My Name is Khan

I am currently reading the Nelson DeMille 2010 novel – The Lion which has numerous references to the events of September 11th, 2001 in New York. It is a detective thriller about the hunt for a Libyan assassin. This novel is set in the present time. But this book made me think of that tragic day, so I decided to have a look at the Karan Johar film – My Name is Khan. The film was released in many parts of the world, including  India and the United States, on February 11th and 12th. 2010.

The film stars Shahrukh Khan and Kajol. This is their 5th pairing on screen since they first appeared together in 1993. Their signature film is Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge which was released in 1995. This film is the longest running film in Indian Cinema history. It won 11 Awards for film excellence and is considered the most popular Indian film ever.

My Name is Khan is the story of Rizvan Khan, played by Shahrukh, an Indian Muslim living in California with his Hindu wife, Mandira Khan, played by Kajol. They meet in San Francisco when he is a salesman of beauty products, and she is a haircutter in a beauty salon. The time frame is sometime in the late 1990’s or in 2000 but is definitely prior to 09-11-01.

Khan’s character Rizvan suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome which is a form of high functioning autism. His disease is manifested, not in his intelligence, but in his socialization: he has difficulties in making eye contact with people, he cannot bear touching people or being touched, he has an overpowering fear of all things yellow, as well as loud and unusual noises.

Despite this handicap, and after his mother dies, he is brought from India  to live and work in the USA, by his younger brother who owns a very successful herbal beauty products business. Rizvan is not exactly prime material for a sales job – he can only be totally honest, and he is unable to read what other people are thinking by their moods, unspoken words, or body language.

But he makes a go of it. He also meets Mandira, a vibrant and beautiful woman who is raising a son on her own after her husband abandoned them.  After a long and often delightfully funny courtship, they marry. Soon after they move to a fictional San Francisco suburb, buy a home, and Mandira opens her own hair salon. The three of them, Rizvan, Mandira, and her son, Sameer or Sam as he calls himself, have an idyllic life.

Then came September 11th, 2001. After that nothing was the same in America  – for Americans, for Indo-Americans, or for Muslim Americans.

After a despicable personal tragedy befalls this Khan family, then the hair salon falls on hard times, and out of desperation, fear, anger, and stress – a distraught Mandira tells Rizvan – that she should have never married a Muslim man, that she can’t handle it anymore, and that he should leave immediately. Go right now! Go!, she shrieks at him.

When he asks when can I return she says, “After you’ve told everyone in this country that your name is Khan, and that you are not a terrorist. Since you can’t do that, then go and tell the President of the United States that your name is Khan and you are not a terrorist.”

Rizvan, because of his Asperger’s takes her words as a command, and sets off immediately to follow her orders. In his simplicity, he believes this is the only way that he will be able to regain his wife’s love and return home.

That’s your premise as well as the first half of the film. Director Karan Johar has done a magnificent job in this first half of the film. It is visually stunning with the gorgeous San Francisco as the main back drop. The music is mesmerizing as well as mystical and spiritual. As always the chemistry between India ‘s sweetheart Kajol, and India’s king of the cinema, Shahrukh Khan, is a joy to watch. Each of them is especially good in their roles with Shahrukh having the added weight of playing a handicapped person.

All the story lines all come together in the second half:

  • American resentment, fear, and distrust toward Muslims in the post 9/11 era
  • The centuries old Hindu vs Muslim issues that have created rifts and worse in so many families
  • The shattered love story of Mandira and Rizvan
  • The difficulties in the socialization of those with Asperger’s Syndrome as well as the personal difficulties he must meet in seeking to meet the President.

Unfortunately this is a lot to be put on Director Johar’s and screenplay author Shibani Bathija’s plates. It is not so much that the film fails in the second half. Instead think of the difficult situations that the characters have been placed in. Think of the mood of the country following the searing and tragic events of September 11th.

There’s a certain amount disbelief that must of course find its way into the minds of the viewers of this film. It is controversial in that many Americans are portrayed as prejudicial and hateful. For this, many have  have called the film anti-American. Others have said that the depiction of Aspergers was not realistic. Many believe that the romantic element of Rizvan being able to capture Mandira’s  heart wasn’t believable either.

I am not going to condemn either Johar’s depictions of Americans, nor will I condemn  Americans who may have negative reactions about the way their countrymen have been portrayed on screen because we all are entitled to our opinions, and any country is the sum total of all of its people, not just some of its people.

So, what is it that you want to say to the President ... My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist ...

Johar’s film is worthwhile. It consists of many praiseworthy elements, and yet, it is clearly not without some flaws. But it is easily a provocative think piece once you peel away the visual beauty of the film, and once you decide that Johar and and Bathija have intentionally painted some of the characters and some of the plot lines with intentional broad strokes to make sure that in many cases, the viewers hot buttons were pressed to elicit strong reactions.

In the film’s trailer, we see the following statements: We are stronger than are fears – Greater than our limits –

Whether or not this is good film-making is something you can decide for yourself. Available in DVD or can be rented from Netflix or Blockbuster.

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