Do you remember a time when going to the theater was a big event? When you waited for weeks for a film to release, bought tickets well in advance and picked out a special outfit for the big day? A time when actors were mysterious, otherworldly creatures that made you believe in the characters and stories, instead of making you think about their last affair and their latest TV show? A time when a film made you forget about your own life and escape into its people and their joys and loves and tears and struggles and triumphs? A time when a film was more than just a film? My Name is Khan takes you back to that time.
We’ve all heard the premise of the film. Rizwan Khan, our beloved Shah Rukh Khan, is an Indian Muslim with Asperger’s syndrome. He is on an expedition to meet the President of the United States of America to tell him that his name is Khan, and he is not a terrorist. As the film unfolds, we weave in and out of his present journey and his past circumstances that led him to go on this journey. We see how Rizwan became the man he is now, and how the foundations of everything he believed in were shaken. Every person that he comes across makes a significant contribution to his understanding of the world and to his journey, but not as much as he ends up contributing to their lives.
A film like this could have gone horribly wrong. It’s like making a pyramid with lots of blocks, each one a different size and texture, and trying your hardest to make sure it doesn’t collapse. Even if a single block slipped out, the whole thing could crash to bits. However, Karan Johar manages to keep that pyramid upright and each new block adds strength and substance to it. All aspects of the film succeed in their own way and come together beautifully. Where do I begin?
OK, let’s start with Shah Rukh. I was pretty skeptical about how he was going to pull off convincing us that he had Asperger’s Syndrome. Not to retract from his acting abilities, but because he is who he is, I thought it would be difficult for us to believe that he was a vulnerable man with a disability. However, within the first 10 minutes, once you get used to his character’s mannerisms and patterns, the narrative absorbs you so much that you forget to stop and think about Shah Rukh’s off-screen persona. He keeps it subtle and straightforward, endearing you to his character and often making you smile. He holds his own during the ups and downs and roundabouts that his character goes through, making sure you’re with him all along.
For me, though, Kajol is the light of the film. She’s the one who makes you laugh and cry and fall in love. Her warmth and exuberance makes the love story in the film absolutely melt your heart. Of course, her chemistry with Shah Rukh is beautiful, making you truly believe that there’s actual love in every frame. When the circumstances in the film see a turnabout after 9/11, the trials and sorrow her character goes through resonate long after the film is over. We just don’t have anyone else like Kajol, do we?
We haven’t seen such a good supporting cast in years. It’s a massive cast, carrying some names and some nameless faces, but each one is perfectly cast and styled and directed and you believe and respect every one of them. I’d specially like to mention that for the first time in a Hindi film, I didn’t feel like the American casting was stereotypical or shallow. The Indian cast also held their own every well, especially Zarina Wahab and Sonya Jehan. Also, for once, the child actors were dignified and intelligent. But I suppose a lot of that had to do with the way the characters were written.
Shibani Bhatija’s script is a rare mixture of an epic story and a simple narrative. We travel through so many spaces and times and meet so many people, but the script never loses its focus and stays true to its core. There are some big issues being talked about here, but they all unfold from Rizwan’s perspective and how they affect him, which makes the film less preachy and more real. The scenes unfold at a really fast pace, keeping your attention the whole time, yet making sure you’re never confused or overwhelmed. The convincing progression of Khan’s journey, from a lone man to a national hero, deserves a lot of commendation.
The technical team of the film is top-notch. Ravi K Chandran’s cinematography leaves your awestruck. Deepa Bhatia’s sharp and thoughtful editing deserves a lot of credit for managing to pull off such a massive plot on film. The background music and the songs, by Shankar Ehsaan Loy, are subtle and effective. All the pieces seem to fit in perfectly to make the film work. However, none of this would have worked the way it does if Karan Johar hadn’t directed the film. The reason the film connects is because it has a lot of heart in it, and that’s all Mr. Johar. He has broken out of his earlier mould to a large extent, dealing with very relevant and mature issues in a realistic manner, but he managed to hold on to what we love best about his cinema. The film makes you think and take stock of the prejudice and ignorance and hate around you, but what remains with you are the emotions the characters felt. Very few filmmakers today have been able to crack the code to balance those elements perfectly.
It’s hard to categorize a film like My Name is Khan. I suppose it’s a film about the power of love. That sounds cheesy, I know, but actually we’re all suckers for love. I’m not saying that the film mixes world-issues up into a sugary syrup so it goes down easier. Not at all. It just doesn’t take love lightly. Mandira, Kajol’s character, sums up the entire film for me when she said, “Jo meri nafrat nahin kar payee, woh Khan ke pyar ne kar dikhaya.”
Before I end this epic review that might take you longer to read than watching the film would, I’d just like to say one thing about the controversies surrounding it. This kind of thing is exactly what the film is trying to battle! How ironic that people are using threats, violence, prejudice and religious divides against a film that talks about love, peace and unity. The film is actually a slap in the face to all its detractors.