FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

My Name is Khan … and I am Not a Terrorist!

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.

 

WORDS THAT STICK

 

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

Weekend Edition
August 17, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Daniel Wolff
The Aretha Dialogue
Nick Pemberton
Donald Trump and the Rise of Patriotism 
Joseph Natoli
First Amendment Rights and the Court of Popular Opinion
Andrew Levine
Midterms 2018: What’s There to Hope For?
Robert Hunziker
Hothouse Earth
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Running Out of Fools
Ajamu Baraka
Opposing Bipartisan Warmongering is Defending Human Rights of the Poor and Working Class
Paul Street
Corporate Media: the Enemy of the People
David Macaray
Trump and the Sex Tape
CJ Hopkins
Where Have All the Nazis Gone?
Daniel Falcone
The Future of NATO: an Interview With Richard Falk
Cesar Chelala
The Historic Responsibility of the Catholic Church
Ron Jacobs
The Barbarism of US Immigration Policy
Kenneth Surin
In Shanghai
William Camacaro - Frederick B. Mills
The Military Option Against Venezuela in the “Year of the Americas”
Nancy Kurshan
The Whole World Was Watching: Chicago ’68, Revisited
Robert Fantina
Yemeni and Palestinian Children
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Orcas and Other-Than-Human Grief
Shoshana Fine – Thomas Lindemann
Migrants Deaths: European Democracies and the Right to Not Protect?
Paul Edwards
Totally Irrusianal
Thomas Knapp
Murphy’s Law: Big Tech Must Serve as Censorship Subcontractors
Mark Ashwill
More Demons Unleashed After Fulbright University Vietnam Official Drops Rhetorical Bombshells
Ralph Nader
Going Fundamental Eludes Congressional Progressives
Hans-Armin Ohlmann
My Longest Day: How World War II Ended for My Family
Matthew Funke
The Nordic Countries Aren’t Socialist
Daniel Warner
Tiger Woods, Donald Trump and Crime and Punishment
Dave Lindorff
Mainstream Media Hypocrisy on Display
Jeff Cohen
Democrats Gather in Chicago: Elite Party or Party of the People?
Victor Grossman
Stand Up With New Hope in Germany?
Christopher Brauchli
A Family Affair
Jill Richardson
Profiting From Poison
Patrick Bobilin
Moving the Margins
Alison Barros
Dear White American
Celia Bottger
If Ireland Can Reject Fossil Fuels, Your Town Can Too
Ian Scott Horst
Less Voting, More Revolution
Peter Certo
Trump Snubbed McCain, Then the Media Snubbed the Rest of Us
Dan Ritzman
Drilling ANWR: One of Our Last Links to the Wild World is in Danger
Brandon Do
The World and Palestine, Palestine and the World
Chris Wright
An Updated and Improved Marxism
Daryan Rezazad
Iran and the Doomsday Machine
Patrick Bond
Africa’s Pioneering Marxist Political Economist, Samir Amin (1931-2018)
Louis Proyect
Memoir From the Underground
Binoy Kampmark
Meaningless Titles and Liveable Cities: Melbourne Loses to Vienna
Andrew Stewart
Blackkklansman: Spike Lee Delivers a Masterpiece
Elizabeth Lennard
Alan Chadwick in the Budding Grove: Story Summary for a Documentary Film
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail