thanks for the review.
Slytherin - I think we are quite a tiny minority, but I'd swear I'd heard at least a handful of other people express the opinion as well. :) I cannot whole-heartedly recommend MNIK but it definitely has some great moments and good ideas. Maybe if your FF button is all warmed up and ready to go....

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