My Name Is Khan

My Name is Khan poster

My Name is Khan poster

My Name is Khan was a crossover success for Indian film director Karan Johar. The film is set in America and has a large amount of English language content. For many Americans, this film served as an introduction to Indian cinema and two of its biggest stars—Shah Rukh Khan (also billed in some films as Shahrukh Khan), who plays the lead character, Rizvan Khan, and Kajol, who plays his wife, Mandira.

The film tells the story of an Indian man with Asperger’s Syndrome in post-9/11 America who takes his wife’s challenge to “go tell the president who you are!” seriously and makes a journey that takes him on a cross-country tour of the U.S. as he tries to meet the president and explain that he is not a terrorist. It also a story about a mixed marriage as Khan is Muslim and Mandira is Hindu (as a bit of trivia, Shah Rukh Khan is Muslim and married to a Hindu in real life; Kajol is Hindu).

Some critics have compared the film to Forrest Gump and there are definitely parallels between the two films, such as Khan’s and Forrest’s journeys which put them in the path of people and events that make the news; the way both men change the people they encounter; and the quests they embark upon.

My Name is Khan will seem familiar in some ways to American viewers because of the similarity to Forrest Gump and some parts of film narrative and production are common to both Indian and American cinemas, such as the use of flashbacks and the use of close-ups to convey the characters’ emotions and responses.

There are also some aspects that are much more typical of Bollywood: the length of the film, the use of melodrama, musical numbers to extend the narrative, choreographed crowd scenes, and using the camera to revolve and swirl around characters to convey a sense of emotional distress.

Bollywood elements of the film

Melodrama is one of the staples of Indian cinematic narrative. Plot (and often overly theatrical acting) weighs more heavily than characterization. In My Name is Khan there are several events that move the plot forward and which may seem too predictable or too heavy-handed to American viewers, such as the deaths of Mark and Sameer. Khan’s arrest, beating, and release from prison are another example. Any of these events on its own might work in a typical American film, but all of them together pushes the limits on the American viewer’s ability to suspend disbelief. In Indian cinematic tradition, the use of melodrama is expected—the characters usually have every single crutch or support device ripped away from them over the course of a film so that when there is resolution in the end, the viewer has a sense that the character has overcome absolutely all odds to reach victory.

What makes the melodrama of My Name is Khan palatable for American viewers is Shah Rukh Khan’s acting. He refrains from doing overblown acting through most of the film and is usually very believable as Khan, stuck inside his mind and unable to process the unspoken emotions and responses of other people. Shah Rukh Khan lets the slightest flickers of expression around his mouth and eyes tell the story as Khan makes discoveries and realizations about the world he encounters.

While American movies use music in their soundtracks and sometimes have characters who sing snippets of a song in a scene, Hollywood movies generally don’t use songs to advance narrative unless the film is a Musical. In Indian cinema, musical numbers are expected in almost every genre. While there are no big dancing numbers in My Name is Khan, there are a few places where a song is used to move the story along. A song starts when Madira cuts Khan’s hair and turns into a montage of the pair falling in love. The closest we get to an all-out song and dance routine is during the memorial service at the church where Mama Jenny and the congregation sing “We Shall Overcome” and Khan joins in.

An example of a more typical musical number in Indian cinema is this piece from Mission Kashmir:

In the film, the two characters in the scene were childhood friends who haven’t seen each other for years; the man, Altaaf, has been groomed to be a terrorist and he originally plans to use the woman, Sufiya, to gain access to a TV station where she works. Here, he fakes his way into a performance she is doing of a song that is sometimes played on the night a Kashmiri bride-to-be is painted with henna. At the end of the performance Sufiya has a flashback to her childhood and singing the song with Altaaf; she recognizes him and they are reunited.

Many of the post-9/11 events in the film are designed to show the anti-Muslim sentiment in America at the time (and which is still lingering). Again, some of these incidents fall into the realm of melodrama: for American viewers, it is hard to buy the idea that Reese and Sameer would be best friends for seven years and then Reese would suddenly stop speaking to Sameer after his father dies in the war in Afghanistan. The other kids at school believe Sameer is a Muslim, but surely his best friend would know Sameer’s true character (and that he is Hindu).

American viewers might also be thrown off by the overlapping events and subplots in the film—as Khan makes his way across the country, new characters and situations are introduced and the film goes back and forth with these scenes and the larger story of Khan’s journey.

‘There are only two kinds of people in the world’

The character of Mama Jenny is interesting in light of our previous discussion of the representation of blacks in Hollywood films. In My Name is Khan, Mama Jenny is close to the stereotypes of a Mammy character and what Spike Lee calls “the magical, mystical Negro,” a character who has special spiritual, healing, or magical abilities. Mama Jenny’s spirituality and generosity are supposed to show that Khan’s mother’s assessment of people was right; his mother told him religion doesn’t really matter, that there are two kinds of people in the world: good and bad. Mama Jenny is supposed to be a “good” one. While the intent of the character is good, the characterization may be flat and stereotyped to American viewers when they see Mama Jenny in her big skirt and head-wrap that are eerily similar to Aunt Jemima’s or her life in a ramshackle cabin that is eased by her involvement in her church. This type of portrayal is so common in the films and TV shows that America exports, the representation is picked up and reproduced in other cultures.

The film tries to show that Khan’s mother was right about the two types of people in the world by contrasting Mama Jenny with the woman at the fund-raiser who tells Khan it is “for Christians only” and by showing different types of Muslims over the course of the film. We are shown Khan and his mother, his brother, and his sister-in-law as “good” Muslims. Khan is shown praying in several and his sister-in-law wears the hijab, but we don’t get much perspective on what they think or believe—again, this is where plot and action take precedence over fuller character development. In contrast, the “bad” Muslims are shown in the mosque inciting one another to violence.

By the end of the film, we don’t get too deep into any of the characters, which may seem odd to American viewers who are used to films that often follow the literary expectation that a character must grow in some way or change perspectives by the end of the film. Part of this may be a cultural difference: in America, there is much focus on “the individual” and we expect a certain amount of depth and motivation to explain a character’s actions. In other cultures where family and group take precedence over the individual, storytelling may focus on actions and consequences of events rather than an individual’s unique understanding of those events.

Film Terminology

Diegetic Sound—the sounds a character can hear on screen, even if the source is not visible (e.g. birds chirping or music playing on the radio). Non-diegetic sound is not implied to be part of the character’s environment (e.g. narration or music that swells in the background during a suspenseful scene). The music that plays when Mandira cuts Khan’s hair is non-diegetic; when Khan, Mama Jenny and the congregation sing “We Shall Overcome,” it is diegetic sound.

Flashback—interrupting chronological sequence by injecting scenes of earlier events unfolding.

Melodrama—the use of extravagant theatricality and the predominance of plot or physical action over character development.

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African Americans on film

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band with Del McCoury.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band with Del McCoury.

If it’s a film class, why is there a picture of a bunch of musicians? Well, this week we’re talking about race in Hollywood and focusing specifically on African Americans in film. This week, the students in the class read a chapter about how the Civil Rights Movement impacted American society and popular culture in the 1960s.

The representations of blacks in Hollywood films was historically full of stereotypes (the domestic, the fool, the threat) or, just as troubling, notable for a complete absence from the screen. We’ll get to those ideas in a few minutes.

Now about that photo. It’s not the one I would like to have at the top of this post. The one I would like to have hasn’t been taken. See the man with the clarinet and the man with the guitar in the center of the photo? They are Charlie Gabriel and Del McCoury. Gabriel is one of the members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and McCoury leads the bluegrass ensemble that bears his name. The two bands recorded an album, American Legacies, in 2011 and occasionally do performances together.

The two bands recently did a concert at the university and there was a moment before the show started that I would have captured had I been able to photograph the performance: before the stage lights went up, Charlie and Del walked out on stage together holding hands. Two men so full of talent and love for their music supporting each other as they took the stage–the gesture was a small, human, and completely beautiful moment. With Charlie being 80 and Del in his 70s, I kept thinking about how unlikely that gesture would have been at the start of their careers–even if they had no personal qualms about race, the society around them and the audiences in the 50s and 60s would have.

A sampling of how the two groups’ styles blend well together, bringing together two uniquely American sounds:

Now, let’s look at the movies.

African Americans & the Film Industry

The early American film industry operated similarly to the music and theater fields—often, there were separate productions for black and white audiences. From about 1915-1950, more than 500 race films were produced for black audiences. While most of these films were financed and scripted by whites, a handful were made by black filmmakers. Unfortunately, many of the films have been lost and only about 100 remain.

Filmmaking pioneer and author Oscar Micheaux

Filmmaking pioneer and author Oscar Micheaux

An early pioneer of cinema, Oscar Micheaux, worked for Lincoln Motion Picture Company and advertised that the company’s films were scripted and produced entirely by African Americans. The 1920 film Within Our Gates, written and directed by Micheaux is the oldest surviving film made by an African American director. The film tells the story of a black woman who travels north to raise funds for a school in the South. Along the way, she discovers secrets about her family history, which sets the stage for racial violence that culminates with the lynching of a black man. Micheaux’s films and books often depicted the accomplishments of blacks in the face of adversity. Some critics complain about the overwrought acting and limited production values in Micheaux’s work, but his films were often more concern about the message than the delivery, and are worth viewing to see his ideas about politics and societal roles.

After Micheaux, there were very few black filmmakers in America until the late 20th century and the rise of the Blaxploitation movies. From the 1930s to the late 1950s, the African American presence in Hollywood films is limited to secondary roles. One thing I ask students to consider when they’re thinking about this era is how it would feel to never see reflections of your “self” on screen. What message would it send to continually see only white people in leading roles and portrayed as successful? For nearly 40 years, black audiences did not see their lives reflected back through popular movies. (Other minority groups have a similar treatment in Hollywood films; often those representations don’t show up on screen until an independent filmmaker has success with a film that shows the world his or her community; once larger studios see that there is an audience for the material, more films with a bigger budget follow.)

Sidney Poitier helped both black and white audiences envision African Americans in dignified positions.

Sidney Poitier helped both black and white audiences envision African Americans in dignified positions.

In the late 1950s and into the 1960s, Sidney Poitier broke through the American color barrier and delivered performances that helped Americans begin to envision blacks and whites as equals. The Defiant Ones, A Raisin in the Sun, Blackboard Jungle, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, and A Patch of Blue allowed Poitier to play a wide range of roles from the comedic to the romantic and the dramatic. At the height of his career Poitier placed an emphasis on dignity, delivering his performances with measured emotion that emphasized wit and intellect. He gave white audiences a different vision of African Americans and their potential.

By the 1970s, though, the reserved performances of Poitier gave way to films that bubbled with anger and frustration at unjust situations and a racist society. In 1971, Melvin Van Peebles hit big with his independent film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song as did Gordon Parks with Shaft (Note: These trailers are graphic and contain adult language). These films, with an emphasis on the gritty urban scenes, the drug trade, violence, revenge, and stylistic editing and funky soundtracks opened the doors to a new generations of black filmmakers as well as opportunistic low-budget imitations by studios trying to cash in.

Charles Burnett’s films of the 1970s and 1980s were often attempts to show realistic images of black life in America; his films do not rely on the flashy color and creative editing of the Blaxploitation era movies. Instead, they have a stark, quiet realism Killer of Sheep, My Brother’s Wedding, and To Sleep With Anger are some of his best known films.

From the 1980s to now, filmmakers like Spike Lee, Robert Townsend, John Singleton, Allen and Albert Hughes, and Julie Dash, etc., have been directing movies that depict black life in contemporary America. Critics and the film industry started noticing Spike Lee with his short films and the 1986 feature She’s Gotta Have It, but his 1989 film Do The Right Thing caught all of  America’s attention for its fresh camera work, inventive dialogue, and the mix of humor, anger, and sadness that show the events that unfold in a racially mixed neighborhood on the hottest day of the year.

This week, the class watched Something New, which focuses on an interracial relationship. Kenya (Sanaa Lathan) is a successful business woman who finds herself set up on a blind date with Brian (Simon Baker). As the film opens, the audience sees she is under pressure at work to prove herself and in her personal life to find a mate. Her girlfriends try to get her to lower her high expectations—she wants a man who is educated, has a job, has good teeth, and “isn’t crazy,” which seems reasonable, but then she keeps listing requirements further narrowing the possibile candidates. When a friend sets her up on a blind date with a single landscape architect, it sounds like an good match until she sees he is white.

The film offers a glimpse into the life of an upper-class black woman; even with her accomplishments and background (coming from a family of “academics” and graduating from top schools), Kenya still has to work harder than her white colleagues to prove her worth to the firm where she is employed. The film does a frank exploration of race in America and shows both black and white views with honest, if not very subtle, scenes where Kenya and Brian explore their own expectations and values while also dealing with the opinions of family and friends.

An interesting thing about film is that it can be reflective of current societal attitudes or it can project an ideal for people to strive for. For example, many of the War films during World War II show a racially integrated military while the armed forces were still segregated in real life—desegregation of the armed forces took place in 1948. Showing a fictional unity on screen reinforced the idea of all Americans working together for the cause.

American films and TV shows featuring black characters often make a point of explaining the difference between black culture and the rest of America. On the TV show House, Dr. House (Hugh Laurie) often makes exaggerated comments about Dr. Foreman’s (Omar Epps) experiences with crime and life in a ghetto. An interesting contrast can be seen in British television shows where multiracial casts often do not discuss their backgrounds. In the crime drama Luther, lead detective John Luther’s (Idris Elba) experiences as a black man in England are not mentioned by him or other characters. Racism exists in the UK, but it is focused differently than it is the U.S. The history of slavery in the U.S. and legislative language that ignored the basic human rights of significant portions of the population still reverberate today; other issues such as economic anxieties and fears over security impact how immigrants and people of other religions are treated.

NPR did a piece on African American stereotypes in the movies that is worth listening to. Click here to listen. Professor Anna Everett makes the observation that many of the stereotypical black characters in films are not “contextualized” within a family or community; they come out of nowhere and are attached to nothing. The white characters around them impart significance and meaning to their existence within the world of the film. Actor/director Bill Duke talks about the limited roles for African Americans in Hollywood and the dilemma many face as they are torn between paying the bills and holding out for roles that go beyond stereotypical representations.