Only a Bollywood helmer of Karan Johar’s caliber, teamed with the megawatt star power of Shah Rukh Khan, could wrap a post-9/11 message of tolerance preached by a hero with Asperger’s syndrome around a slice of entertainment as huge as “My Name Is Khan.” This riotously overstuffed and enormously enjoyable drama races forward with incredible drive as its Muslim protag seeks out the U.S. president to give him one message: “My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist.” Fox hopes for a “Slumdog Millionaire” crossover, though it could be a tough sell to non-Bollywood fans.
Fox Star Studios, a joint venture between 20th Century Fox and Asian media powerhouse Star (also owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp), reportedly signed the biggest global rights deal in Indian cinema, looking to ride on “Slumdog’s” mass appeal, with a worldwide rollout on Feb. 12. Pic is being released in the States through Fox Searchlight on 103 screens, presumably hoping to build an expanding fan base beyond the usual Indian diaspora. Whether they can overcome resistance to over-the-top Bollywood conventions — “Khan” has no production numbers but boasts as many plot twists as a 12-chapter serial — remains to be seen.
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At home, the pic has become a source of Hindu-Muslim tension ever since Khan lamented the lack of Pakistani cricketers in the Indian Premiere League. Riots have broken out in areas with a strong Hindu nationalist presence, and some cinema owners fear releasing the film at all. Multiplexes in Mumbai and Maharashtra are tentatively trying a limited rollout, but single-screen theaters are holding off for fear of attacks.
There’s more than a touch of irony here, since “Khan” is all about tolerance, repeatedly driving home its message that there are only two kinds of people: good and bad. Adding further extratextual background, in August, Shah Rukh Khan himself fell victim to overzealous security agents at Newark Airport, where he was detained and questioned for an hour.
When his mother (Zarina Wahab) dies in India, Rizvan Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) joins his brother Zakir (Jimmy Shergill) in San Francisco, where Zakir’s psychologist wife Hasina (Sonya Jehan) diagnoses him with Asperger’s. While this element could easily have become mawkish, Khan’s perf and Shibani Bathija’s restrained script sketch an exceptionally respectful portrait of a functional man with autism.
While working for his brother, he meets and woos sympathetic hairdresser Mandira (Kajol), a divorced Hindu with a 6-year-old son named Sameer (Yuvaan Makar). She agrees to marry him despite Zakir’s opposition to their inter-religious union — it speaks to Khan’s unquantifiable
charms, and Kajol’s radiant goodness, that auds believe in the couple. They move to the suburbs and are fully integrated in their multiethnic community.
Then comes 9/11. Across the U.S., Muslims are demonized and attacked. Their journalist neighbor (Dominic Renda) is killed in Afghanistan and his son Reese (Kenton Duty) turns against Sameer. Tragedy strikes when Sameer is beaten to death by racist school bullies, and in her grief, Mandira blames Rizvan for making her son a target by giving him a Muslim name. She kicks him out, telling her literalist husband not to come back until he’s told the president he’s not a terrorist.
In the first half, helmer Johar shuttles between Rizvan’s quest to meet the president and earlier scenes that beautifully establish the lovingly supportive nature of Mandira and Rizvan’s relationship. Then he keeps the plot barreling along as Rizvan encounters the bad and the good, weaving a patchwork quilt of America while positioning the nation as a land where hope and dreams are possible.
One of the big setpieces is a fairy tale imagining of a dirt-poor town in Georgia called Wilhelmina, where Rizvan meets Mamma Jenny (Jennifer Echols) and her son “Funny Hair Joel” (Adrian Kali Turner), two characters straight out of “Song of the South.” Stateside auds will initially cringe at this very retro envisioning of good-hearted black folk in their sharecropper cabins (built on a set in Mumbai), but it’s of a piece with the film, whose vision of respect and honesty, complete with Hindi and English renditions of “We Shall Overcome,” are filtered through stereotyped Bollywood glasses.
“Khan” reunites superstars Khan and Kajol, whose pairings, including Johar’s “Kabhi khushi kabhie gham … ,” resulted in some of India’s biggest blockbusters. They’re a delight together and her natural warmth makes the relationship even more believable.
Khan uses the mannerisms associated with Asperger’s — averted eyes, springy steps, stuttered repetitions of memorized texts — yet captures the personality beneath the condition in a standout performance sure to receive the Autism Society’s gold seal of approval.
Ravi K. Chandran’s sumptuous lensing offers sweep and intimacy, from gorgeous San Francisco location work to stunning closeups. The confident camerawork is matched by exceptional production design, including the aftermath of a hurricane in Wilhelmina that leads to one of many lump-in-the-throat moments far too strong to lose out against cynical brains intellectualizing just how ridiculous it may all be.
Tuneful songs on the soundtrack help make the running time sprint along.