Kaberi and I went to see this film last weekend. It’s quite a remarkable film in several ways and I’d recommend you to see it.
My name is Khan is an Indian film. To many in the West, this may bring to mind a 3-hour romantic film with a good-guy-falls-in-love-with-nice-girl-who-falls-for-bad-guy-but-is-rescued-by-good-guy-and-falls-in-love-and-they-live-happily-ever-after plot in which the main characters burst spontaneously into song on the slightest pretext and dozens of dancers appear from nowhere to join them in a series of dazzling song-and-dance routines.
At 2 hours 41 minutes, My name is Khan certainly has the right dimensions. Its main stars, Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol are also a classic ‘Bollywood’ pair. But that’s where the stereotype ends because this is a very topical story about love, prejudice, tragedy and basic humanity with no singing (well, there is some) and no dancing.
Rizvan Khan (played by Shah Rukh Khan) is the older of two brothers who grows up in a middle-class household in Mumbai. He can repair anything but he is clearly different from other children and suffers their taunts. Only his mother makes the effort to understand him, to the envy of his younger brother, who leaves home at the earliest opportunity and goes to the US to find his fortune.
After his mother’s death, Rizvan travels to the US, where his sister-in-law notices his aversion to physical contact and eye contact, as well as his sensitivity to noise, the colour yellow and his tendency to repeat the actions he sees others doing. She realises that these characteristics and his social awkwardness are symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism.
After this, the film takes us through his romantic pursuit of single-mother hairdresser Mandira (played by Kajol). A more conventional film would have ended there, with them getting married and enjoying life with Mandira’s son Sam. Here, though, My name is Khan moves into the next phase of the story, which is triggered by the 9/11 attacks.
From this point on, the film takes a more serious turn, showing the hostility shown by Americans towards Muslims after these attacks and the reason behind Rizvan’s mission to tell the US President that ‘My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist’. [You can read a more complete review of My name is Khan here .]
For me, although the style is very different from that of Tagore and Shyama, I recognised the underlying message of compassion and humanism triumphing over hatred and revenge. In this respect, the film shares Tagore’s vision. Unfortunately, the release of My name is Khan in India was marred by violent protests, with over 1,800 people arrested in Mumbai for vandalising cinemas advertising the film even before its release and the head of the Hindu fundamentalist Shiv Sena group telling Shah Rukh Khan to move to Pakistan, or face ‘dire consequences’.
Now, my name is Chatterjee and I am not a Muslim but I do find it deeply disturbing that the intolerance which the film complained of in the US is also very present in India. Long before the partition of India in 1947 as part of its independence from Britain, Tagore, who was a Brahmo (a branch of Hinduism), was extremely concerned by the growing tension between Hindus and Muslims – India had long been a secular society. This was part of the historical context which led him to create Shyama in 1939.
In any case, I think My name is Khan is remarkable for having tackled the issue of intolerance in such a moving way. It is also remarkable for being very well made, out-doing many Hollywood films on style, acting, direction, music, photography and plot. The performances particularly by Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol are very convincing and could have led to Oscar nominations … except that there is a certain intolerance among the Academy Awards which leads to all the non-English speaking films released in the US to be obliged to compete for only the ‘Best Foreign language film’ Oscar. Achieving a successful release in cinemas in several countries around the world is impressive too (thanks to Fox Searchlight, which also released Slumdog Millionaire).
Finally, a friend of ours pointed out a review which dismissed My name is Khan as ‘a US-set Bollywood film with a post-9-11 message and a disturbing similarity to “Forrest Gump”‘ and concluded that ‘While lacking big musical numbers, it still has Bollywood’s broad sentimentality and a cavalier attitude to reality. Bizarre but different.’ Those comments could have been written just by reading the synopsis … but perhaps they reveal a certain prejudice?