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unaustralian cinema

mike walsh: asian film in australia

Mike Walsh lectures in Screen and Media at Flinders University in Adelaide.

Shahrukh Khan, My Name is Khan Shahrukh Khan, My Name is Khan
copyright Dharma Productions

The movie in question was the Hindi blockbuster My Name is Khan. It opened recently at number 10 at the Australian box office with the second highest per screen average of any film that week, a fact that film website Urban Cinefile remarked upon despite its having “been released under the radar” (which I take to mean that, like all Hindi films, it was not reviewed in any of the mainstream media, including Urban Cinefile). It seems that our film critics, taking their lead perhaps from the Victorian Police, are still in denial over the existence of Indians in our midst.

In the last issue of RealTime, Jack Sargeant made a case for what he labelled Australia’s invisible cinema—self-funded horror movies made by young wannabes [RT95,]. But here is a much more significant invisible cinema, one which equally puts large numbers of bums on seats.

By my reckoning, 19 Indian films were released in Australian cinemas last year, grossing around $3.5 million. The marginalisation of these films by the mainstream critical establishment is typical not only of Indian films but also of Chinese films such as Bodyguards and Assassins or Overheard, which are also consistently released these days in subtitled versions in Australian multiplexes.

The increased prominence of these films is in direct proportion to the growth of Asian communities in Australia. At the last census almost 1.7 million people identified themselves as having Asian ancestry. In central Melbourne alone, over 31% of the population was of Asian extraction.

Surely the cinema has a role to play in incorporating new communities within Australian society, rather than perpetuating the exclusionary racist bases of what has traditionally been defined as Australian.

A sub-titled French film like A Prophet can be released with fewer prints than My Name is Khan and take much less at the box office but David and Margaret will be all over it. European films fit comfortably into established arthouse distribution and exhibition channels and conventional modes of critical reception. There is still the assumption, however, that popular sub-titled Asian films, and by extension their audiences, exist within a diasporic ghetto whose walls cannot and probably should not be breached. On leaving the cinema after My Name is Khan, I overheard two ushers discussing the need for care with the audience because “many of them probably won’t speak English.”

On the contrary, the family of Sikhs who eagerly came over to discuss the film spoke better English than me. I am learning that such conversations are not uncommon when attending Indian films, where South Asian audiences are often eager to embrace anyone who shows curiosity about their cultural pleasures.

These issues have a particular saliency when thinking about My Name is Khan, a film which deals with the tribulations of Indians living in western societies. It tells the story of Rizwan Khan, an Indian Muslim living in the United States. He has Asperger’s Syndrome, giving Indian superstar Shah Rukh Khan the opportunity to channel Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man and Tom Hanks’ Forrest Gump. In the aftermath of September 11, Rizwan and his family suffer vicious attacks and exclusion from the white majority. He sets off to wander the US in search of the President so he can proclaim to him, “My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist.” This becomes an anthem embraced by the marginalised and the excluded who now stand up for their place in society.

The film is made by India’s leading commercial producer-director, Karan Johar. (Spell-check has just suggested to me that I substitute “jihad” for his surname. Note to Bill Gates: You might want to get that fixed.) Johar has become something of a specialist in making films set in the US. Kal Ho Naa Ho (Tomorrow May Not Be, 2003) is set entirely in New York and has Shah Rukh Khan performing an Indianised version of Pretty Woman in front of an American flag. Last year Johar’s Dharma Productions made Dostana, a sex comedy set among hedonistic Indian expatriates in Miami.

It should be no news that commercial Hindi films are often set in western cities. Australian governments are almost as eager to attract Indian film crews as they are to attract Indian students. Within Hindi cinema, these cities are then transformed into glamorous locales full of Indians living the cosmopolitan good life, synthesising the freedoms of modernity with their cultural traditions. America, in a film like My Name is Khan, functions as the arena in which Indians’ globalised aspirations are played out. A threat to it is therefore a threat to India. The nightmare which this film confronts is that the flaws of communal prejudice in India’s own past are suddenly reasserted in a fantasyland of its future.

Why am I thought to be aberrant for liking these films? Hindi cinema cranks up style and emotion beyond a point generally thought to be acceptable in the drier and more ironic reaches of western cinema. When was the last time you saw George Clooney cry? Well, barely a scene goes past in Hindi film without tears.

And we all know that Bollywood cinema commits the unpardonable sin of singing and dancing. It is a cinema which defies social realism in favour of a more utopian take on the world. At one point in My Name is Khan, someone gives Rizwan a video camera, telling him that when you are scared, it is easier to look at the world on a screen and then it’s easier to handle.

The film’s energy comes partially from its craziness as it hoovers up everything in its path—Guantanamo Bay, Hurricane Katrina, Barack Obama’s election—and puts it at the service of a highly charged set of emotions constantly on the verge of spiralling out of control. And finally, this is the major attraction of Bollywood: the assertion that humanity is, at its core, a mass of emotion, and one of the major functions of cinema is its unique ability to reach to that core through heightened manipulations of style.

Let me turn to another foreign film which, by way of contrast, everyone has seen and upon which every critic has delivered an opinion. At one point in James Cameron’s Avatar the baddie confronts our hero and asks him, “How does it feel to betray your own race?” Not a bad question in a film which tries to set up a safe fantasy space for American liberals in Obama’s America to try out what it feels like to become a more righteous colour. Though, of course, Avatar is also an assertion of the continued dominance of the strong and the rich. The blue people embrace the leadership of the white guy just like Australian audiences shelled out $110 million to its American distributor.

For Australians the cinema has always asked us to betray, if not our race, then at least our country by imagining other places that are more modern and filled with strange and fantastic aliens we call movie stars. Perhaps it is time to move beyond the conservative limitations of these fantasies and to truly betray our race if this means enlarging our sense of what the world and Australia might contain.

The presence of popular Indian and Chinese cinemas in our multiplexes offers the possibilities of including and embracing what has been seen, for too long, as external to Australia. To be Australian, after all, has always been to be open to the influences of the new and the unAustralian.

Originally published in the March 15, 2010 online edition.

Mike Walsh lectures in Screen and Media at Flinders University in Adelaide.

RealTime issue #96 April-May 2010 pg. 17

© Mike Walsh; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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