The tagline of the story “My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist” lets you know from the outset that Karan Johar’s cinematic vision has moved on from his earlier oeuvre of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kabhi Kushi Kabhie Gham. In My Name is Khan, there are no show-stopping numbers with a cast of a hundred Russian dancers, and choreographed North Indian wedding scenes. Fans of Johar, however, need not fear, as the director still inserts his characteristic film tropes: the park bench, the sweeping skyline and a saccharine let’s-fall-in-love song picturisation. Johar has gone on record to say this film charters new found territory, and in the first half of the movie his maturity shines through, with a focus on the narrative and a simple telling of the story. Let’s take a look at the whole of this new Johar film.
The film starts with a flashback, presenting the early childhood of a young Rizwan Khan, a Muslim with Asperger’s syndrome, played initially by child actor Tanay Chheda; who you will be familiar with from Slumdog Millionaire. The plot shift locations from Borivali in Mumbai to San Franciso and as an adult, we see Rizwan (Shah Rukh Khan) marry Hindu single mother Mandira (Kajol).
It is not until an hour into proceedings that the plot shifts genre from love story to terrorism, as the characters are impacted by the new world order following the 9/11 attacks. In the prior scene you know an ominous shift is about to occur when Rizwan proclaims, “I made a happy life for myself. I fulfilled a promise to my mother”. Johar knows his craft, and Khan can deliver, but you almost want to warn them to never utter such dialogue in a Hindi film as it is the quickest route to impending disaster. But by then it is too late.
Post interval, a tragic incident separates Rizwan and Mandira. To reveal more would be too much of a plot spoiler. Here sit up for some of the finest acting on display by Kajol, and be ready to have your heart pulled by her natural, raw emoting of grief. For an actor who is normally appreciated for being comically perky and cute, prepare to be blown away by her performance in this scene.
The narrative jumps again into becoming the all American road movie, Rizwan traveling across the epic, rural landscape of the US in a quest to meet the President. Here kudos to Johar for trying something new in terms of location, skylines and urban landscapes being the typical location of choice, are usurped by rural snapshots of Southern States.
Despite the serious themes of the movie, humor is an essential component, and there are a great many moments where your heart is lifted by the simplicity and innocence projected by Khan in his portrayal of Asperger’s syndrome behaviour. Rizwan in a ‘Will make you glow like a new bride’ green face mask and learning what to do on the first night of his wedding thanks to a self help manual, will endear Khan’s many fans. Readers of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night–time, will recognize where Khan drew inspiration from.
The second half of the film suffers from the curse of Bollywood, in that a potential cinematic work of genius developing before the interval, is let down by a number of scenes that drag in comparison. Also, you may have a problem with the extended separation of Rizwan and Mandira, which breaks up the pairing of SRK and Kajol – the latter missing in action for long segments of the second half.
Luckily, all is well by the end, as Rizwan comes through a battle of personal demons and social evils to be reunited with Mandira. Although, almost as if compensating for the hero’s lack of heroic behaviour in the first portion, Johar has Khan single- handedly saving a hurricane ravaged town from impending doom. This I found all a bit Hollywood for my Bollywood sensibilities (pay attention here to the different uses of rain in the two industries), and a distraction from the major themes of the story – love, terrorism and Asperger’s syndrome.
Hindi film fans obsess over the screen pairing between Shah Rukh and Kajol, and luckily here they do not disappoint. The two may be older and wiser than their 1995 outing Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, but the chemistry is still very much there, and their performances emit the gravitas and sensitivity required for this type of cinema.
The supporting cast, including Jimmy Shergill, Pakistani Bollywood actress Sonya Jehan, Parvin Dabas, and a cameo from Vinay Pathak, all perform well. Johar, can of course get anyone from the industry to be in his films, and quite rightly does. But this being a SRK star vehicle, there is not much screen time for talented others. Observant film fans watch out for Dostana director Tarun Mansukhani playing the role of a victimized Muslim shop keeper. As a quick aside, don’t arrive late for this film or you will miss the first trailer of Dharma Productions animated remake Koochie Koochie Hota Hai.
This would not be a KJo release without key mother moments. Thumbs up to Zarina Wahab, who gives a sympathetic portrayal of Rizwan’s doting, presumed widowed mother. Mandira brings up her American-Born Confused Desi son Sam/Sameer with spunk and tenderness. When her son’s best friend says his mum won’t forgive him, Mandira retorts “She will…” extended dramatic pause “She’s a Mum’. Later, Rizwan finds an adopted American ‘Ma’ figure in Mama Jenny, who at first glance seems like she is going to have a five minute role in the movie, but returns later in a pivotal pre-climax scene. Look out also for the comic moment of Rizwan forced to wear her far-too-large dress as he waits for his clothes to dry. I was however slightly confused in a section where Mama Jenny attends a church with Rizwan, who then proceeds to deliver a speech to the African American congregation, ninety percent of which is in Hindi.
My Name is Khan is an epic film. It is not faultless by any stretch, but will have you emoting with cinematic euphoria one minute and pulling out your tissues in desperation the next. A must watch.
My Name is Khan releases worldwide on the 12th February.