With Asperger’s Syndrome becoming far more widely recognized by the people of the world, more films featuring characters with the condition are starting to appear. Last year saw the fantastic American indie film Adam tackle the issue of Asperger’s and relationships. Now we have something very different in the form of My Name Is Khan. Coming out of the Bollywood filmmaking stable – even though it is not a Bollywood film in the traditional sense, this not being a musical in any way and actually being something of an international production, with dialogue being in Hindi, Urdu and English and, due to the multinational nature of the story, featuring American actors as well as Indian ones – My Name Is Khan focuses more on some of the negative preconceptions that can arise due to a lack of understanding of Asperger’s and how those with it are affected by the condition as well as dealing with the issue of changing racial perceptions in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. My Name Is Khan is literally the first Bollywood movie I have ever seen so my knowledge of the background of this huge area of filmmaking is limited but, based on the evidence of this film, it is not hard to see the appeal.
Rizwan Khan (Shahrukh Khan) is a Muslim from the Borivali section of Mumbai who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of high-functioning Autism that complicates socialization, prevents him from fully understanding the world around him and causes him to display behaviours that many would consider to be odd. After the death of his mother, he moves to San Francisco to work for his brother there and it is here that he meets Mandira (Kajol), a Hindu single mother with whom he develops a bond and eventually marries. Things go well in Rizwan’s life for some time as he, Mandira and her son Sameer (Yvaan Makaar) live the dream but after the tragic events of 9/11 everything changes. With racial hatred towards Muslims growing, tragedy strikes their family and Mandira, blaming Rizwan for what has happened forces him away. Misinterpreting her sarcastic suggestion for him to meet the US President to say “My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist” as a genuine request, Rizwan sets out on an epic journey to do just that, following the President as he goes on tour around the country. Along the way, he gets detained by authorities who mistake his disability for suspicious behaviour, helps apprehend some genuine terrorists, forms new friendships, shows what true heroism is and inspires the entire nation – all so that he can win back the love of Mandira.
At the start of My Name Is Khan, a disclaimer reads “The protagonist in this film suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of Autism. While the film endeavours to depict the character as authentically and sensitively as possible, it is a work of fiction and hence certain creative liberties have been taken in the portrayal of the condition.” While it doesn’t reflect on the quality of the performance by Shahrukh Khan, this disclaimer is apt as the performance is certainly not one of the more restrained portrayals of a character with Asperger’s Syndrome, in fact being quite an over the top one. While “certain creative liberties” may have been taken, however, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the performance doesn’t ring true to life. While the portrayal isn’t the most restrained and perhaps doesn’t reflect the majority of people with Asperger’s, as someone with the condition myself, I can say that there almost certainly are people out there just like Rizwan. And it is the depiction of Rizwan that truly makes the film work. Shahrukh Khan is superb in the central role (as is Tanay Chheda who portrays the young Rizwan), perfectly displaying the mannerisms and eccentricities of an individual with Asperger’s. He perfectly captures all the different facets that can be found in people with Asperger’s in real life, from the difficulty in maintaining eye contact to the discomfort with physical contact, and the way he takes everything literally at face value to the manner in which certain sights and sounds trigger anxiety attacks. All of this rings true and all of it I, and probably many other with the condition, can personally relate to. The strong central performance, along with well written dialogue and a strong plot, ensures that we do truly believe in the character, his life and his journey, everything he says and does seeming completely plausible – the way he freaks out over things that most people take for granted; the way he interprets everything literally, such as Mandira’s suggestion that he meet the President; his inability to understand basic social cues; the way his behaviour gets misconstrued and the way he fails to comprehend why he is treated in a certain way. The relationship between Rizwan and Mandira also convinces, thanks to a terrific chemistry of sorts between a perfectly paired Khan and co-star Kajol (who delivers a very strong performance in her own right). The nature of Rizwan having Asperger’s means that he is unable to express his emotions openly (something which is represented in the film through him writing his feelings down in a diary, which we hear as voiceover narration) but even without us seeing the emotion on screen, there is still a certain spark between Khan and Kajol when their eyes first meet that makes us truly believe in them as a couple. Even though the relationship seems to progress very quickly, it never fails to seem organic and we really can buy that they are falling in love with one another. This delightful love story at the heart of the film is the driving force for the entire plot and for a good while, the film is happy and cheerful, reflecting the joy of Rizwan and Mandira’s life together, the film tending towards the comic during this period, with a sweet and quirky sense of humour akin to what you would expect from the better films that the romantic comedy genre have to offer. When the events of 9/11 come into the film, however, things take on a much different, darker tone, the comic being replaced by the tragic and in a way that seems completely natural. Suddenly, an easy to watch film becomes much harder going (although still worth sitting through). You see, this film isn’t just about Asperger’s Syndrome, it is also about the changing attitudes towards Muslims following the tragic events of 9/11. With Rizwan, the fact that he is a Muslim is every bit as important to the plot as the fact that he has Asperger’s Syndrome. Without either one there would be not film but together they set the stage for his epic journey. In this regard the film also succeeds, painting an all too realistic picture of the racial hatred that erupted in America post 9/11, even if it doesn’t have much to say that hasn’t been said before and, ultimately, it is the Asperger’s aspect that prevails in the end. If the film falls short of being perfect, it is because the long running time (2 hours 34 minutes) combined with the hard subject matter that arises post 9/11 make for a film that is occasionally hard to watch and the climax of the film tends towards the saccharine, abandoning the realism that has been the order of the day up to that point in favour of an unbelievably happy ending where the best of humanity prevails and love conquers all. This isn’t to say that it is a bad way to go out as it ensures the film ends on a high note, just that given some of the harder stuff that has come before it is somewhat difficult to really buy into it. Additionally, the manner in which the film shifts between languages, with a character one moment speaking English and the next speaking Hindi or Urdu (those unfamiliar will have difficulty discerning which is which) often proves confusing, especially when a character is speaking in these languages to people who shouldn’t be able to understand them yet clearly do. So, My Name Is Khan falls somewhat short of being a masterpiece but nonetheless proves to be a very compelling and very well made film that is inspirational, moving, heartwarming and epic. A very powerful movie going experience indeed.
Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)
© BRWC 2010.
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