Review: My Name is Khan (2010)

My Name is Khan: A post-9/11 epic Bollywood journey for love

“My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist.”

These are the words Rizwan Khan, a Indian Muslim immigrant living in California, wants to say to the President of the United States. Khan travels across the country for nearly a year by plane, bus and foot to meet the Pre ident (first Bush and then Obama) to share his message, attracting attention from federal authorities and the media. But Khan, who suffers from Asperger Syndrome, doesn’t quite understand why the media, authorities, and the American public are invigorated by his journey. Khan doesn’t see the message of identity and tolerance that he is spreading. As far as Khan knows, he is simply traveling across the country for love and to reunify his family after a great tragedy.

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Watching Bollywood: The plight of one overly neurotic filmgoer

No place is more comfortable or more eerie than a dark movie theater just as the previews are about to begin. Chances are you have sat in a theater waiting to enjoy a movie before but once the lights go off you are transported to a different reality all while being surrounded by complete strangers. Perhaps I am being neurotic but the thought of experiencing any sort of emotion—and you experience countless emotions during movies—in the presence of strangers is utterly frightening. The room might be dark but someone is always watching.

Clearly I have read too much film theory if, rather than seeking pure enjoyment from the cinema, these are the thoughts that wander through my mind during a screening. Needless to say, it is hard for me to leave my neurotic theories on spectatorship at the door and just watch a movie.

While most people enjoy company while at the movies, I prefer going by myself and completely isolating myself from the main audience. Rather than be in the center row and in close proximity to anyone else in the theater, I prefer the very back, right corner. Believe me—no one wants to sit there. Of course, this makes watching any film especially difficult and makes me seem pretty ridiculous, but it is a practice I have perfected.

My somewhat—okay very—bizarre screening tendencies were challenged this summer when I attended the Cannes Film Festival, where placing one very neurotic filmgoer in a 2000 seat theater could lead to serious ramifications. All of the sudden I had to sit next to strangers who applauded for everything: the film festival logo, the opening credits, the lead actress’ name, the closing credits, the music played during the closing credits. (Unless this person was a French film critic; I’m convinced that they don’t know how to express emotion during a movie.) I learned to embrace the novelty of the situation – how many times would I be surrounded by people who applauded a single frame of L’Avventura? Still it is amazing that I didn’t suffer endless panic attacks while at Cannes.

Knowing this, the last movie anyone should expect me to willingly attend is a Bollywood film. There is no other national cinema depends more on audience interaction than Bollywood. So attending a screening Om Shanti Om at Amherst Cinema on Sunday, I was faced with my worst nightmare—audience participation. The girl sitting next to me clearly loved Om Shanti Om; she sang along with every single song and yelped with glee whenever Shahrukh Khan appeared on screen. Considering that Khan is singing in practically every scene, this happened frequently.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p92YbtfeI58]

The sight of one girl raising her arms in complete exuberance by the mere presence of Ambitabh Bachan probably strikes a western audience as odd (we certainly don’t greet cameo appearances by Dustin Hoffman that way). Yet that is what makes Bollywood cinema absolutely fabulous. These films are meant to elicit a certain response from the audience, one that depends on elaborate stylistic norms, song and dance sequences and star personas to create pure joy and excitement. Because, I suspect, many people attending the screening of Om Shanti Om had never been to a Bollywood film or at least to a public screening of the film, this was lost to them.

Om Shanti Om was hardly my first Bollywood experience. I’ve just quite conscientiously avoided the whole attending a public screening aspect until now. Yet what will keep me, an incredibly cynical and neurotic filmgoer, coming back for more is knowing that films such as Om Shanti Om are meant to be enjoyed. If anything, Bollywood cinema has reminded me something I forgot once I became so academically engrossed with film—how to have fun while watching a movie.

Oh who am I kidding. I’ll always be that neurotic girl in the back of the movie theater.

Published: Mount Holyoke News
October 22, 2009

Reflections on a Bollywood Experience

Since I took a course on Bollywood cinema last semester I have been obsessed with anything and everything Bollywood (hello, Shahrukh Khan). Yesterday I finally saw a Bollywood film that was not screened in the classroom setting or streamed online for free. I am now convinced that there is no experience quite like seeing a Bollywood film in a theater, complete with a 10 minute intermission and an audience that absolutely adores the film. Unless of couse I was in India and not Amherst, Massachusetts.

Om Shanti Om (2007) stars Shahrukh Khan in this epically fantasic film that is hilarious, romantic, suspenseful – basically every emotion you are capable of experiencing, occurs in this movie. It is an absolute delight to watch.

What is especially fascinating about Om Shanti Om – and Bollywood cinema in general – is how these films are received by different audiences. How this predominantly Western audience, many of whom might now have seen many let alone one Bollywood film, responded to Om Shanto Om is completely different than how the Indian girls sitting next to me. Lets just say I would never raise my arms in complete excitement for Amitabh Bachchan’s camero appearance. I’m writing more on this very topic in the MHN this week, so stay tuned for my more succinct thoughts on how we watch movies.

Until then, enjoy these few clips from Om Shanti Om.