Monday, April 12, 2010

My Name is Khan (2010)

I know what you're thinking. "Bollywood?" But let me tell you, this isn't your typical Indian movie, other than the fact that it stars Shahrukh Khan and Kajol. No random bursting out into song or dance numbers in the rain. Instead, "My Name is Khan" is the story of a Muslim Indian man who suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, which is a form of autism. He moves to America to live with his brother after his mother passes away in India. There he meets a beautiful Hindu divorcee who sees him as the kind and interesting man he is, instead of just seeing him for his disorder like so many others do. The movie builds up to their wedding, as so many Bollywood movies do, but it doesn't end there. 9/11 happens, instead. Now this family of mixed faith but shared ethnicity is subject to harassment and the trials of being different in country shaken by fear. I loved this film. While some people are calling it an 'Indian version of Forrest Gump', I think it is a very original take on the Bollywood romance trope. Yes, there's drama and weddings and tragedy and humor, but the way it is framed is what really makes this movie special. Seeing Khan's hijabi sister-in-law who is a Psychology professor having her hijab yanked on campus after 9/11 and her subsequent decision to stop wearing it really hit home for me. I started wearing hats and bandanas myself after those tragic events, more for my mother's peace of mind than any perceived threat, but all the same it was a vivid reminder of that time for me.

The crux of the film lies in an angst-filled and dramatic argument between Khan (the main character) and his wife, who finally screams at him to go to the President of the US and tell him, "My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist". To reveal the circumstances of the argument would be to reveal some very important plot points so you'll just have to watch to find out what drove her to say it. Khan, being autistic and not able to express emotion, does the only thing he can to prove his love. Start the journey to meet the President and tell him. It's a surprisingly poignant story, though some things may come off as cliché to those used to the regular movie tropes found in regular Hollywood movies. Later on in the film, Khan goes to help out at a Katrina-like natural disaster, which might seem over the top to some, but the parallels they illustrate between this disaster and his childhood memories make it meaningful and interesting. The portrayal of African-Americans from the South could come off as offensive, especially the Aunt Jemima-like character of Mama Jenny, but the stereo-type is not used in a negative light, so you kind of have to give them the benefit of the doubt in this case. Perhaps the next Bollywood film featuring African-Americans will have a more nuanced portrayal.

The parts of the film dealing with religion in particular were very nuanced on the other hand. We got to see Khan's brother disapprove his Hindu wife, while the hijabi sister-in-law attends the wedding despite that. Khan is shown praying salat at different intervals in the film with sincerity and dedication. The highlight of the film for me was when he happens upon a mosque where a man is trying to lead a small group of others into extremist behavior. The way that situation is addressed and handled was wonderfully creative and insightful. I think that part alone made the film worth watching, even if most of it is in Hindi with English subtitles. I feel like I'm not able to do the film justice in this short review, nor am I able to articulate all the minor shortcomings, but in the end, I highly recommend this movie to anyone who has the opportunity to see it!