I missed this important Bollywood movie when it was released commercially in the United States in a PG-13 version in February. Unfortunately, it didn’t stay around long enough for many people to see it. Fox Searchlight, the American distributor, must have believed they had another Slumdog Millionaire, but the movie failed with American viewers no doubt because of its depiction of racism in the United States in the aftermath of 9/11—especially, the violent acts against Muslims or perceived Muslims by mainstream Americans. Too bad, because My Name Is Khan is every bit as uplifting as Slumdog, but Americans have never been good at trying to understand their racism.
The film is flawed, yes, because it attempts to do too much, but its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses—notably its unflinching look at America through non-Western eyes and the quite dazzling acting by Shah Rukh Khan, a huge Bollywood attraction, who many people have thought is not much of an actor. In My Name Is Khan, he plays a man with Aspergers Syndrome, and the result is more than convincing, major acting by any standards. If this were an American film, he’d be up for an Academy Award next year, but that’s not likely to happen because, well, again our ethnocentrism.
My knowledge of Aspergers Syndrome is too limited to know if all of Khan’s mannerisms (never looking anyone in the face, difficulty controlling his extremities, repeating phrases ad nauseum, avoiding physical contact with others) are authentic, but Khan, the actor, is so convincing that my wife assumed that the film was not fiction but the documentary account of a real person suffering from Aspergers’. Shah Rukh Khan has two or three incredible scenes in the film when you’ll find it difficult not to be all choked up. And the rest of the time he is so believable that he clearly steals the entire movie, becoming in the process a soul brother of Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump (there are other similarities between the movies also—especially their scope.)
Putting events in chronological order, there’s a scene when Rizvan Khan (six or seven years old), his mother, and his older brother witness an attack on Muslims, in a retaliation riot by Hindus. Rizvan’s mother tells him that there are only two kinds of people in the world—not Hindus and Muslims—but good and bad. Some years later, the young boy’s older brother leaves for America, and after the passage of additional years when Rizvan is an adult, he too goes to the United States because his mother has died. Rizvan begins selling beauty products for his brother, who has become a successful entrepreneur.
One day, Rizvan meets a young Indian woman, a Hindu named Mandira, who is divorced and has an eight-year-old son named Sam. Their courtship is complicated but eventually they marry (to the consternation of Rizvan’s older brother who henceforth has nothing to do with him because he’s married a Hindu). Eventually, Rizvan closely bonds to Mandira’s son. Then 9/11. In the ugly aftermath, Sam is killed by young schoolboys because of his last name: Khan. The marriage abruptly ends because of the boy’s death, but Rizvan leaves on a quest because in her anger Mandira screams at him to tell the President of the United States that just because someone has the name Khan, that person is not a terrorist.
Thus begins Khan’s quest to meet with President Bush, a search somewhat like Forrest Gump’s trek across the United States. Khan knows that he can’t simply show up at the White House and expect to be admitted for a meeting with George Bush so, instead, he tracks the President’s speaking engagements throughout the country and prays that he’ll gain admission to one of them and deliver the message—not only that he himself is not a terrorist but that his son was murdered because of the name “Khan.” There are a number of ugly incidents that follow because of the search but, also, a final love affair with America.
What is so memorable about My Name Is Khan is not simply director Karan Johar and his co-author Shibani Bathija’s decision to make a Bollywood movie set mostly in the United States but the choices of the settings. There’s a tense scene after Khan first arrives in the United States, in San Francisco, when he’s paralyzed by an approaching trolley because the grids on the pedestrian crossing are painted with yellow stripes and the trolley is also yellow, a color we have learned earlier that terrifies Khan. There he is trapped between yellow stripes as the trolley heads directly towards him. The scene is one of many tense, but humorous scenes in a movie that veers seamlessly back and forth from the tragic to the comic.
Another powerful incident comes at the end of Khan’s bonding with another boy, after Sam’s death. He carries a black boy home to his family after the child is injured and subsequently stays with the family in Georgia for some time as a sense of mutual respect develops between the two. At the end of this interlude, Khan stands up in the boy’s church and narrates the story of his life, including the loss of Sam and his wife, Mandira. It is one of several powerful moments when Khan—often inarticulate—discovers his voice.
How can you see My Name Is Khan? A week ago, the film was re-released in New York City in an unrated version called “The International Director’s Cut.” You might also go to an Indian grocery store and purchase or rent the film. The only trouble with the imported DVD is that not all of the dialogue has been translated into subtitles. Or you can wait a little longer until the American DVD is released, presumably with all the spoken lines in the subtitles. But don’t miss this Bollywood take on America—with a fabulous soundtrack–or you’ll miss one of the great roles of recent cinema: Shah Rukh Khan as Rizvan Khan.
My Name Is Khan
Fox Searchlight: Directed by Karan Johar
With Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol Devgan
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.