His name is Rizwan Khan and he is not a terrorist. However, he’s a Muslim in a post 9/11 America, and not everyone believes him. He must tell the President in the hope that this simple message will filter down through society. The situation is not helped by the fact that Rizwan suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism, which hinders his interpersonal skills. And on that simple premise, this epic Bollywood/Fox production was made, and it’s a doozy.
Rizwan was raised in India and was not diagnosed, but instead was treated as an abnormal child. Only his mother managed to tap into him, and something she told him early on stuck with him: There are only two types of people in the world, good people and bad people. This is most certainly the case in this movie, as we meet good and bad Muslims, Hindus and Westerners.
Rizvan follows his brother to America and there meets Mandira, who is to be the love of his life. She is the single mother of a boy, Sameer, and is a Hindu. Perhaps mindful of the son’s need for a father, and perhaps just because Rizvan is such a good man, they marry and integrate fully into a middle-class neighborhood of Northern California. So concludes the first half of My Name Is Khan.
And then the Twin Towers were leveled.
The mood of the second half of the movie changes dramatically. Racial intolerance abounds. Sikhs are forced to remove their turbans for fear of being wrongly identified as Muslims and Muslim and Hindu shops alike are attacked by ignorant Westerners. The Khan family suffers a more personal tragedy resulting in an ultimatum: Mandira tells Rizwan to leave and to not return until this intolerance is over. “Tell the President”, she says, “Tell him you’re not a terrorist just because you are Muslim.”
We then watch Rizwan’s zig-zagging journey to fulfill this request, and what a journey it is. Arrested and jailed under suspicion of being a ‘”jihadi”; walking the roads of America; trial by television; brushes with Fundamental Muslims; rebuilding a small village after a hurricane — it’s all here. I think it would be fair to state that the boundaries of believability are stretched mighty thin during the second half of the film in particular, but as a tale of hope over adversity and of judging a person as a person it is allowed some artistic license here and there.
My Name Is Khan is beautifully shot, and well acted. Both Shah Rukh Khan (as Rizvan) and Kajol (as Mandira) are big stars in their native India and it is easy to see why. Kajol, in particular, lights up the screen whenever she appears, especially in the lighter first half. Shah Rukh Khan has the more difficult job, of course, in trying to convey a man with interpersonal difficulties in such a way that we are not alienated from him ourselves. Whether he is accurate in his portrayal of a man with Asperger’s I am not able to tell, but I loved his character and was rooting for him.
Edward R. Murrow once said that it was television’s duty to inform and enlighten, rather than merely to entertain, and this movie has the same tenet. It swoops from romance to current affairs, stopping at various points in between, but beneath it all is that one guiding piece of wisdom: judge not the religion or the color of the skin; judge the person. Had the second half of My Name Is Khan matched the quality of the first, this would be one of the great films of 2010. As it is, it’s idealistic, more than a touch naïve, and recommended.