Want to see a real romance that makes you laugh and cry and root for the heroes and is beautifully shot and full of all the things that Hollywood feel-good films lack? My Name is Khan has got your number.
Rizvan Khan, played by the handsome Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan, is a good-hearted Muslim man from India who has Asperger’s syndrome, a developmental disorder on the autistic spectrum. Early on, during the Hindu-Muslim riots, his mom teaches him there’s no difference between people – only good people who do good things and bad people who do bad things. This is probably a specific lesson that would go over some Westerners’ heads (like, say, my own) and later comes into play after he moves to America and falls in love with a bubbly and beautiful Hindu hairdresser named Mandira (Kajol).
Their courtship is awkward, lovely, and funny, as she tests him to show her something in San Francisco that she’s never seen before. If he wins, she’ll marry him; when he finally does, she asks him to marry her. Love conquers all, for them; neither she nor her son, Sameer, even question Khan’s Asperger’s symptoms, and, in fact, one of the few missteps in the movie are when it’s is played for laughs. Otherwise, Shah Rukh Khan’s portrayal of Asperger’s – from his avoidance of eye contact, reluctance to touch or be touched, repetition of phrases, and fear of crowds and loud noises – seems fairly accurate to this untrained eye. His Khan is an understated Rain Man, mostly minus the savant. Even when his brother cuts him off for marrying a Hindu woman, his sister-in-law (an elegant psychology professor who wears a hijab and is the first to explain Asperger’s to Khan) comes to make peace at the wedding with a beautiful cake. Things are fairly rosy for the new family.
But this is before 9/11 and before a Muslim last name, a Muslim husband, or a Muslim step-dad means too much to world at large. After 9/11, of course, this all changes, but what’s perhaps most interesting is the insight My Name is Khan offers into the tension between people of South Asian descent of different religions. In fact, the BBC reported Friday, “more than 1,800 people have been arrested in Mumbai for vandalizing cinemas advertising Shahrukh Khan’s latest movie, My Name Is Khan. This weekend, 21,000 special police will protect cinemagoers, and there will be security checks at the box office. ‘This is not Shahrukh [sic], but the Khan in him that’s saying all this,’ said a spokesman for the Shiv Sena, the militant Hindu nationalist organization in Maharashtra which is behind the trouble. The Sena told Khan – an Indian Muslim – to move to Pakistan, and issued a threat: ‘There will be dire consequences if Shahrukh [sic] defies the orders of the Sena chief.'”
9/11 tears Mandira and Khan apart. The name of the movie is taken from his repeated phrase, “My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist.” Mandira, in a gesture of sheer frustration, tells him to go tell the president. So Khan puts on his sneakers and goes to do just that.
The movie wanders more towards Forrest Gump territory in this second half as Khan’s attempts to meet the President are thwarted at every turn. However, while Khan does serve up increasingly out-there plot twists, the political subtext and Khan’s own insight helps the movie avoid the treacly, manipulative sentimentality of Gump. It must be noted, though, that there are parallels, such as Khan’s resourceful and wise mother, the wide shots of Khan traveling down empty roads in the middle of the US, and Khan’s bonding with an African-American family in the deep South. The movie makes a huge misstep when “Mama Jenny” and, as Khan calls him, “Funny hair Joel” are painted with such broad, empty strokes, as are the other African-American people in their small town.
Khan builds to such a crescendo that by the time I left the theater 2 hours and 35 minutes later, not counting the intermission, I was exhausted by the whirlwind of events and emotions. I left drained, slightly tear-stained, but happy. Seeing it at a theater that specializes in Asian and Indian cinema, filled with families and couples whose ethnicities and religions were as varied as those onscreen, added to the pleasure of watching such a hopeful, lovely movie. It was a pleasure and a departure from my typical movie-going experience.