Karan Johar’s 2010 film “My Name is Khan” tells the story of a Muslim Indian, Rizwan Khan (played by Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan,) a man with Asperger’s Syndrome who moves to San Francisco after his mother’s death. Khan falls in love with a Hindu hairdresser, Mandira, played by Kajol Devgan.
Their Bollywood fairy tale turns grim after the tragic terrorist attacks of 9/11. Their joyful love story is intensely interrupted when Mandira’s young son, Sameer, is killed as a result of a vicious hate crime. In a dramatic fit of rage, Mandira brazenly blames her son’s death on his having a Muslim last name. She belligerently demands that Khan leave, and when he naively inquires when should he return, Mandira sarcastically tells him to return only after he has told the president of the United States: “My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist.” And so Khan’s epic journey across the country begins.
The first film I saw starring Khan was 2003’s “Hal Ho Naa Ho,” (co-written by Johar,) in which Khan memorably prances through New York streets singing a Bollywood version of Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman” to seduce his lover. I was pleasantly surprised how Khan so easily shifted from crooning heartthrob to an awkward yet brilliant revolutionary. Khan adds small touches to signify his characters mental disabilities, such as his permanently furrowed brow, hunched shoulders, and unchanging stare, without stamping the word “autistic” across his forehead.
Devgan’s performance is not so seamless. Half of Devgan’s performance is absolutely spectacular; when we see her as a bubbly hairdresser, playfully struggling to hug her haphophobic husband, she is sweet, likable, and endearing. However, her distraught mother act needs more work to be convincing. Her anger for her son’s unresolved death is one-dimensional, she lacks the true desperation and despair that a true mother would have if she lost her only son and husband.
Three of the four children in the film have acting skills suited for a knock-off Disney channel and Yuvaan Makaar, (who plays Sameer,) has perfectly-placed one-liners like “Mom, you’re such a drama queen!” Makaar brings such a pleasant lightness to the film, but once his character is killed, the charm is hardly regained.
The story does tug at your heart strings, responsibly instructing you to have compassion and tolerance, but at times the film is so overly dramatic that it is almost comical. The portrayal of ignorant and judgmental Americans were unsuccessfully captured by men directing their children away from bearded men on a park bench, snatching a veil off a Muslim woman, throwing bricks through Indian-owned storefronts, and schoolyard taunting. I found the portrayal of other ethnicities to be bothersome. Plump, overgrown Frat boys men alongside their wives, grabbing their genitals Michael Jackson style and telling Muslim store owners to “suck it” were a step too far—simply past the point of realism. Also, Khan’s mission takes him to Georgia where he meets the most stereotypical Southern black family ever portrayed in film since the civil rights movement. The mother is a rather large black woman with her hair tied back in a bandana screeching at her son—and of course, they go to church where the entire congregation breaks out into “We Shall Overcome” complete with rhythmic two-stepping and spirited clapping.
The way in which Sameer was killed is also bothersome and unrealistic. How many children die from a soccer ball to the chest? Johar could have used Sameer’s death to show raw injustice but his method was a cop-out, lessening the seriousness of blind hatred.
The unique view into the post 9/11 paranoia of Indians living in the U.S. and the technique of depicting the story though the eyes of a handicapped character are refreshing to the American audience, but it could have been executed in a better way. The film is clouded by cinematography similar to a music video—epic, slow motion montages of Mandira laughing, Khan’s pensive eyes gazing up at her from the floor, Sameer’s body clunking to the ground, dizzying aerial shots of Mandira crying at the scene of Sameer’s death. The film’s message of acceptance is established within the first five minutes of the film, when Khan is remembering his difficult childhood in India and his mother’s invaluable lesson of “in this world there are only two kinds of people: good people who do good things and bad who do bad things.” This message is prevalent throughout the film, but the film is so cluttered with what seemed like a million different scenarios of implausible heartache in a dragging 2 hours and 25 minutes of the film.
Of course, like all good Bollywood films, “My Name is Khan” has a blissful ending: an African-American is elected president and Khan dutifully relays his message and he and Mandira predictably reunite.