He Is 'Khan,' And He Shall Overcome

Shah Rukh Khan i i

Somebody To Love: Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan plays Rizvan Khan, an awkward yet endearing man on a quest to reclaim the love of his life. Sameer Belvalkar/Fox Searchlight hide caption

itoggle caption Sameer Belvalkar/Fox Searchlight
Shah Rukh Khan

Somebody To Love: Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan plays Rizvan Khan, an awkward yet endearing man on a quest to reclaim the love of his life.

Sameer Belvalkar/Fox Searchlight

My Name Is Khan

  • Director: Karan Johar
  • Genre: Romantic political musical
  • Running Time: 165 minutes

Not rated: Violence, occasional profanity

With: Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol Devgan, Christopher B. Duncan, Tanay Chheda

An Indian melodrama set mostly in the U.S., My Name Is Khan transplants Bollywood's audacious style and brazen sentimentality to Hollywood's America. The movie features a hero who could have ambled out of Forrest Gump, and even takes "We Shall Overcome" as its musical theme.

For more than half of the film's nearly three-hour running time, the cinematic cross-pollination is delightful. But even if the dialogue weren't primarily in Hindi, the film's sensibility would seem foreign to American multiplexes. As the story becomes increasingly nutty — that is, increasingly Bollywood — My Name Is Khan is likely to lose all but the most sympathetic viewers.

The man who delivers the title phrase, again and again, is Rizvan Khan, an Indian Muslim played winningly by Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan. A whiz with mechanical devices, Rizvan is brilliant but painfully anxious; he doesn't like loud noises, the color yellow or being touched. Only his doting mama is allowed to hug him.

Mom teaches Rizvan many things, but one lesson is crucial to his later adventures: Despite hostility between Hindus and Muslims, there is no essential difference between them. There are only two kinds of people, she tells him — good and bad.

After their mother dies, younger brother Zakir brings Rizvan to San Francisco. His new sister-in-law, a psychologist, promptly diagnoses Rizvan as having Asperger's syndrome.

Improbably, Zakir presses the childlike Rizvan into service as a salesman for his beauty products line. But Rizvan succeeds at the job, thanks to his prodigious memory and charming inability to tell a lie.

Kajol Devgan i i

'One Of The Good People': Kajol Devgan plays Mandira, a single mother struggling with an improbable love and post-Sept. 11 upheaval. Sameer Belvalkar/Fox Searchlight hide caption

itoggle caption Sameer Belvalkar/Fox Searchlight
Kajol Devgan

'One Of The Good People': Kajol Devgan plays Mandira, a single mother struggling with an improbable love and post-Sept. 11 upheaval.

Sameer Belvalkar/Fox Searchlight

Rizvan also sells himself to one of his clients, the supernaturally accepting hairdresser Mandira (the radiant Kajol Devgan, a frequent Khan co-star). She's a Hindu and divorced with a young son, but Rizvan can tell she's one of the good people. Their romance is both implausible and enchanting.

The couple marries, moves to the suburbs and lives happily for years. Then Sept. 11 happens, life in the U.S. becomes harsher for South Asians, and the movie shifts to tear-jerking mode.

A Sudden Shift

After anti-Muslim violence touches her son, Mandira banishes Rizvan. He becomes convinced he can return to her — if only he can meet the U.S. president and tell him, "My name is Rizvan Khan, and I am not a terrorist."

During his travels, Rizvan is ignored, assaulted (more than once) and arrested. Gradually, it becomes clear what will end his quest: the election of a new president who's more attuned to persons of color.

The film was shot partially in the U.S., but also in India, and some scenes meant to be the former are clearly the latter. Similar problems dog the script, which can be ingenious, yet is often detached from American reality.

The story includes barely veiled references to such recent U.S. infamies as Abu Ghraib and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, handled in a way that suggests only superficial knowledge of them. The movie is most jarringly clueless when depicting African-American Southerners, who seem modeled on minstrel-show stereotypes.

Despite the lead actor's best efforts, the characterization of Asperger's syndrome is also dubious. My Name Is Khan makes Rain Man look like an official case study.

Yet director Karan Johar's willingness to engage big issues, however clumsily, remains as engaging as the movie's heightened emotion and vibrant use of motion and music. My Name Is Khan doesn't demonstrate much insight into American life, but its ability to turn "We Shall Overcome" into a Hindi anthem shows that the film does know something about cultural melting pots.

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