My Name Is Khan

My Name Is Khan

***

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Everybody remembers where they were on 9/11. I went out that evening, and on my way home I stopped off at my local newsagent. The front pages of the papers were covered with explosions. But what struck me most was that other customers were looking at the shopkeeper, a well known local man, in a whole new way. Outside, somebody shouted abuse about Pakis. I live in a very mixed neighbourhood. I had never seen it like that before.

If it was bad in Scotland, it was much worse in America, where many ordinary Muslims lived in fear for their lives. And there was another group of people who really suffered under the strict new security rules that followed: the disabled. One man with Tourette's syndrome was shot dead in a US airport despite his wife trying frantically to explain that his muttering about a bomb was just a symptom of his condition. Ill and disabled people who found travel stressful were routinely stopped because security guards considered stress suspicious. For people with Asperger's syndrome, travel became almost impossible - never mind if they were Muslim too.

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Rizwan Khan, the central character in this disjointed epic, is such a man. He's a man who, despite the social stigma attached to his disability, overcomes his humble origins, moves from India to America, gets a job and captures the heart of a beautiful woman. But after 9/11, he finds himself facing a whole new set of challenges. When his family is struck by tragedy, he becomes determined to find the president himself and tell him, face to face, that he is not a terrorist.

We have come a long way since Rain Man. Though there are occasional moments of characterisation that stretch credulity or draw on clich├ęs, mostly in regard to Rizwan's achievements, he comes across as a real, solid person with his own story to tell. Much of this is thanks to Shahrukh Khan's inspired performance in the central role. What's important is not so much the way he conveys Rizwan's disability, but all the other things he gives to the character, making him a properly rounded individual. This isn't a man we are asked to pity - he's a man we can identify with and really feel for.

The production values in this film are superb. The sound, in particular, is beautifully arranged, and works very effectively to help non-autistic viewers understand the stresses that can be associated with hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli. Likewise, inventive direction creates a properly threatening presence for the colour yellow, which Rizwan finds hard to deal with. On this level the film is fascinating and it really grips.

It has to grip, because My Name Is Khan is very, very long. To an extent this is inevitable - it's not a simple thing to tell the story of someone who experiences multiple forms of discrimination. Johar seems inclined to present us with a full family saga in the Hindi tradition (Rizwan's beloved is a Hindu), and there's also a hint of Great American Novel in the epic scope of it all. Fortunately, we get an interval. Unfortunately, the film carries on after it, and goes rapidly downhill.

Sometimes it's more effective to talk about big issues in a small way. The personal drama that makes up the first part of this film works very well. In particular, the romance between Rizwan and hairdresser Mandira (Bollywood superstar Kajol) blows most recent romcoms out of the water. But once the film moves beyond this, venturing into epic territory, it becomes embarrassing to watch. There was always a hint of irony about a film on this subject being bankrolled by Fox, whose news coverage in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 was so often anti-Muslim, but the latter half of the film comes across like a mixture of bombastic apology and smug self-congratulation.

Scenes in which the media save the day go beyond tacky into a whole new category of bad taste. Suddenly it's not enough for Rizwan to be an interesting person with a big heart and an unwillingness to give up; he's presented like the second coming of Christ, inspiring a nation, saving the needy, becoming an icon of world peace and understanding. It's enough to make one want to throw up.

Add to this a group of Muslim terrorists who have little to do with the story but seem to be there so Fox can have it both ways, and the result is very hard to watch. There's no inkling of respect here for all the little guys who stood up to prejudice on their own. Rather, all US Muslims (and those likely to be mistaken for them) are presented as needing a hero to follow - a Fox-made hero - and the film's ending gives the distinct impression that we're supposed to clap our hands and cheer Rizwan on for becoming this despite his disability, rather than appreciating the whole of who he is.

With so much good work early on in the film (and excellent technical work even in the later stages), one hesitates to come down too hard on it, but I would advise viewers to leave when they start to find it too sugary, as it doesn't get better. The ending doesn't take much figuring out anyway. Full marks to Johar for using the Hollywood approach to give a voice to traditionally marginalised groups, but no marks at all for letting it all collapse into a morass that even the likes of Jerry Bruckheimer would probably find hard to stomach.

Reviewed on: 12 Feb 2010
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After his family is struck by a tragedy with its roots in bigotry, a Muslim man with Asperger's syndrome travels across America to tell the president he is not a terrorist.
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Director: Karan Johar

Writer: Shibani Bathija

Starring: Shahrukh Khan, Kajol, Tanay Chheda, Jennifer Echols

Year: 2010

Runtime: 180 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: India

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