Tuesday, February 16, 2010

My Name is Singh and I am who I am

I had first heard of My Name is Khan back in the summer of last year, after Shah Rukh Khan was, somewhat ironically given the plot & premise of the movie, held at US immigration for a few hours as the airport authorities found him suspicious on the basis that his surname was “Khan”. The story was soon dropped, but for a few hours, the rapacious Indian media feasted on the bones of the scandal. (As an aside, I love using the word “rapacious” – it reminds me of the Velociraptors in the Jurassic Park movies)

So going to see the movie last night with an Austrian friend who is rapidly sinking into the quagmire that is Bollywood-mania, I had a pretty good premise of what the movie would be like. My concerns were primarily around the fact that the movie was a Karan Johar production, especially since KJ is never quite known for being subtle or discreet, but prefers to hammer in the ham & emotion with a sledgehammer. Don’t get me wrong – I love my good ole’ Johar flicks – but I was intrigued how a filmmaker of his ilk would treat something as sensitive as racial profiling in the USA in a post 9/11 world.

This blog-post is not meant to be a review, so I won’t spend much time going over the fundamentals of the film. But the reason I’m writing this piece is because there were many elements of the story yesterday that resounded quite closely with me, and that I found particularly affecting. And at the very end, for me, a film is only successful if it can relate to you personally; the big bang glamorousness of a blockbuster is only as good as the emotions it can generate in your heart. That is why the first Star Wars worked, while the more recent additions to the franchise don’t. And that is why My Name is Khan is, at least in my eyes, a successful film.

The reason for this is pretty straightforward – MNIK is a film about being different, not being typically like the others around you, and about having the courage and conviction to embrace the identity that is yours, regardless of how well that lets you “fit in”. Rizwan Khan is, in the movie, the ultimate outsider, who through his entire life inhabits liminal spaces. In India, his minority status is based on his religion. In school, he is bullied by peers for his autism. At home, his brother resents him for being the centre of his mother’s attention. In the broader US community, he is an immigrant. In the US Muslim community, he is a vocal moderate willing to challenge fundamentalists, who marries a Hindu divorcee with a child (herself a minority). But the Khan we see in the movie is someone who is at peace with his own identity, in whatever the circumstances. He is not necessarily able to understand why other people do not like him, but at no point do we see him turn around and say, “I wish I was not Muslim / autistic / brown ..."

And for me, this is where the success of the movie lies. Unlike other commentators, who have moaned at length about how "unrealistic" the movie is, I don't really give a damn (especially since most of the same commentators had raptures over an equally improbably Inglourious Basterds.) I don’t care how “cognitively realistic” the movie was, but how "emotionally realistic" it was. I don’t need to know why Rizwan Khan travels the length & breadth of the US, in his attempts to meet the US President and tell him that he is not a terrorist by virtue of his name. Fundamentally, none of these elements really matter.

Perhaps my perspective is skewed by my circumstances. I am an Indian national who has lived less than a third of my life in the country of my nationality, but my identity is intensely Indian, primarily founded on a childhood travelling with parents who were diplomats. I was not born in India, but in Pakistan, which means that unlike other NRI’s who travel back to India, I am now increasingly subjected to intense scrutiny at Indian immigration, where officers are perplexed that someone who was not born before Partition can have an Indian passport even though he was born in Pakistan (the same happenstance raises eyebrows at many airport check-in counters, immigration barriers, and cocktail parties). And even though I am proud to be an upper-caste Rajput Hindu with an impeccable lineage that I can track back hundreds of years by name, I find much in religion to be tedious and ritualistic; something that is exploited by clergies to keep the masses in check.

But the results of this upbringing are ubiquitous. I find that India drives me insane, but outside the country I am one of its most impassioned (and I would hope, erudite) defenders. I have lived much of my life overseas, and as a frequent traveller on an Indian passport have the infinite joy of having to apply for millions of visas ahead of any journey. At the same time, the idea of giving up my passport for a more convenient one, though attractive from a purely pragmatic point of view, is quite emotionally difficult. I have friends who are activists of all sorts across the world – ranging from LGBT campaigners through to aid workers in Haiti, through to American Muslim university professors, much like Khan’s hijab-wearing sister-in-law in the movie, who wear the scarf not out of any circumstance of familial or gender-based suppression, but out a sense of identity and protest. Many times my friends have opinions or views that I cannot agree with. At the same time, the reason we are friends is because we are able to accept that we are inherently different, and are friends because, not despite, those differences.

And so perhaps because of these circumstances I was touched by the movie last night; and this is why the movie is "emotionally realistic". Rizwan’s message of being true to yourself, regardless of circumstances or environment, was a strong, touching and most importantly, personally relevant one for me. It reminded me that there are many other people out there in the world who are as different as I am from the others around me, with different hopes, aspirations, dreams and identities; people who cannot claim to be from any “majority”, but that ultimately it is important to remember that despite being different, it is still possible to be yourself.

And perhaps, even, to be happy.