It used to be the case that when a mainstream Hindi movie was made, you needed to hang on to your kitchen sink for dear life because it was the only thing that wouldn't be sucked into the ensuing Technicolor fever dream. I say this as an ardent admirer and defender of all the idiosyncrasies that make Indian cinema so unique. I suppose it's all a matter of perspective. In college I used to enjoy putting on Hindi movies in the common room only to elicit stunned silence from onlookers. They would quietly watch as scenes of chaste romance were followed by acts of shocking violence which could only be broken up by elaborate synchronized dance numbers. Although they didn't know exactly what they were watching, they knew they couldn't stop watching. This is partly due to the foolproof recipe that Hindi movies used to follow. Viewed as pure escapist entertainment, they contained a little bit of something for everyone.
While the formula movies are still produced in staggering numbers every year, a certain undeniable shift in sensibilities has slowly taken place within Indian cinema. The thought-provoking subtlety of the art-house has entered the mainstream with high-profile directors employing prominent actors and actresses to tell more unconventional stories. Such is the case with My Name Is Khan as director Karan Johar brings together megastars Shahrukh Khan and Kajol to present the tale of an autistic Muslim man living through the aftermath of 9/11. While it attempts to tackle a few too many big issues for its own good, ultimately this is about a man rising above adversity and prejudice to secure what is most important to him: the love of his wife.
The film opens in 2007 with Rizwan Khan (Shahrukh Khan) attempting to board a plane to Washington D.C. When he is flagged and pulled out of line for an unpleasant physical check, he declares that he is on his way to meet the President of the United States so that he can tell him, "My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist." Having thrown us into a state of unease, the film then splinters as flashbacks fill us in on Khan's life up to that point while we continue to follow his quest to meet the President in the present day. We see his troubled childhood when it was apparent early on that he was different from the kids around him including his resentful younger brother. We watch his facility with mechanical devices grow while his human interactions suffer. We mourn the loss of his loving mother and sense the uncertainty of what is to follow.
In short order, Khan is brought over to San Francisco by his brother, Zakir (Jimmy Shergill) who has grown from an angry child into an impatient adult. Fortunately Zakir's wife, Hasina (Sonya Jehan) is supportive enough for both of them. She is also quick to diagnose Khan as having Asperger's syndrome which is a high-functioning form of autism. This explains his muted social interactions along with his stilted speech patterns that have him alternating between information filled monologues and moments when he simply repeats words with different inflections. Then there's the matter of his guileless charm that projects innocence which cannot be faked. That's what attracts Mandira (Kajol) to Khan. She's a hairdresser with a bubbly personality and a precocious son, Sameer (Yuvaan Makaar). After a short but sweet courtship, they find themselves married and ready to settle down. Unfortunately, they wake up on September 11th, 2001 to find that everything has changed. Khan faces the prejudice of people who can't separate his last name from his worth as a human being. Mandira and Sameer suffer simply by association. While I can't reveal what happens next, it is the catalyst that sets Khan off on his journey to meet the President.
Having said as much as I have, there is still a great deal of the plot that I have left out. Some of it was omitted so that you could enjoy it for yourself while the rest represents wishful thinking on my part. Karan Johar has crammed so many subplots into this film that parts of it resemble two movies that have been stitched together just because they feature the same actors. With Khan's back-story, Johar presents a compelling and mature romance which will be tested by forces that are out of anyone's control. Unfortunately, Khan's present day travels threaten to diminish the effect by overloading on extraneous characters and unnecessary tangents. While they are meant to build up the epic nature of Khan's life a la Forrest Gump, they ultimately bog him down. We already know that Khan is a good man. We don't need to see him save the locals of a flooded town. We understand that race is unimportant to him. We don't need to see him defuse a terrorist plot by some extremist Muslims.
Perhaps most annoying is the political subtext that is laid on top of the proceedings. The incidents of the film are timed around the presidential elections in order to get a few more jabs in at Bush. Another troubling aspect is that for a movie sensitive to race relations, it cuts a few corners in its portrayal of African Americans. When Khan meets Mama Jenny (Jennifer Echols) and Funny Haired Joel (Adrian Kali Turner) in Georgia, his interaction with them can be seen as coming from a place of innocence. This however, doesn't explain why Jenny and Joel look like they've stepped out of Navin Johnson's adoptive family in The Jerk. I'm also surprised that after finding a George W. Bush lookalike who passed muster, they couldn't find one for Barack Obama who looked more like him.
Despite my complaints about the excessive plotting and a few questionable character portrayals, I can't deny that this represents Karan Johar's most mature work to date. After his first two movies (Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham) turned out to be enjoyable but formulaic family dramas, I wasn't really prepared for something with this much depth from him. If you need any further proof of his intent, My Name Is Khan doesn't feature a single synchronized dance. Even the songs are used in the background to set tone rather than to show Khan and Mandira flexing their golden pipes. While Johar has demonstrated his willingness to attack unorthodox material in the past (Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna's take on infidelity), this is his first real foray into filmmaking without a safety net and for the most part it really suits him.
I have saved my discussion of the performances until the end because they are the most resoundingly positive elements of the film. The movie stands on the abilities of Shahrukh Khan and Kajol and they do not disappoint. While Shahrukh pitches his character somewhere between Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man and Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, he gives it a sensitivity and vulnerability that is uniquely his own. For an actor who is normally so exuberant that he chows down on the scenery, here he dials it down but still manages to project hesitant warmth. Since romance requires flames and not just warmth, it's a good thing Kajol is on hand. Besides having developed a short-hand with Khan over numerous past pairings, she gives Mandira a fearless personality. Whenever Khan is unable to properly convey his emotions, Mandira's expressive face pulls double duty for both of them. Together, the duo give the movie some heart and soul.
I received a screener copy for review so I can't be certain of the video quality, audio quality or extras until an official copy is obtained.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic image on the screener was relatively clear and free of defects. In addition, the color palette was well represented with a nice pop on screen.
The Hindi audio was presented in a 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround mix. The mix was pretty balanced and got the surrounds involved in the act. Subtitles were presented in English SDH, Spanish and French.
The extras on this release almost feel like a single 'Making Of' piece that's been broken up into smaller featurettes. As a result we have 4 segments that each range from 3 to 5 minutes in length. First up we have Changing the Face of Bollywood where the cast and crew talk about the film's attempts to move away from the same old song and dance that mainstream Hindi cinema is recognized for. From there they move on to talking about Working Together. This segment focuses on the pairing of Shahrukh and Kajol and their ease in working with each other. We also get to hear plenty of praise lavished on Johar. Up next we get a look at The Music of My Name Is Khan. Composers Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy discuss their inspiration for the soothing tunes present in the film. The Story of My Name Is Khan gives us a chance to hear from writers Shibani Bathija and Niranjan Iyengar who talk about the epic yet human drama of the film. The extras are capped off by 2 Music Promos which showcase scenes from the movie while Sajda and Tere Naina play off the soundtrack.
Karan Johar presents his most mature work yet with a heartfelt tale about a man fighting incredible odds to regain his wife's love. Unfortunately Johar doesn't know when to quit and as a result piles a ton of extraneous material on to what should have been a simple and direct story. Ultimately, the film is redeemed by exceptional performances from Shahrukh Khan and Kajol. He is soulful, she is vivacious and together they are eminently watchable. Recommended.