Sunday, March 28, 2010

Bollywood Movie of the Week: My Name is Khan

Yes, Bollywood fans -- this is the MOVIE THAT I'M IN. WOO! And so is my friend Dave. And perhaps someone you know, if you live in the Bay Area.* Don't get too excited, we're just extras. BUT, nevertheless you can totally see me, even if tiny or partially obscured (Dave, on the other hand, is almost front and center) -- onscreen with Kajol. And Shah Rukh Khan. EEEEE! ;o)

My Name is Khan, 2010

Directed by: Karan Johar

Produced by: Hiroo Yash Johar, Gauri Khan

Starring: Shahrukh Khan, Kajol

It's Kinda Like: People have said Forrest Gump, or alternatively Rain Man, though I don't think either of those comparisons is apt . . . Maybe like Mr. Charley Goes To Washington?

Note: If you wanna see it, it *might* still be playing somewhere near you; it opened about six weeks ago and so it's probably mostly gone from theaters. I found a couple listings: the Plaza 4 in Campbell, the place that used to be the Naz 8 in Fremont and is now the Big Cinemas 7, and some elsewhere in the country. But if you missed it, don't be sad -- I'm sure it'll be on Netflix in no time! This was a Big Deal movie -- highest-grossing overseas opening for an Indian film, and second-highest at home. You'll get to see it, I bet!

I was totally excited to see this movie (cause I was IN it) and also totally surprised by how it turned out. This is director Karan Johar's fourth film, and a departure from his other work -- he's also directed Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006), Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham(2001), and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998; another SRK/Kajol megahit). Those films were your more typical Bollywood romance/comedy/tragedy/romances (can I say romantragicomedy?), all starring SRK, centered around individuals in a small circle of acquaintances. (Even though KKKG takes place in India and England, the focus is on the people, not so much the locations.) While starting from similar ideas of love and family, My Name is Khan takes on some larger World Issues, with both a personal perspective AND a global one. Johar makes the film feel intensely personal -- for a whole lot of different characters, not just the main stars -- while he delves into complicated events and issues that resonate across the world.

It's always amazing how much storyline gets packed into the average Bollywood film, and this seems to be many more films than usual, packed into one. The personal level is the story of our hero Riswan Khan (Shah Rukh Khan), his childhood in India, his emigration to California, and his relationship with his own family and with Mandira (Kajol). The individual-versus-the-world story is the result of Khan's travels through the country, on a mission to meet the American president and say to his face, "My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist." These two branching storylines provide the frame on which to hang a whoooole lot of story.

As we travel with our hero Khan, we range far and wide through time, space, and subject matter. My Name is Khan is set in pre-vs-post-9/11 America; home base is San Francisco and the fictionalish Bay Area suburb of "Banville." There is really a lot of California and SF in the film, too, both in terms of screen time and in terms of detail. They were shooting here for several months, and it shows. Lots of San Francisco streets, buildings, locations, transportation -- it really feels like they're there. (Love Aaj Kal (2009) is also "set" in SF, for what feels like 15 minutes, despite the Golden Gate Bridge in the title logo.) San Francisco feels like a place where they live, and where others live; they go running around Stowe Lake, they visit the Palace of Fine Arts, they ride the bus and the cable car, they walk across streets pitted with old railway tracks. It's a home at street level, not just at tourist-attraction level.

Travelling is a major part of the film, though, and we certainly travel in both time and space along this storyline: from the Bay Area to Washington, D.C., Georgia, Los Angeles, and India; both in the film's present, late 2009, and all the way back to the main character's childhood.

As our hero travels, Riswan Khan also visits many major themes. He has what we now I guess get to call an autism spectrum disorder; he's got Asperger's Syndrome. (At this, I thought, "OooOOooohh, so THAT's why he was talking so strangely in the scene where we're waiting in line behind him! ACTING!") He does a great job embodying the character, too -- he's embraced his character's physical tics and emotional difficulties, but his Riswan is still a full character who's resourceful, intelligent AND funny. Unlike in Rab ne bana di jodi, where SRK plays a similarly endearing introvert BUT also gets to break out of character and play the Cool Guy, Riswan persists throughout. We can learn about his character from the character himself, without flashy "Look at the REAL Shah Rukh Khan!" shortcuts.

More, the film's not really about his syndrome, in the way that Some Inspiring Film Or Other might be; he doesn't "overcome" his disability or anything (although "We Shall Overcome" is actually a major part of the movie, haha); it's just a facet of his personality -- he just IS that way. Speaking of things he "just is," Khan is also a Muslim (both the actor and the character). It's a little more about that, in two intersecting ways: there's the Muslim/Hindu tension between Indians, and then there's the anti-Muslim prejudice in America, post-9/11. Usually the Muslim-Hindu tension isn't a subject that comes up in films about America, so it's interesting to see human relations portrayed along these lines, especially when it gets complicated by 9/11 and irrational prejudice, as when the movie portrays prejudice against Sikhs, who are neither.

As Shah Rukh Khan has said (as quoted in Wikipedia), "it’s not about a disabled man’s fight against disability. It’s a disabled man’s fight against the disability that exists in the world — terrorism, hatred, fighting." While following an endearing character whom we care about, the film touches upon TSA airport searches, autism awareness, Hurricane Katrina, the war in Afghanistan, hate crime, investigative journalism, sibling rivalry, conflicts of religion, snitching, presidential politics . . . yet it's never really preachy or obvious, except about one thing. As my roommate's observed, Bollywood movies at their core often reward the hero for essentially holding fast to being a good person -- and this film is no exception. This is global life at street level, and the bottom line is that people should be nice to each other. Period.

The Verdict: Critics generally agree with me -- it's a good film to see. Fun and enlightening to see some very American things from an outside perspective (and to hear American dialogue written by Indians). Also fun to see San Francisco in a movie (and maybe your friends and neighbors)! A little long -- silly AMCs, with no intermission! -- but well-acted, entertaining, and beautifully shot. (And often funny. "No - Khan. Khhhhhhhhan. From the epiglottis.")

Random Note: This is one of those Modern films with no dance sequences, just montages under the songs, which is fine -- but there's been an odd choice to not subtitle the song lyrics. Seems retro to me; they used to do that for old Bollywood films. I wonder if they did it so as not to be distracting from the imagery? I mean, you can usually tell what feeling the song is meant to convey, and there's often some important-ish plot movement during these montages. It just seemed odd, that's all.

(This is just a trailer, not the entire movie sequence, but it's still un-subtitled. Ya see?)

*It is So Funny how many people have added themselves to the IMDB listing for this film, all as uncredited extras. Hey, I'm a "Sports Fan (uncredited)" too, guys! Maybe it's time to add myself to IMDB, eh?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Avatar vs. The Dark Crystal . . . Jim vs. Jim, FIGHT!

Dear readers,

Last week I saw Jim Henson's 1982 film The Dark Crystal for what was essentially the first time. Yes, I'd seen bits and pieces of it for years -- my best friend's mom was a big fan and it seemed to be on a lot when I was at his house. But this was my first time watching it from start to finish, believe it or not (I think when I was little I found it both boring and scary).

It made me think of Avatar, that film I didn't want to see and ended up seeing anyway. I found myself comparing the two films in several ways. There's the obvious storyline comparison, both of them being extremely archetypal hero-saves-strange-world myths (Avatar having been compared to everything from Dances With Wolves to Fern Gully). There's the strange-new-world-itself comparison. And then there's the actual physical (or "physical") enactment of that world -- Henson with puppets, Cameron with computers -- that I thought about the MOST.

I listened to the Fresh Air interview with James Cameron (twice), and watched the "making-of" documentary on The Dark Crystal, so I feel like I have some background on both, and the similarities continue. Both films created an entire ecosystem worth of plants, animals, and landscapes. Both ecosystems involved interesting combinations of plants and animals, blurring the lines between those distinctions. Both director/auteurs did way more research, development, and design of said ecosystem than anyone will ever see or notice. But I just can't get over the fact that, while James Cameron and his team achieved simply AMAZING effects with their creature design and their motion capture technology, Jim Henson also managed to achieve amazing effects, AND it was almost 30 years ago, AND everything he made is also tangible. Someone actually had to MAKE all that stuff.

Look at that world! (I think the end of this clip is part of what scared the crap out of me as a small child; I didn't remember much, but I remembered THAT part. ;o)

Yes, it's true -- someone also had to make all the stuff for Avatar, and create textures, and physically sculpt (there was probably some sculpting involved, right, digital artists?) and computer sculpt, and animate, and it probably took hours and hours and hours and hours. BUT again, I can't get over the fact that someone (several someones) built and operated all those amazing puppets, and actually had to, you know, deal with stuff falling off and breaking and getting wet and etc. They had to first design the world, and THEN figure out how to make it happen, within the realm of physical possibility. I mean, there are landscapes in The Dark Crystal, like the scenes by the riverbank, where they first had to conceive of what it should look like, and THEN go find things to make it out of -- whether it was sculpting rocks in certain formations, or finding real vegetation and altering it to give the effect they were looking for. They built this stuff with their HANDS.

I mean, look at these puppets. Just look at them.

And not only did they build this stuff with their hands, but they also had to animate them with their hands -- or legs or entire bodies, in most cases. Live for each take. And Henson and crew were already doing lots of complicated stuff with cable-controlled or radio-controlled puppet parts, so that there were a whole lot of people working on each creature. And this was only the early '80s; I remember watching shows on Henson's effects in the late '80s/early '90s, and there was already some motion-cap-to-live-computer-puppetry going on. I can't help thinking that if he hadn't died so early (stupid pneumonia!), he would have made some amazing innovations or even beaten Cameron to the extreme-motion-cap punch.

And the stories of both are rather silly anyway (sorry, Mr. Henson!), since it's the details that make the experience, in both cases. It's fun to compare the two: extreme hi-tech vs. extreme lo-tech (plus hi-tech-for-its-time).

Who do YOU think wins this fight?

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