The message of My Name Is Khan is a laudable one: good and bad people are identifiable by their actions, not by characteristics like race or religion. But a laudable message can’t excuse the fact that My Name Is Khan just doesn’t work.
MNIK‘s protagonist is Rizvan Khan (Shahrukh Khan), an Indian Muslim with Asperger syndrome. Asperger’s is an autism spectrum disorder usually characterized by physical awkwardness and trouble forming emotional connections with other people. As a child, Rizvan’s special needs demand almost constant attention from his mother, alienating his younger brother, Zakir.
As an adult, Rizvan is forced to move to San Francisco to live with Zakir (Jimmy Shergill) after their mother dies. Zakir makes Rizvan work as a traveling cosmetics salesman, an odd assignment for a guy who doesn’t make eye contact and who’s frightened by loud noises and the color yellow. Rizvan is capable of navigating San Francisco, but he’s better at following instructions than he is at improvising.
Rizvan develops a crush on Mandira (Kajol), a divorced hairdresser with a young son named Sameer. Rizvan eventually wins over Mandira with his persistence, and they marry. They live happily for several years until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Tragedy strikes the family, and Mandira — a Hindu — tells Rizvan that she regrets marrying a Muslim man. She tells him to go away until he can convince the President of The United States that he’s not a terrorist just because his last name is Khan. Rizvan takes Mandira’s command literally and sets off to find the president.
For a number of reasons, MNIK just doesn’t work. American filmgoers won’t be able to ignore the things the movie gets wrong about America. While the non-Indian American actors in the movie are actually pretty good (most Hindi films hire terrible American actors), characters don’t speak in proper American colloquialisms. Phrases like “piss off” and “bloody Paki” are British insults, not American insults.
The movie shows footage of a turban-wearing Sikh man targeted by thugs who mistake him for an Arab, establishing correctly that many Americans can’t differentiate between people of Indian, Middle Eastern and northern African origin. But the movie later attributes a beating to the fact that the character’s last name is Khan, a Muslim surname. This defies the movie’s own conclusions about American worldliness. Most Americans don’t associate the name Khan with Islam; they associate it with Star Trek.
MNIK‘s weakest element is the romance between Rizvan and Mandira. The movie spends a long time establishing that Rizvan, despite certain competencies, isn’t able to live independently. He’s not able to be a full partner to Mandira, and she often treats him the same as she does her son. It’s hard to understand why she agreed to marry him.
But, given that they are married, it’s incomprehensible that Mandira would be so cruel as to send Rizvan on a fool’s errand by himself. That she doesn’t feel bad about it makes her heartless, and the excuses the film offers on her behalf don’t hold water.
The movie tries to explain how Rizvan is able to execute a cross-country trek that spans years, but I don’t buy it. The movie doesn’t make it clear exactly how long Rizvan’s journey takes, but it would be almost impossible for anyone to execute, let alone someone coping with Asperger’s.
My Name Is Khan is watchable, but it ultimately fails by overreaching. It might have worked as a story about a couple dealing with the challenges of one partner’s Asperger syndrome. It might have worked as a story about a man who wants to show America that not all Muslims are terrorists. But compressing both stories into one movie is an impossible task, even for superstars like SRK and Kajol.
*AMC theaters list the movie’s runtime as 2 hrs. 25 min. It’s closer to 2 hrs. 35 min., plus 10 minutes of previews. Also, the movie has an MPAA rating of PG-13, though there’s nothing in the film’s content to warrant a rating stronger than PG.