THE thing about some Bollywood superstars is that they are actually fine actors as well as charismatic performers. So it's not surprising in My Name Is Khan to see Bollywood megastar Shahrukh Khan – he's light-years beyond a mere superstar in Hindi cinema's cosmology – challenge himself to expand his acting range and possibly his international fan base. In convincing fashion, he plays an Indian in America battling the double whammy of living with Asperger Syndrome and as a Muslim man in the post-9/11 world.
The film was released on Friday in India, North America and many other territories. Its North American distributor, Fox Searchlight, adopted the puzzling strategy of screening the film out of competition at the Berlin festival but refusing to screen it to US press ahead of its release. With Shahrukh Khan as your star, you can get away with this because worldwide grosses for his films tend toward the stratosphere. But it's a pity the non-Indian press are discouraged from shouting out the news about a film that delves compellingly into Americans' anti-Muslim hysteria.
True, the film veers into melodrama and contrivances in the second half. Yet director/co-writer Karan Johar is, here and in other films, trying to bring fresh ideas to Hindi commercial cinema with a little less masala and a dash more reality to its fantasy stories.
Johar, Khan and co-star Kajol, who worked together on the smash hit Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), reunite on this much more serious project, which finds Khan as a man with a disability who nevertheless wins people over through a loving personality. For the first half, the film plays a dicey game of skirting sentimentality without ever crossing that line into pure hokum.
Khan is Rizvan Khan, who is on the road in a quest to meet the president of the US to deliver this message: "My Name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist." In flashbacks beginning with his early life in India, where a doting mother helped nurture a child (played well by Tanay Chheda) suffering from a form of autism, the film recounts its hero's journey to this point.
A younger brother who never felt as appreciated because he was a normal boy, emigrated to San Francisco and achieved success. On their mother's death, his older brother joins him, but the two never really adjust to one another.
Against all odds – which more or less is the theme of most Bollywood stories – he woos and wins the love of a beautiful single mum (Kajol). Only one problem: She is Hindu. The brother cuts him off, but Khan basks in the love of his new bride and her young son.
Then September 11 happens. The film pictures Americans as unable to tell the differences between Muslims and Hindus or Arabs and Indians.
Which is not exactly wrong when it comes to certain redneck elements, but locating these hatreds in left-leaning San Francisco demonstrates a certain lack of comprehension on the filmmakers' part. Perhaps they just liked the idea of cable cars in their movie.
The somewhat predictable tragedy tears the new family apart. Worse, Khan's wife blames him, an exasperating plot turn that lessens her as a character and makes no sense at all. The movie then become a pilgrimage of redemption where the hero must fulfill his wife's demand to tell the country and the US president that even though his name is Muslim he is not a terrorist. This has a certain Capra-esque quality, so it might have worked, but the linchpin to his redemption seems to be a poor rural and black county set in the Deep South that defies credibility. These are also the only sequences that clearly take place on a soundstage set. Everything here screams: Fake!
Nevertheless, the film and especially Khan hold on to their integrity through conviction and warmheartedness. Without any gimmickry, Khan captures the nervous ticks and emotional barriers that an afflicted individual must battle daily. It's a showy performance, but in the right kind of way. The production seems to grow bigger as the movie progresses, with Khan's odyssey including a Guantanamo-like imprisonment and a hurricane. Even Barack Obama (Christopher B Duncan) puts in an appearance.
This is a movie not built for subtlety, but it does tackle a subject American movies have mostly avoided – that of racial profiling and the plight of Muslim-Americans. It also allows Shahrukh Khan to display his talent to an even wider audience. It's well worth the 162-minute journey. (Reuters)
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