A Glance at Life of Muslims in the Post-9/11 United States
By Ras H. Siddiqui
When one goes to see a Bollywood movie, the expectation is that it will be a tear-jerker in which a hero helps a damsel in distress, with strange yet colorful dance routines and their associated songs which Indian movies can hardly ever do without; include caste-class-economic and religious divisions to overcome and finally whatever different spin that a writer can put into the above.
Karan Johar ’s “ My Name Is Khan” diverges somewhat radically from this theme and is actually an experiment one would expect from often lower budget formula films originating from India that also have a smaller market worldwide. But if another film about the South Asian Muslim experience in post 9/11 America had to be made, it just had to have Shahrukh Khan in the lead role, this time playing a character who cannot lie, is not handicapped but aided by Asperger’s Syndrome to help explain the truth about the other side of a new reality of being brown in America. Autistic individuals also tend to repeat their words (echolalia), thus the line “My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist” is repeated and forms the core of this movie.
Muslim, Rizvan Khan (Shahrukh) is the unlikely autism impacted hero in this film and the leading lady Mandira (a divorced single Hindu mother played by Kajol) who initially rescues odd Rizvan in beautiful San Francisco (reminded this writer of Hassan Zee’s “ Night of Henna” also filmed here). Soon after Rizvan befriends Mandira’s son Sameer and following several repetitions of “Marry me” by him, Mandira and Sameer end up being Khan’s too, in spite of opposition from Rizvan’s brother Zakir ( Jimmy Shergill). Earlier, Rizvan’s tough life as a handicapped child in India creates the groundwork of the story during which his mother teaches him that there are two kinds of people in this world, good and bad and ones religion has very little to do with the category he or she falls into.
Shahrukh Khan is a superb actor and it appears that he had done some research on playing autistic Rizvan. The core element of this malady is an inability to fully communicate with others, avoiding eye contact and not understanding the nuances hidden within the same words spoken in different situations. Crossword puzzles, Rizvan can do easily, but the lack of the ability to lie effectively gets him into trouble, especially when he is placed in the role of a salesman (there are some hilarious moments here). His odd ways of romancing Mandira also produce some chuckles, but American airport security is not humored by someone softly chanting Muslim prayers and saying that he wants to meet the President of the United States.
Few can argue that America is a changed country post-9/11. My Name is Khan gives us a glance at life of Muslims (and other people who get mistaken for them) here both before and after that horrible attack. And worst of all, the tragedy of that day still lingers on in various forms and there is still no going back. Mandira’s son Sameer or Sam faces this new reality with deadly consequences. Mandira reacts as a mother should but what about autistic Rizvan?
The movie starts off with believable characters and a strong story. Shahrukh Khan and Kajol have quite a history of screen chemistry together and they act their parts very well.
One would certainly give Shahrukh the edge here because of the difficulty of his role.
And there are others in the movie that stand tall. The angelic Sonya Jehan as Haseena Khan certainly stands out as her grandmother’s voice once did.
The message here is delivered loud and clear, especially to Muslims worldwide. There is a scene in a Mosque in this movie that will raise some eyebrows. But still, the last part of this film is just too incredibly unbelievable and for that reason, it escapes the category of greatness. But then again, to be fair to the script writer(s), suggesting an ending to the events that started off with 9/11 is quite a difficult task. Nobody can predict the future, so any kind of closure remains elusive.
One can understand why My Name Is Khan was made. Thanks are in order to many people who became a part of this experiment, especially Shahrukh’s wife Gauri Khan. The music in this movie is good in the background and does not overpower the story segments and actually ends up enhancing them. One can recommend this film to all
audiences, especially South Asians, for its powerful message and good acting. It certainly cannot hurt India-Pakistan relations either. But it is not the usual Bollywood entertainment that one has become accustomed to. My Name Is Khan is for the more serious movie buff who is willing to forego the usual song and dance and learn something useful in the process.
In conclusion, another movie did come to mind after watching this one. That was a Pakistani effort called Khuda Kay Liye (In the name of God) made just a couple of years ago. It did not have the “star power” of Shahrukh Khan and Kajol and the strength of Bollywood’s now global reach. India ’s Naseeruddin Shah did a superb job acting in that film and if one might borrow Tariq Ali’s book title “The Clash of Fundamentalisms”
made it a little more interesting than My Name Is Khan. But the message of both the movies is similar. To borrow a couple of lines in Urdu by one of its greatest poets here:
Gala to ghont diya ehl-e-Madrassa ney tera, phir KahaN se Aayay sada La ilaha illallah?