My Name is Khan (2010) is a somewhat long but constantly surprising movie. It induces gasps of delight with admirable regularity, yet occasionally falls flat on its face, resembling corny B movie propaganda in certain stretches.
Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan stars as Rizwan Khan, an Indian man with Asperger syndrome travelling alone around America on a mission to speak with the President of the United States, who is currently George W. Bush. Among the things he needs to tell the president is, “My name is Khan,” and he places great emphasis on pronouncing the H in his name, “from the epiglottis.” Khan was raised in Mumbai as a Muslim and, as shown in flashback, his childhood was marked by his autistic difficulties in expressing affection, as well as talents in memorization and mechanics.
Also shown via flashback is his immigration to San Francisco as a young adult, and his relationship there with a beautiful Hindu woman named Mandira, who works as a hair stylist. Mandira is played by Kajol, Shah Rukh Khan’s co-star in numerous Bollywood blockbusters.
While Khan’s Muslim identity is a potential source of trouble with Hindus during his childhood and an obstacle to romance with Mandira, the September 11 attacks hurl him to whole new levels of alienation and hostility. Another thing he wants to tell the president is, “I am not a terrorist.”
My Name is Khan is beautifully shot in an astounding number of scenes and settings. There’s the Mumbai portion, plenty of San Francisco locations and other California spots, several scenes set in “Wilhemina, Georgia,” bus travel, airports, presidential appearances, and hurricanes — just visually alone, an astonishing amount of material is packed into this movie. Cinematographer Ravi K. Chandran‘s camera swoops and glides, framing the characters and their landscape in one stunning tableau after another.
Shah Rukh Khan’s performance is also outstanding. Add My Name is Khan to films like Rain Man and Temple Grandin whose stars portray the central characters with fairly authentic behavior and mannerisms, an enormously difficult task. SRK was reportedly plagued by severe headaches as a result of the peculiar pose he chose for his facial expression, head and neck throughout filming.
One of the movie’s mixed blessings is that it aims at several purposes simultaneously. There’s Khan’s Asperger’s, the romance, America’s anti-Muslim reaction, the mission to see the president, and some other significant threads all jammed together and sometimes competing to overblown effect. There are parts of this movie that ring almost laughably false by striving to convey their gravity. However, with so much story to tell, it’s never very long before we move along to something else.
Bollywood is regarded as one of world’s the very greatest film traditions, and as a movie fan completely ignorant of it, I was surprised after watching My Name is Khan to see it classified as a “Bollywood” movie. If that’s true, it is certainly the most accessible introduction to Bollywood I can imagine.
In any case, director Karan Johar presents his forthright message of tolerance inside a sack loaded with sweet and colorful presents. Anyone who enjoys movies should be able to overlook its clinkers and relish its charm. I rate it three out of four stars.