Thursday, May 26, 2011

Review – My Name is Khan

May 26, 2011

My Name is Khan – India, 2010

Karan Johar’s My Name is Khan is an odd film. I say that right off that bat because that was what went through my head the moment the closing credits began to run. The film attempts to be a love story, a commentary on religious division and extremism, and a critique of the United States after the September 11th terrorist attacks. It is a film that seems to have been heavily influenced by films that preceded it, from Robert Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump to Barry Levinson’s Rain Man, both the original concept involving an autistic man who could fix anything and the version that ended up on the screen. It even includes a standard concept for a film of this kind: that there is a hidden layer to the central character just waiting to be understood and learned from. All that’s missing is Michele Pheiffer’s lawyer pleading to be let in so that she can see the world through the eyes of her emotionally-challenged client. Instead of her, My Name is Khan gives us two young reporters who are told to get to the bottom of the mysterious, eccentric man trying to meet the president of the United States.

The man in question is Rizwan Khan (Shah Rukh Khan), who suffers from Asperger Syndrome. According to Wikipedia, Asperger is characterized by “abnormalities of social interaction and communication that pervade the individual’s functioning, and by restricted and repetitive interests and behavior,” and although I’m no expert, to its credit, the film seems to get the condition right. First, Khan’s interactions with those around him are somewhat awkward. While he’s like a sponge when it comes to remembering information and can deliver a spot-on sales pitch for a skin cream product, there’s little to suggest that he truly understands what he is saying at times. In addition, he cannot understand the intention behind someone’s words, and therefore, he is unable to recognize either sarcasm or humor. He’s also not a good judge of appropriateness. In one scene, he passively recites a character’s life story, not realizing that the person hearing it is completely horrified. That this character could turn around and fall in love with him is one of those elements of movie magic that you just have to accept.

In an interesting and very convenient move, writers Shibani Bathija and Naranjan Iyengar have thrown Khan a small lifeline: He can express his true feelings in writing. This detail allows Khan to narrate his life story and talk about the people who have entered and exited it in a voice that these characters would likely not recognize. To me, this presented a challenge, for as we watch the film, we are seeing a character with whom relationships would be extremely difficult but hearing a character whom the entire world could love. The problem is that as viewers come to appreciate the inner Khan, there’s simply no realistic way for the film’s supporting characters to see that aspect of the character. I suppose the technique is intended to make it easier for viewers to believe that Mandira has loved him the entire time they have been together, yet she discovers Khan’s written words too late for that interpretation to hold much water.

My Name is Khan begins with a scene in an airport in November of 2007. By this time, airline passengers were already being required to remove their shoes as a result of the actions of an individual who came to be known as “the shoe bomber.” In the film, airport authorities become suspicious of Khan because he is mumbling in a language they don’t understand, so they pull him aside and give him a rather invasive looking over. It’s a powerful, disturbing scene, and I imagine that in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks, many searches and interrogations were conducted in this way. I can only hope that cooler heads have prevailed since then. When it’s finally determined that Khan does not pose a threat to the airline, he informs officials that he is trying to deliver a message to the president of the United States. That message: “My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist.”

Meeting the president is not so easy, though, and Khan ends up traveling all around the country, going to practically every city in which the president is scheduled to appear at a rally or fundraiser. At one such event, he is denied entry because of his religion. The scene is a bit heavy-handed, but we get the point loud and clear. Khan’s journey, like that of Forrest Gump, allows him to meet a variety of characters; however, unlike the fun people Forrest meets, most of the people Khan comes in contact with are experiencing some form of trauma. None of them say anything resembling a shrimp recipe. One character has lost her son in Afghanistan; a few are being harassed because they are perceived to be Muslim; still another is trying to recruit people for his personal jihad. The most moving of these characters is Mama Jenny (Jennifer Echols), who enables Khan to finally express a bit of grief for someone close to him that has died.

The film provides viewers with long flashbacks of Khan’s upbringing. We see the care and understand with which his mother raised him and marvel at how she is able to reach him when no one else seems wiling or able to. She ensures that he gets an education, one that consists of him absorbing mountains of information. One the way to one of his lessons, he demonstrates an uncanny ability to fix things, and a local legend is born. I especially liked the way his mother teaches Khan not to discriminate. Perhaps it really is that simple of an explanation.

Khan later makes his way to San Francisco, where he is helped by another strong female character, his brother’s wife, Wadia (Faroukh Mehta). She is the first to recognize the signs of Asperger and the first to get him the help he needs. Later, Kahn meets Mandira, a single mother working as a hair stylist. Khan becomes fascinated by her, and the two of them become friends. One day, he asks her to marry him, and in one of those “only in the movies” moments, she promises to do so only after he shows her a part of San Francisco that she hasn’t seen before. The truth would have been a little more appropriate. Later, the bliss of their marriage is threatened by the events of September 11, 2001, and the fear that exists in its aftermath.

My Name is Khan is a bit too ambitious for its own good. It goes on about a half an hour too long and adds too many characters in its final act. It also becomes a bit too message-driven for its own good. In addition, its score is overbearing, often making it too apparent that something either emotional or serious is about to happen. And when it does, the score soars in volume, tugging at the heart string in a rather manipulative way. It seems to have been forgotten that if a moment is emotional, it doesn’t need that much help from a composer. However, the biggest challenge to the film is its central character, for it’s hard for a character to be seen as heroic when he is unaware of the danger he is in. And Khan is such a character. When he is in solitary confinement, he comments on his inconveniences, not his resolve. Forrest Gump was at least aware that the deck was slightly stacked against him. I’m not sure Khan ever is.

It is therefore incumbent upon the film to surround Khan with characters that change as a result of him, for it would be in their change that we would see just how incredible Khan is. The problem is that the film’s strongest characters are already decent people and do not change much as a result of their association with Khan. Thus, the film extends Khan’s influence to the country as a whole and gives him such a celebrity status that even the president-elect knows about him. It’s a stretch, but I was able to go with it.

To me, the best parts of the film are those that show viewers the role that women play in Khan’s life, as well as those that detail the gross mistreatment of many people whose only crime after 9/11 was “looking Muslim.” There are some truly heartbreaking moments in the film. One of the best features a husband telling his wife to no longer wear the hijab. He assures her that Allah will understand even if no one else does. We can see in her face just how painful this advice is. In another scene, we see an agonizing mother step onto a football field wearing a placard with both a picture of her dead son on it and a reminder that it’s been six months and still no one has been arrested. It’s a powerful, plausible moment, and the film has many more of them. In the end, My Name is Khan works well enough. It is well acted, and it adequately depicts the experiences of many people post-9/11. It’s just too similar to other films to stand out as a completely original work. (on DVD; opening in Taiwan on May 27, 2011)

3 stars

*My Name is Khan is in English and Hindi.

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