by Special Correspondent Arturo R. García
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
The die is cast early in My Name Is Khan, when the titular lead, Rizwan Khan (Shah Rukh Khan), having already been identified as autistic, is snarkily asked by a TSA agent what he has to tell the President.
“My name is Khan,” he answers. “And I am not a terrorist.” Then the camera zooms in on the baffled agent and the score swells as if to kick him in the throat and yell PWNED!
The punchline is doubly appropriate, given the real-life Khan’s own run-ins with airport security, and a signal that, though it lacks the musical stylings of more familiar Bollywood fare, Rizwan’s story will not skimp on the melodrama on the way to making its point. But at least it does so effectively.
As he learns after moving to America, Rizwan lives with Asperger’s syndrome. Still, during the first half of the movie, Rizwan’s condition makes him a wiz at repairs, and doesn’t deter him from working as a salesman for his brother (Jimmy Shergill) – or from pursuing a relationship with Mandira (Kajol), a hair stylist he meets during his rounds. The early scenes between Rizwan and Mandira are so bubble-gummy they threaten to make Slumdog Millionaire look cynical, but there’s enough of a contrast between theirs and other rom-com couples to keep the schmaltz from completely overwhelming the viewer.
It’s possible that in another movie, the fact that Rizwan, a Muslim, is romancing a Hindu, Mandira, might have been addressed in a song or two. But here it comes into play as part of the aftermath of 9/11 (viewer advisory here: the imagery used for the WTC attack is vivid), when the couple splits up in the wake of a personal tragedy. The film’s second half traces their respective journeys: Mandira’s search for justice is identified as coming from a place of hate, while Rizwan’s – no accident here – revisits the travels of both Forrest Gump and The Hurricane, but in a sign-of-the-times fashion.
Not unlike Gump, Rizwan becomes an accidental media sensation. But first, not unlike Rubin Carter, he’s wrongly imprisoned and tortured, an ordeal which is intercut with a wider wave of anti-Muslim prejudice. And it’s interesting to note that, though the Khans befriend a white couple early on, nearly all of the prejudice directed toward Muslims in this film comes from white Americans.
There’s a schoolteacher who apparently read from Michael Savage’s History Of The Americas; a beefy dude-bro who insists on harassing a Muslim store-owner; and an ill-defined “government official” who went to the Jack Bauer school of interviewing, among others. And none of these scenes are played for “laughs,” either. Neither is a scene later in the movie when Rizwan stumbles into a mosque meeting, set up to more pointedly illustrate what separates Islamic philosophy from terrorist thoughts. These images are meant to make the viewer uncomfortable – and they succeed.
But in a world where Jeff Dunham is considered funny, it’s tough to imagine that more people don’t need to be shaken by them, or to see the characters of Khan and Mandira so unabashedly in love with San Francisco, or the POC allies they pick up along the way. So, even if the film threatens to veer completely off the rails in the third act, when we see stand-ins for both Hurricane Katrina and Barack Obama, the feel-good ending at least legitimately feels good. And judging by the film’s box-office success so far, at least people seem to be open to it.