Kurbaan and My Name is Khan

I am an NRI, translated into: no-real Indian. I follow Indian cinema in my quest to find only one million original films before humanity as we know it disappears. I will use the term Indian cinema sparingly because I only have access to Hindi films, not Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, Marathi, Kannada, Gujarati and other languages.

On the menu today is Kurbaan directed by Rensali D’Silva and My Name is Khan, directed by Karan Johar. I had the honour of seeing the last two in a real cinema, pop corn and all.

One word for Kurbaan, bone-chilling! I haven’t been that tense in a movie for a long time. Pure cinema, where you just don’t know what will happen next! Movies based on the bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York, on September 11, 2001 (9/11) conjure up images of planes and buildings exploding, mangled bodies full of blood and relatives placing hands on their heads in anguish.

Ehsaan Khan, played clinically by Saif Ali Khan has a cause, one he shares with other people, such as the professor at Delhi University, where he met Avantika, Kareena Kapoor’s character. When she realises that Ehsaan had married her so that he could go to the U.S. to carry out his plan, he threatens her that he would kill her father in India. Avantika trembles when she realises that the Delhi professor is part of Ehsaan’s mission.

What made me constantly grab the movie seat was domestic danger. I nearly fainted when Avantika goes to the kitchen to make that phone call to Riyaaz the undercover journalist played by Vivek Oberoi. She had barely finished when she turned and saw Ehsaan, standing at the door.

Kurbaan is about a cause, and its omnipotence that transcends citizenship, family, world opinion and one’s life. Salma’s murder, the young wife who lived opposite Ehsaan and Avantika is proof that family is indispensable if it is an obstacle to that cause. I was so engrossed with Om Puri’s character Naseer Ahmed as the patriarch, I only realised at the end of the film that Kirron Kher’s character Jaanu, was the mastermind behind the whole thing.

Jaanu’s story is one of the untold stories about the role of women in such causes. Leila Khaled from Palestine hijacked her first plane in 1969, a TWA flight to Damascus. She was caught when she tried to hijack an El Al flight from Amsterdam to New York the following year. She maintained she was a freedom fighter in a 2002 interview. “There is a difference between terrorism and the armed struggle.”

Kirron Kher had such resolve in her eyes and demeanour about her Kurbaan character Jaanu, I thought about her when I heard the recent news about female suicide bombers. They too are willing to die for their cause.

The backlash on ordinary U.S. citizens of Indian origin was briefly handled in Kurbaan. It is the heart of the matter in My Name is Khan, directed by Karan Johar, who incidentally produced Kurbaan. Shah Rukh Khan stars as Rizvan Khan, a Muslim man with autism who sells his brother’s beauty products in San Franscisco. Kajol, plays his wife Mandira who is Hindu and works in a hair salon. It is pertinent to mention religion because it causes a rift between Rizvan and his brother Zakir played by Jimmy Shergill.

The young Rizvan was special to his mother Ammi, played by Zarina Wahad. He never forgot her advice that there are good people and bad people. Classmates used to bully him because he was autistic, so she found a private tutor to spare him from the cruelty of the school playground. Zakir his younger brother resented Rizvan all his life because he felt that his mother loved him more, but that didn’t stop Zakir from sponsoring him to join him in the U.S. when she died.

Mandira and her son Sameer (Yuvaan Makar) change their surname from Rathore to Khan. They live happily in Banville, a small U.S. town, with their neighbours Sarah (Katie Keane) and her husband Mark, who is a journalist. Their son Reece is Sameer’s best friend, a friendship that is destroyed when Mark dies in Afghanistan.

Reece is present at the scene of the crime when Sameer is killed by other students in a racist attack. Mandira cannot bear it and tells Rizvan that until he tells the U.S. president about what happened to their son, she didn’t want to see him. She is just venting her anger but Rizvan takes it literally.

That is how Rizvan Khan ploughs through deserts, is brutally searched at an airport because he looks like a terrorist, thrown in jail and interrogated about his reason for wanting to see the United States President. He tells everybody who could listen that, “My name is Khan and I’m not a terrorist.” Back home, Mandira becomes an unwanted guest at the local police station, demanding justice for her son.

Karan Johar mesmerised us at the beginning of the film before he said hello, because we thought that Rizvan’s back pack was full of explosives, a scene we saw in Kurbaan and other movies related to 9/11.

What I picked up from My Name is Khan is that personal relationships are affected when tragedy is no longer a headline on television, and happens to either to the family next door or a close family member. Mandira is very close to Sarah. In fact she was instrumental in Mandira moving to Banville to open a hair salon. Mandira and Rizvan also attended the farewell dinner for Sarah’s husband Mark, when he left to cover the war in Afghanistan.

Although My Name is Khan is a love story set in a certain political canvass like 9/11,it is also about identity, despite a hostile environment. Rizvan is aware of the post 9/11 resentment against certain groups, but he not only insists on who he is, he corrects English speakers about the pronunciation of his name Khan. Mandira wants Rizvan to go home after they are re-united, but he refuses. He is determined to tell the U.S. president that his name is Khan, “And I’m not a terrorist.” He finally meets President Barack Obama who is moved by how Sameer died.

I was pleasantly surprised to find the film in Sandton, a theatre that screens Hollywood movies only. Maybe it is because it was distributed by Fox Star Studios, quite a feat for a project that was not conceived in Los Angeles. Rosebank and Montecasion also screened it.

I was reluctant to go to the screening because Eastern Mosaic, a television programme here in South Africa reported that some scenes were shot in South Africa to depict what happened in Wilhemina Georgia and the havoc caused by the hurricane. I was not prepared to watch another movie about another overweight black woman, audiences make fun of. As predicted, she was there alright but in context. There is even a scene where Rizvan wears Mama Jenny’s dress which is obviously too big for him, but I was not upset. It was all done in good taste.

Kurbaan and My Name is Khan are not the last films about 9/11 that would come from Mumbai, but they will go into my shopping cart for one million original stories because they are the point of view of both perpetrators of violence and the man on the street. In Africa, we say, when elephants fight, it is the grass that gets hurt. Rizvan is the grass.

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