Over the weekend I watched a Hindi movie called “New York”. Going in, I was warned that it was going to be a bad one. But I was not prepared for what I witnessed.
‘New York’ is the tragic story of Sameer a.k.a. Sam, a young South Asian-American going to college in NYC with all the potential in the world gone awry when he is pegged as a suspect in the 9-11 hijackings. Never mind that Sameer’s Indian, an American citizen, and has all kinds of alibis… he’s brown damnit!
As a suspected terrorist, the FBI, led by agent played by Irfan Khan, hire Sameer’s best college buddy Omar to spy on him and bring him in. Omar, reluctant to turn on a friend who he knows is innocent, later finds out that Sameer actually has become a terrorist after being falsely held in a Guantanamo-like detention facility for 9 months. After that episode, Sam decides it’s time to get payback from the country that screwed him.
Sameer is played by John Abraham, the latest Bollywood beefcake. He looks like an Indian incredible hulk. The guy is massive. Some of the movie’s best scenes were of him showing off his versatility as an actor. In one scene he demonstrates his physical prowess by beating one of his college chums in a mad dash footrace through the halls of their Hogwarts-esque college as the whole student body cheered them on. In the next scene he was sitting stoically in front of a chessboard and checkmating the school chess champion (he was Chinese). After Hulk won, he even offered to start again three moves back to give the guy a chance… how generous!
There were a number of impossibly absurd parts of this movie. First of all, since it is still a Bollywood movie, there was no way there wasn’t going to be a love story. So they cram whimsical songs and scenes of touch football in the park at college in between adrenaline-pumping action with C-4 explosives and torture scenes. What a mess. My favorite part of the movie was when Sam comes out of Guantanamo ready to become a terrorist, and goes to Brooklyn on a tip from another inmate. He goes into a bread shop with two hardcore Arab-looking guys behind the counter and asks for ‘New York’s best brown bread’. That’s the code to say he wants in on the terrorism. But the Arab guys need to test his persistence so they just pack him a loaf of the bread and charge him $3.45. But Sam won’t be denied. He goes back day after day asking for ‘New York’s best brown bread’ until they finally let him in. He had shown he was worthy to be one of them, one loaf at a time.
My second favorite scene was the very end after Sam and his wife get gunned down by the FBI on the rooftop of the building he was about to blow up. Their precocious young son, Daniel (pronounced Donny-yell), is adopted by Omar, the friend who turncoated on Sam. And Irfan Khan, the FBI agent who masterminded Sam’s framing and ultimately his bloody death, walks off into the sunset with Omar and Donny-yell , hand-in-hand to have a pasta lunch (Irfan hates pasta, but he made an exception). All’s well that ends well!
This movie was grade-A garbage. But the next day I thought about it, and realized that in fact this movie should go international and be seen by every American that watched (and loved) Slumdog Millionaire. I enjoyed Slumdog, but my Mom didn’t. She was bothered by the fact that the movie took one aspect of a vast, complex society, and amplified and glorified it to make it seem like that was what India was all about. She felt offended that India was portrayed in such a skewed way. Sure there are slums and crime and corruption, but that’s not what defines India. It’s fine to show this to people who have a deeper context of Indian society, but not to the uninitiated. I agreed with her point, but it didn’t hit home until I saw ‘New York’. This movie is the American version of Slumdog. It takes some negative aspects of post-911 America (the profiling, the torture), and blows it up to make America out as a cold-hearted police state that will turn on its best and brightest in a flash. It says that America’s terrorism problem is rooted in its own prejudice, and that it takes really good people and turns them into terrorists. All of this is probably true, but it’s by no means the whole truth. The portrayal is incredibly skewed.
I walked out of that theater wondering what the hell that crowd full of Indians had going through their heads. My reluctant conclusion was many were thinking, “Now I’ve got America figured out… I knew that’s how it works there!” Perpetuating stereotypes through propaganda made palatable through hip songs and pretty faces.
And this is why I highly recommend ‘New York’ to the world’s moviegoers. If it ever made it to the U.S. it would flop like a fat man in a pool, just like Slumdog did in India. And for the same reasons. But that’s exactly the point. Here’s to hoping that Slumdog re-releases as a 2-DVD package with ‘New York’.