Starting three weeks before its heralded release, My Name is Khan and its lead star, Shahrukh Khan, became the newest and most fashionable entries to citizen-rights activism, both in India and in cyberspace. The controversy began with Khan’s statement “regretting” the exclusion of Pakistani cricketers from selection at the third Indian Premier League (IPL) auction, which had taken place in December. It then gained massive media attention due to the opposition of the rightwing Shiv Sena, which then continued with the tense release of the film itself.
The controversy proved advantageous for the producers, however, ensuring the film a kind of publicity that money, power and influence could otherwise not possibly have managed. Even before it was released, My Name is Khan had become a cause célèbre, emerging as a symbol (in particular among the affluent and English-speaking classes) of freedom of expression, the citizen’s right to a violence-free public and political culture, and the very basic desire for rule of law. For those in Bombay, watching the film on 12 February, the day it was released, became a way of showing the metaphoric middle finger to the Shiv Sena thugs who had nearly managed to prevent the film from being shown in Maharashtra.
It is noteworthy then that the film at the centre of this hate-filled and vengeance driven-protest should be precisely about the struggles of a ‘differently-abled’ man against hate- and vengeance-driven violence. Directed by Karan Johar and written by Shibani Bathija, My Name Is Khan tells the story of autistic Rizwan Khan, played by Shahrukh Khan. Rizwan has Asperger ‘s syndrome, which makes him unable to express his emotions and gives him a variety of tics: he speaks monotonously, professes to hate the colour yellow, reacts badly to loud sounds, and dislikes hugs and other physical contact (except sexual intercourse, it seems). He is also resourceful, charismatic and a devout Muslim who lives out the childhood lesson taught by his loving and staunchly secular mother (played with warmth and ease by Zarina Wahab) that there are only two kinds of people in the world: good and bad.
In creating this character, the scriptwriter, Shibani Bathija, who earlier penned Fanaa, Kabhi Alvidaa Na Kehnaa and Kidnap, weaves a complex narrative, with many touching and heart-warming moments. However, Bathija seems also to have cast her net too wide, as the story, perhaps in trying to include too many issues and events from contemporary world politics, stretches itself thin. What starts off well, with childhood sequences of Rizwan and his mother, providing a cogent context for his secularism and his tense relationship with his brother, tapers into a mild and inadequately developed love story with the Hindu divorcée single mother, Mandira, played by Kajol. While it is made clear that Rizwan has fallen in love with Mandira’s nainaa and essential goodness, it is unclear what exactly makes Mandira reciprocate and propose marriage – in the process overcoming what one assumes are natural hindrances to romantic attraction, Rizwan’s autism and behavioural oddities.
The story picks up after their marriage, and remains tightly paced until the murder of their son, the result of a hate crime six years after the attacks of 11 September 2001. Here, the writer develops an intense situation, but fails to explore it adequately. The kind of strain that this complex relationship – inter-religious, one partner with a disability, a son from a previous marriage – might impose amidst personal and national tragedy, particularly as one partner belongs to the religion that is largely held responsible for the attacks, is squeezed into one or two scenes between Mandira and Rizwan. If nothing else, this is a lost opportunity.
Spurned by his traumatised wife and told not to return until he has taught the world (and the American president) that his name is Khan and that he is not a terrorist, Rizwan sets out across the US to do precisely that. His journey involves many ordeals, including the lure of Islamist fundamentalism, an American prison and a Hurricane Katrina-like scenario. Conceptually, Bathija does interesting things along the way, creating a quintessential underdog who is doubly handicapped: emotionally and mentally, as well as politically marginalised due to his faith. Then, she has this figure take on the anti-Muslim biases of a people, a nation and an administration.
And here lies the need for the film to go epic. Rizwan needs to emerge as a hero in a crisis that erases any social, political and cultural identity in the scale of its disaster. Such a catastrophe is required for Rizwan’s message of ‘love conquers all’ to reach the general populace, and for the seething hatred and suspicion of Muslims amongst the average Christian white American to be assuaged. Bathija’s positing of the Muslims and blacks as two disempowered and marginalised sections of American society is a telling political comment on the world’s most zealous democracy. So too is the aside about the American administration’s indifference to the disaster in the largely black ‘Wilhemina’, which recalls similar allegations of deliberate callousness during Hurricane Katrina.
Another interesting feature of Bathija’s narrative is that her protagonist is not merely any Muslim, but rather is quite devout, reading namaaz five times a day no matter wherever he is. Rizwan then offers an alternative to the political Islam that is so problematic today. His is an intensely personal faith, which preaches love and faith and rejects hatred and vengeance. Rizwan’s Islam is one that has space for a practising Hindu wife praying in the same room, holding her puja thali while she tries to kiss him – perhaps romanticised and clichéd images, but undoubtedly powerful. The real power of the story lies in its exploration of the latent and unconscious hatred and suspicion of ‘the Other’ that lies within each of us and veers its ugly head in times of trauma and violence – sometimes even if the ‘Other’ is our own spouse.
However, while My Name is Khan sets up an interesting and complex premise, it is precisely in trying to execute those epic, heroic proportions that Rizwan’s journey loses its credibility and emotional connection with the audience. Indeed, at moments it becomes near ridiculous.
Director Karan Johar, who had promised this to be his first “serious, non-candyfloss” film, has been unable to shake off the candy, the floss, or the sheen from his picturesque locations and beautiful people. But he does live up to his reputation of being able to tug at the heartstrings of his audiences. Some deft direction includes the childhood sequences between Rizwan and his mother; the mother and his eccentric teacher, Mr Wadia; and the baby Rizwan’s monologue in English on Parsis – all of which are genuinely touching. Some depictions of Khan’s struggles as an autistic person are likewise moving, particularly a sequence in which a loud yellow tram renders Khan immobile, or others in which he views his new surroundings through a camera, or where he announces to Mandira that it is time to have sex and excitedly skips off to the bedroom.
Yet what would seem to have been one of the more touching aspects of the film – the relationship between the two stars – is not handled well. The film marked the return of Shahrukh Khan and Kajol as a lead pair after Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham of 2001, and was much awaited for their famed onscreen chemistry. Unfortunately, the scenes between Kajol and Shahrukh are poorly written. Through the first half, Kajol engages in the same bubbly-spirited-mother routine that she did in Kabhi Khushi. Though in the second half, it should be said, especially in the scenes following her son’s death, her performance is more powerful, akin to Madhuri Dixit’s restrained and real portrayal of single motherhood in Aajaa Nachle.
This film is written for the character of Rizwan Khan, and it is really Shahrukh’s performance that makes the most significant impact on the audience. While many reviews have questioned the authenticity of his depiction of Asperger’s syndrome, what is more crucial is that the actor’s performance is laudable in its consistency and persuasiveness. Just as in his turn as Suri in Rab Ne Banaa di Jodi, here too Shahrukh holds on to the autistic Rizwan to the end, and hardly ever do we see the pouting star from the Yashraj romantic hits. Shahrukh creates genuine moments of angst, pathos and humour, and is lovable in his quaintness.
My Name is Khan could have better lived up to its massive hype if the filmmakers had desisted from the temptation of fitting a decade of American national events into their screenplay, sticking to one climax instead of three. But this is a well-intentioned film, whose real strength lies in creating an unlikely but destined hero, and offering a vision of Islam that is nontoxic and intensely personal.
~ S Bhaskar is a freelance writer and researcher in Bombay.