So now we know: “John Harrison”, Benedict Cumberbatch’s character in the new Star Trek film, is actually Khan Noonien Singh.
Khan is one of the more legendary villains in the annals of Star Trek. He first appeared in 1967, in an episode called Space Seed, when Captain James T Kirk chanced upon an abandoned ship while boldly going forth where tv series (and blockbuster sequels) go.
In that ship were Khan and a few other survivors of a eugenics project conducted in the 1990s. Eventually, it was revealed that Khan was a superhuman from India, who was so mighty and dangerous that he had been chucked into deep space with others like him to keep the world safe.
Yes, “John Harrison” is actually Indian. Cue in outrage, because dammit all, why is the thoroughly Caucasian Benedict Cumberbatch playing a desi character? So what if Katrina Kaif — who thanks to her Kashmiri father and English mother is probably only half a shade darker than Cumberbatch — regularly plays the parts of Indian women who technically should have a far more sincerely brown complexion than hers? At least Kaif has a connection of sorts with South Asia.
What’s Cumberbatch’s Indian connection? None. So why, when there are so many brown actors in the world at large and in Bollywood in particular, did director JJ Abrams pick Cumberbatch to play Khan?
Some may argue that aside from being a fine actor, Cumberbatch has an international fan following thanks to the tv series Sherlock. However, this doesn’t change the fact that no matter which part of India you plonk him in, Cumberbatch would stand out like a piece of chalk in a box of crayons. Also, considering the fact that Abrams picked a non-entity like Chris Pine to play Captain Kirk, why not take a chance and cast a brown guy as Khan?
Cumberbatch’s fans will direct you to their favourite episode of Sherlock to explain his wonderfulness, but let’s face it: Star Trek Into Darkness is no Hamlet. Acting chops can be kept on the backburner when the real focus of your character is to pack a punch and blow things up. However, in case you’re not overwhelmed by lust-tinged admiration for Cumberbatch and are instead feeling a tsunami of postcolonial rage wash over you, let us consider the case of Khan Noonien Singh.
First, one may conclude from the name that research and realism were not critical to the writing of this character. Then why expect the casting to follow any kind of logic as far as race is concerned? But just because the writer of Space Seed, Carey Wilber, couldn’t be bothered to figure out whether an Indian gent, in any decade, was likely to have both Khan and Singh in their name — and Noonien? Seriously? — it doesn’t mean the makers of Star Trek Into Darkness couldn’t have done a little research before casting Khan’s character.
After all, it’s not like we’re short of options of men who think they’re supermen in India. One could argue that’s one of the central characteristics of brown men. Then there’s the historical aspect. If we follow the timeline suggested in “Space Seed”, Khan and his band of Indian supermen would have been created in the 1980s, since the Eugenics Wars took place in the 1990s in the Star Trek universe. As it happens, the 1980s did see a few supermen in Bollywood.
For example, Puneet Issar put on the blue tights and red chaddis to save India and win his lady love’s affections of his lady love. Then there was Govinda, whose role may not have been that of the caped crusader in Dariya Dil (1988) but that didn’t stop him from dressing up as Superman in a song sequence. Not just that, when he wasn’t busting dance moves in a garden, Superman Govinda flew over Mumbai, thanks to some special effects that make Supermen of Malegaon‘s effects seem cutting edge). Incidentally, his girlfriend in the film was Kimi Katkar and in this song, she wore a Spider-Girl outfit. Beat that.
Just imagine, had Abrams given Issar or Govinda a call, Star Trek Into Darkness could have relaunched their careers the way Slumdog Millionaire did Anil Kapoor’s.
If vintage isn’t JJ Abram’s thing, then he could have considered Hrithik Roshan, who played a superhero in Krrish (2006). In fact, as Krrish, Roshan has done that smoulder-and-stride walk that is similar to Cumberbatch’s pose in the Star Trek Into Darkness poster. And then, to confuse the bejesus out of all those who follow Bollywood, Roshan could have said, “My name is Khan.”
But no, Abrams didn’t look east. Instead of boldly going forth to Bollywood, he went with Cumberbatch. Here’s what’s interesting about the choice that Abrams made: the man named Khan who reduces skyscrapers to rubble and terrorises Americans is a white man and not a bearded chap with an olive complexion who may be considered suspicious by airport security personnel in large parts of the world. He is, as Cumberbatch said in an interview, a “home-grown terrorist”. He doesn’t seem foreign, he’s doesn’t look like ‘the other’; in fact, he looks no different from the others who make up the American majority. But his name is Khan and he is here to wreak terror.