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…and I Am Not A Terrorist

February 13, 2010

My Name Is Khan promised to be a classic Karan Johar film, and it certainly does tick off all the stereotypical boxes: laughter and tears, fairytale ending, lots of beauty, great production values, and, of course, Shahrukh Khan and Kajol. It’s Bollywood at it’s ‘inspired’ best, too: the melodramatic love story of an autistic immigrant set against the backdrop of terrorism. You have to be pretty bad to mess up with that formula. But you also have to be pretty darned good to make the most of it.

Which, obviously, the team behind this film was. Not easy to package so many big ideas into a few hours, but My Name Is Khan does that very well, with a few central messages that I loved. This blog post isn’t a movie review, I’m no film critic. I love cinema and usually try to select movies that will not leave me feeling like I wasted my time. Now, given that I am from the subcontinent and chose only Aamir Khan’s 3 Idiots and Shahrukh Khan’s My Name Is Khan to see in the cinema (yes, no Avatar…yet), one might be dismissive. It’s the easy way out, the past of least risk. In a way, that’s true. With the teams behind these movies, I was almost guaranteed (and did in fact receive) value for time and money (value here is necessarily subjective). Good deal, I’d say.

But I liked both 3 Idiots and My Name Is Khan more than most good movies – they were both extraordinarily good movies, and I feel they have too many critics bashing them – many of them, of course, pseudo intellectual bloggers (I try not to be one). The wave of vitriol directed at 3 Idiots was a little surprising to me (largely in terms of magnitude, not content). My Name Is Khan is too new to have a sizeable body of opinion already, but I’m fairly sure that there will soon be (to pick one likely point) dozens of articles lambasting Shahrukh Khan for aping Tom Hanks and Sean Penn in Forrest Gump and I Am Sam, respectively. Many of them might be well written and partially accurate, but not necessarily constructive given the context. It may seem oxymoronic to criticize criticism, but all I’m against is pure bashing.

The context is that we live in a world where bad news dominates more often than not; most of us wake up to the headlines of a bomb blast or other tragedy, spend much of our day battling personal and professional demons, and fall in bed plagued by worries. Little wonder that hope and inspiration are amongst the most popular topics across all kinds of media platforms.

The context is also that mass media has the greatest reach and impact, and with declining print readership and increasing fragmentation online and on television, big budget cinema is a bonafide bully pulpit (in the good sense, please see original definition). With the combined fanbases of Aamir and Shahrukh Khan easily topping a sixth of the world, you can see the power of the messages they choose to deliver.

That’s why I’m not interested in the flaws in these films: there’s no point dissecting them. Just pay attention to the messages:

Be good.
Be positive.
Be fearless.
Live fully.
Love freely.
Spread cheer.
Work hard.
Have passion.
Humanity triumphs hatred.
Everyone is equal.
Hope, faith, and belief.

All worthy lessons, but too often taken for granted. Even more tragically, often never delivered as explicitly as they need to be.

That’s why I liked My Name Is Khan: the themes chosen and highlighted by both Karan Johar and Shahrukh Khan. King Khan may be too pragmatic to think that his film will change world opinion (“I have never been a strong advocate for global cinema because I don’t think our films turn the tide around though my directors and distributors feel otherwise.”), he evidently is trying to effect whatever change he can, and with his influence, that’s a lot of change:

I just do my work. I truly believe your work defines you. I am not a social activist. I spend time with my family. At the most, I teach my kids to do namaaz and pray to Allah. Maybe I have given neat and clean hits which has given me money and fame but for me it’s been like a good regular job. I have chosen to do cinema which has a very positive impact and that’s what influences people and gets me the tags.

As the brother of a longtime hardcore SRK fan, I’ve followed his career relatively well, and cannot help but admire the way he weaves in personal beliefs in his films. The first, and most explicit, message in MNIK is that there are only two types of people – good people and bad people. Good people do good things, and bad people do bad things. Simplistic, but it’s enough to safely spend a life on. Interestingly, it’s the only message my nine year old sister could remember from the film when asked afterwards. I cannot help but note that even Allah (swt) distinguishes most frequently in the Quraan between nonbelievers and believers – and ‘believers’ can be defined in several ways. Can we say that good human beings are believers? I’d like to think so. It’s a message my own father has consistently practiced and preached, one that has increasing relevance in this world where religion is too often a way to justify inhumanity. Anyone who’s read a handful of SRK interviews will know that it’s what his mother actually taught him as a child as well: that the only thing that counts is differentiating between good and bad.

Shahrukh Khan has also mirrored his real life onto the reels here: Muslim husband, Hindu wife, happy family. Underscoring the point that what we choose to call our religion is not as important as how we choose to implement it. There are extremists everywhere; there are good and bad people everywhere – again, one would assume that no one needs to be TOLD this, but prejudice and discrimination are still alive and well.

So, thank you, Karan Johar. Thank you, Shahrukh Khan.

You probably won’t read this, but – it’s always nice to have superstars batting for you.

One of the biggest reasons behind extremism in Islam is that many Muslims had to spend far too much time on the back foot; almost inevitably, some went on the front foot when given the incentive to do so, and stepped out of line. They’re not in my team (that’s the one with most Muslims in it, who DON’T want to kill everyone who differs.)

Thank you, to the entire team of My Name Is Khan.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 13, 2010 4:54 am

    I just stopped by your blog and thought I would say hello. I like your site design. Looking forward to reading more down the road.

  2. February 13, 2010 5:38 pm

    Nabeel, I absolutely agree with every single part of your blogpost. Karan Joahr has surprised himself witht he kind of movie he’s made. The movie was real, and made from the heart. It wasn’t your typical terrorism movie, instead it had a clear and very simple message.

  3. February 13, 2010 9:30 pm

    Surprised himself or the rest of the industry? It is pretty feel-good though…

    Perhaps Shahrukh Khan’s heart more than Johar’s: as I’ve pointed out, he’s really put himself into this one.

    I actually don’t think that the movie is about terrorism at all. It’s about being a good person and showing that we shouldn’t be so quick to judge others. Good terrorism movies are Aamir and A Wednesday (https://nsahmed.wordpress.com/2009/05/23/a-wednesday-review). Highly recommended, both of them.

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