Monday, February 15, 2010

My Name is Khan

Today, we live in a world that is an integration of disconnected individuals. With increasing links, connections and removal of barriers, assimilation has forced people to face differences, bias and prejudice like never before. Despite this integration and yet, in many ways, as a consequence of this, ours is a world fraught with trust deficits and fear. This fear has caused us to act inways that have entrenche these identities of "us" and the "other" so strongly that there seems no solution to it anymore. Nevertheless, ultimately the problem is simply one of lack of trust which requires an immense leap of faith to be overcome. The need for this is an insurmountable barrier which is exploited by few to their economic and political benefit. It is this seemingly impossible and yet highly simple solution that MNIK offers us in the very first few minutes of the movie when Rizwan's mother (Zarina Wahab) explains to a young Rizwan (Tanay Chheda) that there are only two kinds of people: those who do good things and those who do bad. It is only these deeds that matter. The rest (religion, caste etc.) are irrelevant.

9th September 2001 did change the world dramatically. In retaliation to the attack on the Twin Towers, the Bush Administration took strong measures in reaction which have changed the political landscape on a global scale forever. In the post 9/11 era, the Muslim has emerged as this universal "other" which has forced many devout Muslims to defend their stand. It is a painful reality that there is bias against the members of the community which has caused tremendous tensions and fractures in our society. It is this society that MNIK chooses to portray and in so doing, it makes you squirm, sit up and listen.

It is very surprising that Karan Johar should make a movie like MNIK. As subject matter, it is a significant departure from his trademark candy floss cinema. In scope, it is immense covering the Bombay riots, pre 9/11 America, post 9/11 America, Afghanistan, Iraq and even Hurricane Katrina. However, what is most remarkable that instead of making a mess of things as expected, he manages to tie these contemporary events into a narrative from the micro perspective of Rizwan (Shah Rukh Khan) so well that, despite some glitches, the message comes across highly effectively. The ideas are well thought out and the execution has that required maturity for such a provocative issue.

It was an interesting choice to portray the central character as one afflicted with Asperger’s Syndrome. Although certain liberties have been taken with the disease, this lends to him the simplicity, honesty and frankness that is much needed for driving the message of the film home without sounding conceited or phoney. Through him, they construct a viewpoint of the events of the last 20 years much like Forest Gump did for the socio-cultural history of the United States before that. Like Gump, the movie requires a certain degree of suspension of belief. However, I think what makes My Name is Khan different is the fact that it has certain universal relevance for the times that we live in. It has an urgent message and it delivers that with such simplicity and effectiveness that one is simply bowled over.

The prime reasons why the movie works on such a scale is because it structures the macro events around characters we care for. At the centre is of course, Rizwan (Shah Rukh Khan) who is afflicted with Asperger’s and comes to the United States to his estranged brother (Jimmy Shergill) and his wife (Sonya Jehaan) in the pre 9/11 era. Despite an aptitude with machines, he is forced to sell beauty products for his brother’s company. As a salesman, he meets single mom Mandira (Kajol) and her son Sameer. Love happens followed by marriage. They move from San Francisco to a small town Banville on the outskirts and live a comfortable life. One day, they wake up to a changed world as the World Trade Centre is attacked. The family struggles to make ends meet as they face prejudice in small ways for many years until one day, an event changes everything irreparably and their world comes crashing down. From thereon, Rizwan makes embarks on a remarkable and unforgettable journey to meet the President of the United States.

In the first half, Karan Johar takes time to establish the characters completely. The love story of Rizwan and Mandira is, without a doubt, the most refreshing love story in ages. It is sweet, charming and simple much like the character of Rizwan. Each character is given the necessary screen time right from Rizwan’s mother and his loving sister in law to Mandira’s friend Sara and her family. The changes in the after the attack on the Twin Towers are dealt with great care and based in a lot of true life incidents and facts, which lend a chilling authenticity to it all. As a consequence of this, in the second half, when the journey actually begins, you care for these characters and their fates. From the moment when Rizwan proclaims, “My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist,” I got goosebumps.

What is truly remarkable about the film is its screenplay which is certainly based in solid research. This is a pleasant surprise as the screenplay was one of the biggest problems in Johar’s previous outing “Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna”. Here, it treats its themes with care and never looses focus on the point it is trying to make. Even the minor characters are believable. Thankfully, unlike “Kurbaan” and “New York” it does not portray the Americans as idiots run loose upon the world. It shows the diversity of peoples and opinions through its smaller characters. Sure, there are problems in the latter reels of the film like the terrorist track. However, by then, there are so many points stacked in its favour that it is easy to overlook these in favour of the larger point the movie is trying to make. The performances are splendid. Kajol returns after a hiatus and delivers one of the best performances of her career. Zarina Wahab is brilliant and leaves a remarkable impact despite the limited screen time. Sonya Jehaan also pitches in a solid performance. Even the American actors succeed in becoming more than mere fillers. However, at the centre of the film is Shah Rukh Khan who gives, I think, the best performance of his career. As the autistic Rizwan, he achieves something highly elusive: he conveys the hardships and trials of his character and moves us to tears without ever showing emotions conventionally.

Ultimately, it is ironic that the Shiv Sena should choose to oppose Shah Rukh Khan in relation to this particular film. It is symbolic that a political party that peddles in the politics of hate should oppose a film which promotes the message of reconciliation and coexistence. As a Mumbaikar, I was proud of the fact that the movie was ultimately released with state cooperation and I had the opportunity to see it with the rest of the world. It marked a remarkable shift in the political landscape of the city from a time when Mani Ratnam had to show “Bombay” to Bal Thackarey in 1995 to secure his approval prior to its release. As I ventured out to see the movie on Valentine’s Day (another day for the Sena to go gallivanting around Mumbai with their moral policing), I was glad and proud to be a part of this changing dynamic. Many movies are entertaining but few are an experience to remember. “My Name is Khan” is the latter. In fact, I truly believe that it is amongst the most important and relevant movies in recent times, in any language.

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