My Name is Khan is a film made with sincerity and sweat, ambition and conviction. It grapples with the most urgent and fraught issue facing humanity: religion. It features a striking performance by Shah Rukh Khan.
It has some scenes that will bruise you. Yet despite all this, My Name is Khan never becomes the empowering, inspiring Forest Gump-like epic. Mainly because the connective tissue tying it together is deeply flawed and in places, embarrassingly naive.
Khan is the story of Rizwan Khan, played by Shah Rukh, who has Asperger’s syndrome. This milder form of autism impairs Rizwan’s social communication skills and gives him some decidedly odd behavior patterns – he can’t stand loud sounds or the colour yellow.
He rotates stones obsessively and can barely bring himself to hug someone. Rizwan is far from crazy but he definitely moves to the beat of a different drummer. Despite this he finds love and a family with Mandira, played by Kajol.
But post 9/11, their happy home falls apart and Rizwan embarks on a grand odyssey across America so that he can tell the American president that his name is Khan but he is not a terrorist.
My Name is Khan is on firm footing as long as director Karan Johar stays with emotional drama. He opens the film skillfully with airport security searching Rizwan and then moves into flashback.
The scenes of Rizwan’s childhood are some of the strongest in the film. Zarina Wahab returns after years to give a lovely, nuanced performance as Rizwan’s mother. But the film’s delicate rhythm wobbles when we shift to San Francisco and into love story mode.
The first shaky sign is the entry of Navneet Nishan who seems like she has stepped in from some other, louder film.
The romance between Rizwan and Mandira is too designed and mawkish.
Kajol, struggling with a thin character, mostly veers between being hyper and cute.
Still, Karan, working with an ace technical team including cinematographer Ravi K Chandran and editor Deepa Bhatia, crafts some beautiful images and poignant sequences but the film loses balance irreparably as it moves into political mode.
The second half scrambles madly both literally and figuratively. Rizwan, obviously superman in another life, manages to shout down a hate-mongering Muslim doctor, have him arrested by the FBI, get arrested himself and in a ridiculous pre-climactic sequence, save the citizens of a small town when floods hit Georgia.
Writer Shibani Bhatija squeezes in so much that by the end of two hours and forty minutes, even if Rizwan isn’t exhausted, you are.
Rizwan is undeniably the best thing about My Name is Khan. Shah Rukh’s performance has little subtlety about it – for that watch Hugh Dancy doing Asperger’s in Adam – but it is heartfelt, endearing and more controlled than anything he’s ever done before. Watch him in a lovely scene in which Kajol accepts his proposal or how he restrains his tears so that his eyes brim but never well over.
I recommend that you see Khan for him. The film itself is too uneven to give us the emotional high we were waiting for.