The pre-release hype for My Name is Khan (MNIK) was quite high. Karan Johar was once again directing the on-screen reunion of stars Khan and Kajol. It was Kajol’s comeback (if we forget her 2008 entry U Me Aur Hum). There was a huge budget. There were hints of star Khan’s most overtly “political” movie. Shahrukh Khan’s recent antecedent run-in with security officials at a New Jersey airport—coincidence or publicity ploy? A wonderful soundtrack. Glossy publicity shoots. Endless online teasers. All that hoopla boils down to this: MNIK has a great premise, a fabulous cast, and as a travelogue for some of the Bay Area’s most picturesque settings, Johar’s film scores well. MNIK ultimately triumphs not at great filmmaking but at great marketing, which is a
pity, given how ambitious the film’s scope really is.

Shahrukh Khan plays Rizwan Khan, an immigrant from Mumbai who comes to live in San Francisco. Rizwan has Asperger’s Syndrome, a type of autism. In the aftermath of unimaginable atrocities committed against Muslims in a shaken-to-the-core post-9/11 America, Rizwan becomes obsessed with “proving” to the world that all Muslims are not terrorists. Faithful to his obsession, and against all odds, Rizwan sets out on a quest to find some face time with none other than the President of the United States. Rizwan’s journey, spanning a broad, well-picturized spectrum of American landscapes, socio-cultural strata and a couple of very different world-views, makes for a unique odyssey filled with promise.

The uniqueness to the story comes in juxtaposing two very non-congruent themes—the deterioration of civility in America towards anyone appearing from “over there” after 9/11, and the concept of Rizwan’s neuro-atypical personality freeing him up from the built-in self-edits that control obsessive manifestations for most of us. Asperger’s gives Rizwan a highly-engaged and excitable outlook on life. Like Anil Kapoor in Eeshwar, Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump or Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, calling people for who they are in their face without a hint of remorse, depending on circumstances, can be either a blessing or highly embarrassing.

Writer Shibani Bathija (Fanaa, Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna) uses the device of Asperger’s to create a character that lacks the social boundaries that would daunt regular folks. Rizwan’s quixotic quest makes sense in that context. Bathija makes a brave attempt to bring to Hindi movies some of the anguish that comes from being different and “foreign” in a new land, but that theme tends to get drowned out (sometimes literally, via hurricane) in the noise that is mainstream Bollywood.

The filmmaking artifacts at Johar’s disposal are, simply put, astounding. The San Francisco Bay Area, a
perennial global tourist Mecca, gets a delightful picture-postcard boost from the many localities where MNIK was extensively filmed. The production is lavish and the special effects, including the staging of a hurricane, are credible. Shahrukh Khan and Kajol, along with veteran Wahab as Rizwan’s mother, are cast well and deliver decent turns. The pre-release publicity even included an extremely rare invite for Shahrukh Khan and Kajol to ring in opening bell at New York’s NASDAQ stock market, the largest stock exchange in the world. The film was picked up by Fox Studios in a multi-million dollar distribution deal, opening up amazing marketing opportunities in the United States.

Johar, however, could have improved significantly on the film’s sweet underlying sentiment—the traits that set each of us apart are often the traits that unite humanity—which gets muffled by the stereotyping and over-reaching on what should come naturally to such a loaded plot. Not all white, male Americans—especially those in positions of authority—became bigots after 9/11. People who live in the Deep South are not all illiterate, poor, black, or overweight. New York did not suddenly become the New World Beirut with the near constant physical atrocities committed against anyone thought to be Muslim.

7b5c1277fa77ead4d12fa6288f8c450d-4In a telling post-9/11 scene, a white school-teacher spells out all major religions on her chalkboard and is heard quipping to her all-white class,“…and Islam is the most violent religion in the world,” as if textbooks were re-written overnight after 9/11 and local elementary school suddenly transformed into all-white Yankee madrasas. At a particularly heinous moment, a mob of white and black school students gang up on an Indian-American youth and brutally murder him.

Finally, in a post-Hurricane Katrina world, the hurricane ravaging the Deep South, with a populist flotilla braving torrential floods and carrying flimsy “care” packages to a group of po’ Southerners stranded in a church, is yet another grab for the lowest hanging fruit for criticizing American politics. Such hysterical outreaches clearly overstate a post-9/11 American national mood and dilute the story’s message.

However, the film touched a resonant chord with many American Muslims, who were thankful for the portrayal of Islam as a peaceful religion, misused by fundamentalists and misunderstood by the western world.

Shahrukh Khan’s portrayal of an individual with special needs is pretty decent at face value. Unfortunately, after Aamir Khan’s superb Taare Zameen Par, dwelling on dyslexia, and Amitabh Bachchan’s wonderful Paa, touching on progeria, MNIK unwittingly comes across as a me-too playbook. By layering the “burden” of being Muslim in America with the “handicap” of having Asperger’s, Khan aims for transcending from being one-tier victim into a two-tier victim, a Victim 2.0 of sorts. All this could have been done much more simply and more effectively. The Bollywood touches detract from the film, proving that masala and message don’t always mix well.

MY NAME IS KHAN. Director: Karaj Johar. Players: Shahrukh Khan, Kajol, Jimmy Shergill, Zarina Wahab. Christopher Duncan. Music: Shankar Ehsan Loy. Fox Studios. Rated PG-13, for some violence, sexual content and language.

Entertainment Quotient: B

Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee

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