My Name is Khan

Twentieth Century Fox. Out February 11, 2010. Starring: Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol, Yuvaan Makaar and Zarina Wahab. Directed by Karan Johar.
Rated M (Mature themes and violence). 161 min.

Coming down the Bollywood track, this film joins a recent spate of movies about autism. It tells the story of Rizwan Khan, who has Asperger’s syndrome. As a child (Tanay Chheda), Rizwan lives with his mother (Zarina Wahab) in the Borivali section of Mumbai, and moves as a young adult (Shah Rukh Khan) to the US to live with his brother's family in San Francisco. While in the US, Rizwan falls rapturously in love with Mandira (Kajol), a beautiful hairdresser, and they eventually marry. Very broad themes underlie the story of their love. Essentially, the movie focuses on the relationship between the Western world and Islam and the changes in that relationship that flowed from the trauma of the 9/11 attacks on New York in 2001. The happiness of Rizwan and Mandira is broken by the events of September 11, when anti-Muslim sentiment boils over and Sam (Yuvaan Makaar), Mandira’s son by another marriage, is killed in a racial attack by his fellow students. The personal tragedy breaks the marriage, and to win back Mandira’s love, Rizwan journeys across America to tell the President of the US that “he is not a terrorist”. Not until he does that will Mandira, caught up in her own hatred, accept him back. Mandira sets him what she sees to be an impossible task, and en route Rizwan becomes the catalyst for showing us the tensions of the world, as seen through the eyes of suburban and rural America.

Despite the fact that September 11 divided the world, the film’s messages are not about religious bias or hatred, terrorism, racial discrimination, or autism. What drives Rizwan is his knowledge that the world is divided into good people and bad people, and his goal in life is to find the former. It is good, not evil, that triumphs in this movie, and the film carries the message very strongly that what ultimately counts in life is love, humanity and goodness. Tragedy hits the couple when they lose Sam, just as tragedy hit the US as a nation in 2001. But as terrorism makes its mark, and attitudes to Muslims and other races change, life continues to go on. The movie shows how two people, caught in the turmoil, manage to repair their lives.

At one level, this film can be described as mawkish, ridiculously sentimental and at times histrionically acted. It is a mishmash of most of the world’s problems all rolled into one, including exploding aeroplanes, racial discrimination, raging hurricanes, prison torture, the election of America’s first black President, and alienating patriotic fervour and bias. But in the awfulness of the mix, there is a wonderful exhilaration, and at the core of that emotion is a giant of a performance by Shah Rukh Khan, who emotionally captures the adult Rizwan with his almost every movement. The film unmercifully tugs at the heart strings in its wide, social sweep, but there is a tender, endearing moment for everyone tucked away somewhere in the mix.

The soundtrack is composed by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, and the lyrics by Niranjan Iyengar. Not unexpectedly for a movie of this kind, it captures some of its Bollywood style by dancing and singing in the streets, and music features prominently. The film is also partly a road movie, as Rizwan winds his way across America to meet Mandira’s challenge and explain things to the President. There is excellent cinematography by Ravi K. Chandran to support the film’s mood.

This is a complex movie, with many themes. It lacks coherence overall, but plugs its core messages about humanity relentlessly well. The movie is a story of love that goes wrong in the aftermath of one of the world’s biggest terrorist attacks. It aims to appeal to international audiences well beyond India, and it does so sensitively and enthusiastically. The film goes over the top in many places, but you can’t stop responding to it positively, as the director’s obvious manipulations of your emotions do their work.

Twentieth Century Fox. Out February 11, 2010.

Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.  

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