February 12, 2010 4:25:02 pm
Okay,let me come right out and say it. ‘My Name Is Khan is a very good film. It says what we have been trying to hear in a world gone determinedly deaf,in a way thats new,and for the most part,warm and engaging.
All Muslims are not Osama followers. All Muslims are not flying bombs. All Muslims,in short,are not terrorists. That is the burden of Rizwan Khans message,and it is one he picks up and walks with,through the length of America,in his search for justice and a fair hearing,which he believes only the president of the country can provide.
Rizwan ( SRK) is a man with Aspergers Syndrome,a kind of high-functioning autism which most often comes equipped with a brilliant brain,but distressingly few social skills. He discovers the root cause of his ‘difference only when he arrives in the US,as a shambling,inept adult,to live with his resentful-but-dutiful younger brother ( Sheirgill) and sympathetic sister-in-law ( Jehan). But he finds refuge in completely unexpected quarters,with a single mom ( Kajol) and her young son.
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Part of this kind of films credibility depends upon how well the lead player takes on the mantle of a disabled person. Dont go looking for Dustin Hoffman,whose superb channeling of a savant in ‘Rain Man introduced the world to people with Aspergers Syndrome. Shah Rukhs playing of Rizwan is that of a star taking on a character,very different from a pure actor (someone like Irrfan,say) doing the same thing . His shuffling gait and rocking is not something common amongst most people with Aspergers ( thats more characteristic of the classically autistic),but his inability to meet someones gaze,and the sheer inappropriateness and the appalling directness of his conversation is spot on. The fact that hes shed as much of his intrinsic Shah Rukh-ness to take on so much Rizwan makes this his most actorly,most powerful performance : he makes us believe that his being different is as much part of him,as is his religious identity. Being Rizwan is not just about being an Aspergers person. Being Rizwan is also not just about being Muslim. Being Rizwan is about being human.
As the woman who takes him under her wing,Kajol starts off too bright and chirpy but quietens effectively as the film goes along : this is one of her best parts,too. The other characters,Sheirgill as the younger brother who disliked that most of their ‘ammis ( Wahab) attention would be on the older one,Jehan as the hijaab-wearing ‘modern Muslim woman,both the kids,one Indian,the other American,who have substantial parts,even Vinay Pathak,who has a hilarious walk-on,are well written.
But the real bravery award should go to director-producer Karan Johar,who dispenses with the designer preciousness of his previous films to come as close as this to something real,something important. He sets it all up beautifully,and looks set to carry it through but loses his conviction towards the end by drumming up a forced climax. In trying to make Rizwan Khan more heroic than he already is ( the script conjures up a devastating flood somewhere in Georgia,which Rizwan tries to stem : catch any true-blue Aspergers person even wanting to,forget about actually dealing with a crisis of this order of magnitude),the smooth arc of the film is derailed.
But till then,its all just right. It gives this Khan enough time to play that Khan,with a mix of unabashed emotion that leads to wet eyes ( keep those hankies ready,it is a KJO film,after all ) and absolute sincerity : an Aspergers person is not capable of guile. It is both the role of a lifetime,and a platform to say the things that need to be said.
‘My Name Is Khan is that rare big-budget Bollywood starry vehicle,which uses familiar devices to create new meaning. Watch it.
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