Bollywood King goes back to his Muslim Roots

By no means am I a Bollywood (Indian Cinema) fan.  I have only seen a handful in my life and never watched one in a theater – before last night when I went with my wife and a few friends to watch the King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and his new film “My Name is Khan” which is making headlines across the world because of it’s “Pro-Muslim” storyline – which is a rarity in Hindu dominated Indian cinema.

A majority of the film was also shot here in the San Francisco Bay Area and since a few of our friends were extras in the movie, we went to watch it in the theaters.

As most people who have seen Bollywood (the nickname for Indian Cinema based out of “Bombay” now called “Mumbai”) films before knows, the majority of them are extravagant “Musicals” which are usually 3 to 4 hours in length (they have an intermission when they play in the theaters in India and “Desi” theaters in the U.S. and other countries)! Most major hits have the standard format of a young guy and girl who come from different walks of life and go through some kind of struggle to end up together in the end – with a few large dance and song routines in the middle of grass fields and villages in India (or sometimes other parts of the world – to change it up a bit:)).

But, “My Name is Khan” is nothing like that.  It is not a typical Bollywood film at all.  It is pretty serious (of course it has a few light moments sprinkled in between to keep it interesting) and goes head on at some of the world’s toughest issues such as prejudice, stereotypes, religious extremism, terrorism, security concerns, and the commonality of the human condition across the world.

WARNING SPOILERS BELOW!!!

I was actually pretty surprised at how serious and “un-Bollywood like” the film was.  And since it takes place in the U.S. (there is about 30 min in the beginning which takes place in India), a lot of the dialouge is in English (they have subtitles to translate the Hindi-Urdu languages, but no one likes to read them while watching a movie:))!

The other surprising thing about the film was the fact that the star – Shah Rukh Khan (a Muslim in real life), decided to make such a film in the first place.  Shah Rukh Khan (or “SRK” as his name is spelled by bollywood fans online) is the top Bollywood Actor and is more well known and has a larger fan base across the world than any American actor!  He is like Brad Pitt, Denzel Washington and Al Pacino (hey I’m a “Scarface” fan, so I gotta through him in there:)) all rolled up into one.  Most Bollywood films stay away from religion and if they do it is only for comic effect (i.e. a Muslim Mullah or Imam saying something stupid, etc.) or to to show some other stereotypical element.  Since most Indians are Hindu the films reflect the main characters and religious ceremonies from the Hindu perspective (usually). 

Shah Rukh Khan was born in India, but his father was Pakistani (from Peshawar), according to an interview I watched with him here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zWWBd6MD0Ew.  

SRK is Muslim, but he is married to a Hindu women (similiar to the story in the film). They teach their two children both religions and do not force one religious view over the other.  SRK has played a “Muslim” character on film before, but his character of “Rizvan Khan” is the first in which his being a Muslim is an integral part of the story.  Thus, it is like he is going back to his Muslim Roots.  Shah Rukh Khan, known as the “King of Bollywood” (for all the awards and allocades he has achieved in the Indian Film Industry) playing a Muslim (a positive one at that), is a major historical event for Indian Cinema.  It’s like when Steven Speilberg decided to make “Schindler’s List” and share his Jewish roots or when Mel Gibson decided to make “Passion of the Christ” and give a voice to his minority Catholic roots in mainstream Hollywood.  Shah Rukh Khan has already received some backlash in India because he publicy supported Pakistani Cricket Players and complained that they should not have been omitted from the IPL (Indian Premiere League) cricket league.  Some Indian Nationalist groups have threaten to ban his latest film “My Name is Khan” from being shown in local theaters in Mumbai in protest.

This is a shame because the film is all about treating all people with respect and dignity, no matter their religion or ethnicity. Shah Rukh Khan plays Rizvan Khan, a Muslim Indian with Asperger’s syndrome (a type of autisim) who comes to America to be close to his brother (after their mother dies in India) and in the process he befriends and falls in love with a Bay Area Indian women named Mandira (who happens to be Hindu).  Rizvan and Mandira marry and live a pretty normal life, but then the attacks of Sept. 11th, 2001 happen and Mandira’s son Sameer is attacked in a hate related incident at school.  Sameer dies from his injuries and  Mandira blames her marriage to a Muslim (SRK’s character) for her son’s death.  Rizvan then goes across country to meet the President of the United States and explain to him that he is a Muslim, but he is not a Terrorist (a Mantra he keeps repeating throughout the film and thus the title of the movie).

Of course the story is at times stretching reality and the ending is far fetched, but the process is believable because it is based on incidents that many people have gone through or experienced themselves in real life: security profiling at airports, racist and prejudiced people who try to stop you from achieving your goals, as well as good people who help you get where you want to go.

But what I really liked about “My Name is Khan” is the way it humanizes Muslims.  Of course they have the extermist Muslim in the film, but they also have the main character, Rizvan (portrayed by Shah Rukh Khan) who is a very spiritual person and is not afraid to pray in front of people – whether it being by reciting verses from the Holy Quran in a middle of a vigil for the victims of the 9/11 attacks, or by making salat (prayers)  outside a truck stop while everyone (including a “normal” Muslim couple) watches him in awe.

On a side note – I was also impressed with the film’s accurate portrayal of Islamic rituals and practices such as praying and what Muslims recite or pray when people die, etc.  Most films, whether Bollywood or Hollywood usually never get it right.  That’s one reason when I got a chance to be a “Muslim consultant” on a local indie film shot in the Bay Area last year, I jumped at the chance to volunteer just so I can make sure they can depict Muslims praying accurately (I ended up showing a cast of about a dozen Non-Muslim actors and extras how to pray according to the Sunni Hanafi Method:))!

In the end “My Name is Khan” is about always having a positive attitude and never giving up on your dreams, no matter the odds stacked against you or who or what is in your way.  It is also about being proud of who you are and not being prejudiced or hateful to other people just because they may come from a different background, culture or religion than you do.  A very important message for both Muslims and Non-Muslims alike. 

I hope people learn this message of peace and understanding after watching this film. And I hope more films like “My Name is Khan” come out of Bollywood (as well as Hollywood), because we definitely need them in these trying times.  I highly recommend everyone to watch the movie and tell all your friends to watch it too!

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