If you are a fan of Bollywood movies, Shah Rukh Khan is definitely a familiar face. With his memorable performance in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, it is not surprising that he is impressive in My Name is Khan with his on-screen partner, Kajol. Directed by Karan Johar (Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham), My Name is Khan captures the sad reality of Muslim immigrants in a post 9/11 America. It tells the story of a young Muslim man, Rizwan Khan (Shah Rukh Khan), with Asperger Syndrome, a rare condition which makes him simple-minded, such as interpreting words literally. However, this condition isn’t a hindrance for him to experience what every human wants to feel––love. He finds love in Mandira (Kajol), a single mother in San Francisco. They get married, but an unfortunate event makes him embark on a quest to meet the president of the United States to deliver a personal message.
The movie starts in media res and follows a non-linear plot structure, introducing the autistic Rizwan Khan who seeks and follows the US President Bush’s travel itinerary. He is initially detained by the Homeland security at the airport after he is profiled as a potential terrorist. Through Khan’s journey, we gain an insight into his life and why he has embarked on the journey to meet the US president. After the encounter at the airport, Rizwan recollects his past growing up as an autistic young boy in India, amidst Hindu-Muslim riots and the guiding light of his mother, Razia Khan (Zarina Wahab) and tutor, Mr Wadia. After his mother’s death, Rizwan moves to the United States of America to reunite with his brother, Zakir (Jimmy Shergill), and fulfill his mother’s wish of leading a beautiful life. He meets the beautiful hairstylist and single mother, Mandira, whom he marries. With the joy of his marriage, Rizwan Khan has finally kept his promise to his mother and now leads a beautiful life. Or so we thought.
The story hits its climax during the 9/11 events and the reaction of Americans to the attack changes the course of many people’s lives, particularly that of Muslims and Indians. Rizwan and Sameer (Mandira’s son) become a victim of post-9/11 hate, beginning with Sameer’s death. A devastated Mandira singles out Rizwan as the cause of Sameer’s death and lashes out on him to go and tell the president that her son is not a terrorist. Rizwan takes this to heart, and begins a journey to seek President Bush, with the hope of meeting him. His journey, which occupies the present day event of the story, exposes the thin racial fabrics of American society.
Rizwan is judged by his skin colour and religion before he is heard. The overzealous yet racist American security detains him after mistaking him for a terrorist on the parade ground where he is to meet the president. He is arrested and tortured for days before the Muslim, the Indian and the American Autistic communities come to his aid. Regardless of his misfortune at the hands of the Americans, Rizwan’s actions, in response to an American catastrophe, move the American people, who all gather to imitate the life that he has led. In this way, the movie conveys that all we have is our humanity and presents the theme that one bad fruit should not spoil the whole garden. Moreover, the actions of the terrorists and the anger against them should not be incurred on other Muslims. Like it is said in the Qur’an and voiced by Rizwan,“the death of one person is like the death of all humanity”.
My Name Is Khan enjoys a beautiful storytelling and an episodic plot structure that creates suspense, which keeps mounting on the precipice of Khan’s motivation. The movie introduces us to a post-9/11 America where racism and Islamophobia are the everyday realities of Muslims or any race that bears semblance with Islamic identity. This is the case of Rizwan Khan, who despite his medical condition and non-criminal record, is ultimately tagged a terrorist, just because of his Islamic identity. One of the strongest elements of the movie is Khan’s performance. It remains one of the best performances of the New Delhi-born actor. With his performance, the movie does not only draw attention to the post-9/11 lives of immigrants in the US, but also to the dire situation of autistic patients around the world. His movements and mannerisms all introduce the audience to autism. Shah Rukh Khan was born for that role. The young Rizwan Khan (Tanay Chheda) also shows what an autistic child goes through in a society that barely understands his rare medical condition, Asperger’s Syndrome.
The director and the cinematographer pay adequate attention to the storytelling beyond the actions and dialogue. Through the camera works, the duo superimposes narratives that matter to the plot. Close ups on Khan’s hands and legs at the airport immediately foreground Khan’s medical condition. In the 9/11 scene, the director carefully places the Qur’an against the background of the falling twin towers, foregrounding a contradiction between the message of the holy book and the horrific views on the television. My Name Is Khan is another pointer of the universality of music in a diverse world. The rendition of the slave blues “We Shall Overcome” and its Indian counterpart “Hum Honge Kamyab” shows that music is a soothing balm to every situation, irrespective of race, tongue or geographical barrier. The songs reiterate the importance of humanism.
The potency of the film lies in the outstanding performance of Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol, two Bollywood gems known for their brilliant acting. Beneath the anti-Islamophobia and anti-terror story, My Name Is Khan tells a beautiful story of true, pure love— a classic Indian movie reminiscent of Shahrukh Khan and Kajol’s Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998). From the love of a mother for her child, to that a brother shows to his sibling and the undying love of a man to his wife, My Name Is Khan is a testament that true love exists around us. It is a testament of a man’s trying love and the extent he can go to not only prove his love but to also right all wrongs and change the narrative of terror-torn nations and identities. Khan, following his mother’s teachings, spreads love wherever he goes and shows that love truly conquers all. The final scene recalls the final moments of a much later movie, The Hate U Give (2018). The situation of the world can be changed with our actions towards situations and people through love. Khan’s actions show that the entire world truly needs empathy, perhaps more urgently in this terror-filled age.
In a world filled with so much rage, hate, daily news of kidnapping, terror attacks and so on, perhaps what the world needs is a story of love. One that challenges our beliefs and shows that truly, what we need is to respect everyone’s beliefs and accord respect to everyone. With love and empathy towards others, the world would be a better place for us, our children and the generations that come after them.
Retro Rating: 9.2/10
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- My Name is Khan is like a Bollywood Forrest Gump (1994). Both characters experience a personal tragedy, become a media sensation and leave a mark in a fictional American history.
- The mantra Rizwan Khan chants—”Khan, from the epiglottis”—every time someone pronounces his name incorrectly is the way most of us feel when our names are pronounced wrongly, just that he takes it more seriously.
My Name is Khan is available on Amazon Prime Video.