Sunday, February 14, 2010

H1B Visa Dipped in Desi Ghee: MNIK and the KJo Kool Aid

When you are Karan Johar, you have a magic wand.
You wave it, and financiers give you money.
You wave it, and Shah Rukh Khan stars for you.
You wave it, and characters morph away to defy their roots.
A single mother Muslim weaver woman in a Mumbai suburb steeped in poverty has a child who suddenly props up on a scholarship in the US and equally suddenly manages to bring his brother afflicted with autistic Asperger Syndrome to the streets of San Francisco after quick, hurried morbid shots of a little boy learning English from a Parsee and doing enough to send him to America, where a story awaits to be told.
Whose story?
Not that of the victim of riots in Gujarat, Bhiwandi, Thane, Mahim or Bandra which is closer home to the noisy streets where KJo has spent most of his young and well-groomed life.
Not even, really speaking, of the 26/11 victims in downtown Mumbai.
This one is for America, by America and of America.
Oscar wish? Fox money? NRI box office?
Whatever it is, My Name Is Khan is like an H1B visa dipped in desi ghee. Very alluring in an Indian American Pizza Mom and cute kid way, with the worldview of those who live in nice homes, cool offices and clean streets with fancy cars.
Oh, the story is about 9/11 and what it did to the average South Asian Muslim in America, with the universal, award-winning message thrown in.

Didn’t you know what happened after 9/11 in the US? Fairytale capitalism gave way to neighbourhood racism because of terrorism.
And some Indians, who had never seen the homegrown variety, described in boring editorial page articles as communalism, suddenly discovered this whole Hindu-Muslim thingie.
Between the tandoori Western teen flick and the post-modern girlfriend angst, KJo discovered that the topic that bothers neocons in Washington and the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi could be his muse too.
Oh well, history is like the flu. You never know when it hits you.
KJo is burdened not by history, of Islam, India or Pakistan or Palestine. Everybody is a chocolate boy from South Mumbai with a loving mom, or is converted into one.
Love is a nice message, and multiplexes are nice places to sell it. Add a dash of Koran here and there. Like oregano. Pizza Moms love them. Get the formula: Only love, silly. No analysis paralysis.
And so, Rizwan Khan, the hamming, hamstrung protagonist, lives through the experiences of the Wounded South Asian, stuttering and stammering his way through a love affair with a Pizza Mom hairstylist whose baddie husband left her with a son and little else. To the strains of Martin Luther King’s we-shall-overcome-and its Hindi honge-kamyab, the movie stutters through its steps with the uneasy but persuasive discourse that would do the Indo-US nuclear deal proud.
“My Name Is Khan,” the King of Bollywood announces. “And I am not a terrorist.”
Ingredients for this message: Some Koran. Some metropolitan cosmo-liberalism. Some leave-us-alone-we-love-everybody logic.
As the story unfolds, nice kids fall apart. Neighbours become uneasy adversaries.
Of course, we have heard that before. In tales of 1947.
But this one is for a generation for which Partition happened on 9/11 in the tall, aspirational buildings of New York.
There is enough of America in this film to think that terrorism did not even come to KJo’s Bombay, who survived enough riots in his hometown before making a subject out of the same theme in faraway US. Stunning landscapes flow from a delectable camera: San Francisco, New Mexico and then Georgia, where Hurricane Katrina and suffering blacks suddenly find themselves in a South Asian plot.
Like Mira Nair, KJo badly wants a place in Obama’s sun. So you have to become the endearing, enduring South Asian with chocolate syrup political correctness surrounding the Original Identity. This is McSouthAsia.
KJo wields the story-teller’s tool. He counters a stereotype with an archetype.
Rizwan Khan is one: nice kid, bright engineer type, loves mom and everybody, is productive. Oh yes, namaz-reading Muslim. If this is not enough, there is his Asperger Syndrome with Forrest Gump memories for the Hollywood-bred. Makes you laugh. Tugs at your hearstrings. Makes you reach out for hankies when you are done with that sticky caramel popcorn.
And moms. Lots of.
Nevertheless, the freshness of a story set in the American South and the chirpily warmth of a glowing Kajol make it all worth it. A disjointed script is redeemed by the occasionally punchy dialogue and an amusing sort of storyline, if you survive the first half.
Why didn’t anyone hype the music by Shankar Ehsaan Loy? It is actually a great feature, complementing the beautify of the American South and West Coast. You have Bush and Obama in the plot. You have Iraq and Afghanistan and innocents dying. You have a message. If you have come thus far and still don’t get it, this is the one about all religions being good and love conquering all.
This is Bollywood trying to be Hollywood.
This is crossover trying to play the world movie.
This is KJo thinking he is Spielberg.
Like Spielberg, he is making a movie on aliens he loves. Only, they are from the other side of the same planet and feel like they are from a different one.
When KJo was busy making tandoori Westerns, McDonald’s invented the aloo-tikki burger. Like the Mumbai riots, that too, escaped KJo’s Kool Aid.
He was busy peering through the telescope at aliens he identifies with.
If Bunty and Babli at the local multiplex like it, it is because the loop is complete. We are all ETs now.


  1. loved the headline! haven't seen the movie...maybe now i won't. will definitely buy the music though.

  2. This style of review is so much in line with what Khalid Mohammed used to write. (Before he was sold, that is!). Must start following you on reviews.


  3. Thank you, Anuradha and Sarang

    @Sarang-- I joined TOI as a trainee when Khalid was the rockstar reviewer and used to hang out with him and we were briefly colleagues again in Hindustan Times in the past three years before he left. I must have been influenced a little, though I do think I am a bit more introspective in style.

  4. Great review. Though I must admit I am a bit biased towards anything that has desi ghee in it. :)

  5. What Shahrukh has to say to it: He endorsed Lux Cozi. The garment is from the house of Todis who also have interest in Kolkata Knight Riders and are accused of killing RIZWAN (the unfortunate lover who dared to love a girl from the house of Todis).

  6. I think the problem is more aesthetic than anything else. It is too difficult to set a film in Gujarat and then have clean roads, neat neighbourhoods, uncluttered landscapes, men in suits, and aethetic houses. India is too dirty, crowded, colourful and cluttered for him to accept and deal with. Kjo rejects Indian aesthetics, that is why all his films are based either in never never land or in the US, even though the characters and their logic is utterly Indian.

    He is both a proponent and a product of the gated communities propping up everywhere in Mumbai and Delhi.

  7. Beautiful review...have nothing more to write or speak about this gem of a film...have already exhausted myself...:)...but like the bit about Spielberg....:)

  8. @Manoj-thank you!

    @Chetna--I think aesthetics are one thing, sensibility another. I am probably focusing on the latter.

  9. Great read! As incisive as always. Though I would like to believe K-Jo has gone low on desi-ghee this time. Or is Kajol playing a Punjabi yet again?

    Haven't seen the film yet (and most likely won't - given the deadlines and long pending movie list getting longer every week) but would agree blindfolded that the biggest problem with the film would be it's worldview.

    How many times in Mumbai I have been asked by people 'Lucknow kidhar hua? Dilli ke paas?', with me nodding helplessly.

  10. Varun--thanks. But you must see it. It is an important film in its own way.
    Lucknow-Dilli: I drove up from Faizabad to Delhi by road the morning after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination. Took me the entire day.

  11. H-1B as a remedy for labor shortages and as a means of hiring "the best and the brightest" from around the world

    strongly support), the vast majority are ordinary people doing ordinary work. Instead of being about talent, H-1B is about cheap labor.

    H-1B visa holders may only work for sponsoring employers after approval by the Departments of Labor and Homeland Security.

    Although most of the non-compliant H-1B workers had posted wages from employers in fields associated with technical or

    specialty occupations, the report noted that one H-1B worker had earnings from a restaurant and janitorial service.

    H-1b visa