Movie Review: My Name is Khan

Title: My Name is Khan

Starring: Shahrukh Khan, Kajol

Language: Hindi

The increasing trend among Hollywood production companies to make forays into Bollywood, plus the success of Slumdog millionaire has resulted in Indian film directors attempting themes with universal and global appeal.  While this is a welcome development, it is a lot harder to translate this intent into meaningful cinema without forgoing the traditional  formula for success in Bollywood. Trying to please a very broad audience is a tall order. Karan Johar attempts to do precisely that in this film and (IMHO) has fallen rather short.

Inspired by shades of Forrest Gump, set against a backdrop of a post 9-11 world, terrorism and racial profiling, an underlying call for universal peace and harmony, a good measure of Islam and its interpretations, thrown in with the Asperger syndrome, a Katrina-like storm(!!) for a climax, and of course a highly improbable love story — this in short is what Karan Jahar’s “My Name is Khan” is all about.  If this is not enough of a heady mix, the director has the additional burden of transforming Shahrukh Khan’s traditional on-screen image of a romantic, masala star to one playing a very serious role. Besides, the pressure to constantly portray a larger than life image for a big star weakens the script even further. It is impossible to remain true to life and realistic, or even somewhat believable, while trying to thrust super human abilities on the film’s hero. For instance, it is not enough that the hero suffers from the Aspeger syndrome, he still has to indulge in “hero-giri” to meet the Bollywood formula.

The plot is full of holes and takes liberties that are hard to swallow even by any stretch of imagination.  As a man seriously suffering from Asperger syndrome he wanders around the streets of San Francisco selling herbal products despite being stranded in front of cable cars and being deeply disturbed by loud sounds (and the color yellow among other things), he manages to travel all around the US by himself despite his severe disabilities and turns up to save the poor from storms and other forms of misery, he shares his sorrow in Hindi to a congregation of Afrian-Americans in Georgia(!!), manages to fall in love and get married, he reforms youngsters with terrorist tendencies, attempts to turn in suspected terrorists to the authorities, and is instrumental in generating a mass movement of goodwill and caring among the average citizens of the US!

With 9-11 almost 10 years old, this film might have been better suited to the times had it been released five years sooner. In order to maintain this context, the film constantly swerves back and forth between the past and present. This is both annoying and confusing.  The traditional song and dance has been abandoned in favor of a couple of background songs.  The scenes involving the death of the boy and the surrounding drama are well handled and probably the best part of the film.

While I am no expert on the Asperger syndrome, one can’t help but draw comparisons to ailment afflicted roles played by Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Dustin Hoffman in Rainman, Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, or  for that matter, Amitabh Bachhan in Black. Maybe it’s my lack of knowledge about Asperger syndrome, or my over exposure to Shahrukh and his stereotypyical portrayals in the past, but his performance pales in comparison to these. Kajol handles her role as the divorced single Mom with ease. The rest of the supporting cast have little to do except the boy who acted as Kajol’s son.  His performance if you disregard his Indian accent (despite the character being born and raised in the US) was noteworthy.

This film is not a romantic film, it’s certainly not a comedy, it is not a serious film about terrorism or the Asperger syndrome, it is not a musical, it is not an action film — it is essentially a melodramatic concoction of all of these in ample measure. Herein lies both the conventional USP (unique selling proposition) of the film and its greatest failing.

Having said all of this, I still won’t be surprised if this film is a runaway hit and Shahrukh Khan walks away with several best actor awards because this film is a Bollywood masala weaved into a smorgasbord of contemporary topics, with potential mass appeal despite doing real justice to none of the issues mentioned earlier.