There are certain things we expect from a Karan Johar film by now – grand production values, a healthy dose of good ol’ Indian melodrama, “beautiful people suffering glamorously” (to quote Time’s Richard Corliss’ description of Hindi films), and numerous well-written and skillfully directed scenes. He has a great contemporary sensibility with a solid foundation in the traditions of mainstream Hindi cinema. We don’t expect realism or pure logic, and we are okay with that. So with a film like My Name is Khan, which comes with a clear social and political agenda within the most commercial of vessels, Johar was already on slippery terrain. The film is a genuinely sincere effort, his most mature film yet, and with sparkling performances. But it misses the mark. It becomes overly ambitious in its scope, and undermines its message by using stereotypes to fight stereotypes. It falls prey to doing oh-so-much (what an exasperatingly packed narrative it is!), and diluting the message at its core.
The first half of the film is solid, with a narrative that flows well and great character development. Rizwan Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) is a man with Asperger’s Syndrome, who finds it difficult to express emotions or touch others, has an innate technical ability to repair things, likes to collect pebbles, doesn’t like loud noises, and is scared of the color yellow. The film kicks off with a scene that immediately highlights Rizwan’s vulnerability. His strange mannerisms are misinterpreted by airport security and he is subjected to humiliating interrogation by officers who try to find out why he’s headed to Washington, D.C. His answer, the film’s main point, is simple: “I want to say to the President, my name is Khan and I am not a terrorist.” Dismissing his naiveté, he is let go. And Khan continues his journey. Had the film remained faithful to this goal in the later portions, Rizwan’s message would have resonated well.
The childhood flashbacks are also done with a mainstream filmy finesse that only Karan Johar knows. Growing up in Mumbai’s Borivali district, Rizwan is showered with unconditional love by his mother (Zarina Wahab), envied for just that by his younger brother Zakir (Jimmy Shergill), and is as clueless as everyone else about why he’s “different.” After his mother dies of congestive cardiomyopathy (“her heart was too big for her” – classic Johar), he decides to go live in San Francisco with Zakir, who had already moved away. Once in America, Rizwan is finally diagnosed with the help of Zakir’s wife Hasina (Sonya Jehan), and is also hired by Zakir to sell herbal beauty products. It takes a little while to get used to Rizwan’s mannerisms but the character does grow on you. By the time he meets Mandira (Kajol), we are rooting for him.
The romantic track with Rizwan and Mandira is where the SRK-Kajol-Johar combo truly shines. Mandira’s introduction is at first just vocal with a point-of-view shot, and is a highlight. She doesn’t heroically save Rizwan from the speeding tram as we’d expect, but instead runs up only to ask if he’s okay after he creates a jam on the road. She is then revealed in her radiant glory later when Rizwan enters her salon to sell his beauty products. Their relationship is developed in true Johar fashion, with a dollop of maturity. The best part is that Rizwan’s characterization remains very strong. His display of affection for Mandira isn’t grandiose. Instead he asks her to cut his hair, thus allowing her into his very small circle of loved ones who can touch him. The buildup to when they get married is an endearing series of events that works due to the incredible chemistry that SRK and Kajol share. Even Rizwan’s relationship with Mandira’s son Sameer (Yuvaan Makaar) is played out with charm and sensitivity.
The halfway point begins to get dicey. The sequence depicting the aftermath of 9/11 would have worked better had there not been intermittent scenes of absurdity. For example, did we really need a brief scene of a teacher telling her young impressionable students “as we can see, Islam is clearly the most violent religion”? When the events of 9/11 have a very personal consequence for Rizwan and his family, Mandira asks him to leave, blaming their tragedy on his last name.
In the second half, the film goes completely haywire. There are a slew of cameos and new characters that are thrown in the story, along with every conceivable major issue that an American could (or perhaps should) relate to. There are hurricane-induced floods in Georgia (not quite Louisiana), some of the American supporting cast suffers personal loss from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are violence-inciting Islamic clerics that are arrested by the FBI (thanks to Rizwan, of course), and not to forget the transfer of presidential reins from Bush to Obama. There is suddenly so much going on that Rizwan and Mandira’s shattered family becomes sidelined, and the narrative just piles one issue atop another without adequately exploring it.
The greatest downfall of the script – written by Shibani Bathija – is the entire detour in Wilhemina, Georgia, where Rizwan meets ‘Funny Hair Joel’ and ‘Mama Jenny.’ This sequence is riddled with stereotyping of African-Americans, starting with the portrayal of Mama Jenny as a very large maternal figure. In the church scene, it is the African-Americans who break out into song – “We Shall Overcome”, which becomes the real theme song of the film – when none of the Indian characters in the film were allowed that diversion (an otherwise grand departure for Johar). When a devastating hurricane causes flooding in Wilhemina, why is Rizwan the only person in all of the United States to land at the scene to help? And if he, and the dozen others he inspires to help, can easily wade through the flood water to get into Wilhemina, why can’t the helpless African-American residents walk their way out? The scenes in Georgia seem out of place even with the visual texture of the film, and the town of Wilhemina appears artificial. Ultimately, this Georgia segment becomes the climax. Rizwan becomes a hero when he really didn’t need to be, and it is these heroics that convince the nation that he is not a terrorist.
The music by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy is strictly average, with only Noor-E-Khuda and Sajda standing out. It is a problem that I walked out of the theater remembering only the We Shall Overcome/Hum Honge Kamiyab song. The background music often sounds like it is trying to compensate for the lack of musical numbers. At times it gets so loud and overbearing that I’m surprised Rizwan wasn’t gravely offended by the background music given to his life. One of the rare instances where I remember absolutely no music is Mandira’s breakdown with her son. It is a heartbreaking scene that is molded entirely by Kajol’s performance, and it worked wonders without the music telling us how to feel. I wish Johar would experiment more with such a technique, when he can clearly do it so well.
My Name is Khan belongs undeniably to Shah Rukh Khan. It is one of his best performances to date, and one of the very few where he isn’t being himself all the time. He adopts the mannerisms and characterization of Rizwan earnestly and doesn’t once let it slip. Unfortunately, towards the end even restrained Khan ends up being heroic, which is more an issue with the script. Kajol as Mandira is a delight, but is sadly denied adequate screen time in the second half. Her character does have a hangover from Anjali in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, but there is a charming maturity to her. She handles the dramatic scenes with a powerful intensity. Without the Georgia segment, perhaps Mandira’s search for justice could have been saved from being relegated into a sub-plot in the background. Together, Khan and Kajol prove once again that there isn’t a better matched pair in Hindi films today. In many scenes, they feed off of each other’s energy, offering a spontaneity that is a pleasure to watch. Among the rest of the cast, Jimmy Shergill maintains one emotion throughout, Sonya Jehan is a graceful and calming presence as Hasina, Zarina Wahab is a refreshing mother to Rizwan, and child artistes Tanay Chaddha (Rizwan as a child) and Yuvaan Makaar (as Sameer) provide good performances. There are a multitude of other characters that flit in and out of the narrative without really establishing themselves.
Karan Johar deserves credit for bringing the mainstream Hindi film perspective of American issues to American audiences. However, My Name is Khan suffers from the classic case of biting off more than it can chew. Had it stuck to Rizwan’s goal to mend his relationship with Mandira, without taking on another gargantuan issue of the state of African-Americans, the end product would have been far more potent. Instead, it becomes a checklist of major current issues in America. While the entire point of Rizwan’s journey was an earnest effort to declare his innocence to the president in order to win back Mandira, he instead becomes a national hero that the president is forced to notice. A commendable effort overall, but sadly the final thought ends up being: My Name is Khan and I forgot what I wanted to say.