Saturday 26 June 2010

'My Name Is Khan' Movie Review

The following is a review I have written for the movie My Name Is Khan. It was released in cinemas in February.

My Name Is Khan ****½

With Asperger’s Syndrome becoming far more widely recognized by the people of the world, more films featuring characters with the condition are starting to appear. Last year saw the fantastic American indie film Adam tackle the issue of Asperger’s and relationships. Now we have something very different in the form of My Name Is Khan. Coming out of the Bollywood filmmaking stable - even though it is not a Bollywood film in the traditional sense, this not being a musical in any way and actually being something of an international production, with dialogue being in Hindi, Urdu and English and, due to the multinational nature of the story, featuring American actors as well as Indian ones - My Name Is Khan focuses more on some of the negative preconceptions that can arise due to a lack of understanding of Asperger’s and how those with it are affected by the condition as well as dealing with the issue of changing racial perceptions in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. My Name Is Khan is literally the first Bollywood movie I have ever seen so my knowledge of the background of this huge area of filmmaking is limited but, based on the evidence of this film, it is not hard to see the appeal.

Rizwan Khan (Shahrukh Khan) is a Muslim from the Borivali section of Mumbai who suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, a form of high-functioning Autism that complicates socialization, prevents him from fully understanding the world around him and causes him to display behaviours that many would consider to be odd. After the death of his mother, he moves to San Francisco to work for his brother there and it is here that he meets Mandira (Kajol), a Hindu single mother with whom he develops a bond and eventually marries. Things go well in Rizwan’s life for some time as he, Mandira and her son Sameer (Yvaan Makaar) live the dream but after the tragic events of 9/11 everything changes. With racial hatred towards Muslims growing, tragedy strikes their family and Mandira, blaming Rizwan for what has happened forces him away. Misinterpreting her sarcastic suggestion for him to meet the US President to say “My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist” as a genuine request, Rizwan sets out on an epic journey to do just that, following the President as he goes on tour around the country. Along the way, he gets detained by authorities who mistake his disability for suspicious behaviour, helps apprehend some genuine terrorists, forms new friendships, shows what true heroism is and inspires the entire nation – all so that he can win back the love of Mandira.

At the start of My Name Is Khan, a disclaimer reads “The protagonist in this film suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of Autism. While the film endeavours to depict the character as authentically and sensitively as possible, it is a work of fiction and hence certain creative liberties have been taken in the portrayal of the condition.” While it doesn’t reflect on the quality of the performance by Shahrukh Khan, this disclaimer is apt as the performance is certainly not one of the more restrained portrayals of a character with Asperger’s Syndrome, in fact being quite an over the top one. While “certain creative liberties” may have been taken, however, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the performance doesn’t ring true to life. While the portrayal isn’t the most restrained and perhaps doesn’t reflect the majority of people with Asperger’s, as someone with the condition myself, I can say that there almost certainly are people out there just like Rizwan. And it is the depiction of Rizwan that truly makes the film work. Shahrukh Khan is superb in the central role (as is Tanay Chheda who portrays the young Rizwan), perfectly displaying the mannerisms and eccentricities of an individual with Asperger’s. He perfectly captures all the different facets that can be found in people with Asperger’s in real life, from the difficulty in maintaining eye contact to the discomfort with physical contact, and the way he takes everything literally at face value to the manner in which certain sights and sounds trigger anxiety attacks. All of this rings true and all of it I, and probably many other with the condition, can personally relate to. The strong central performance, along with well written dialogue and a strong plot, ensures that we do truly believe in the character, his life and his journey, everything he says and does seeming completely plausible – the way he freaks out over things that most people take for granted; the way he interprets everything literally, such as Mandira’s suggestion that he meet the President; his inability to understand basic social cues; the way his behaviour gets misconstrued and the way he fails to comprehend why he is treated in a certain way. The relationship between Rizwan and Mandira also convinces, thanks to a terrific chemistry of sorts between a perfectly paired Khan and co-star Kajol (who delivers a very strong performance in her own right). The nature of Rizwan having Asperger’s means that he is unable to express his emotions openly (something which is represented in the film through him writing his feelings down in a diary, which we hear as voiceover narration) but even without us seeing the emotion on screen, there is still a certain spark between Khan and Kajol when their eyes first meet that makes us truly believe in them as a couple. Even though the relationship seems to progress very quickly, it never fails to seem organic and we really can buy that they are falling in love with one another. This delightful love story at the heart of the film is the driving force for the entire plot and for a good while, the film is happy and cheerful, reflecting the joy of Rizwan and Mandira’s life together, the film tending towards the comic during this period, with a sweet and quirky sense of humour akin to what you would expect from the better films that the romantic comedy genre have to offer. When the events of 9/11 come into the film, however, things take on a much different, darker tone, the comic being replaced by the tragic and in a way that seems completely natural. Suddenly, an easy to watch film becomes much harder going (although still worth sitting through). You see, this film isn’t just about Asperger’s Syndrome, it is also about the changing attitudes towards Muslims following the tragic events of 9/11. With Rizwan, the fact that he is a Muslim is every bit as important to the plot as the fact that he has Asperger’s Syndrome. Without either one there would be not film but together they set the stage for his epic journey. In this regard the film also succeeds, painting an all too realistic picture of the racial hatred that erupted in America post 9/11, even if it doesn’t have much to say that hasn’t been said before and, ultimately, it is the Asperger’s aspect that prevails in the end. If the film falls short of being perfect, it is because the long running time (2 hours 34 minutes) combined with the hard subject matter that arises post 9/11 make for a film that is occasionally hard to watch and the climax of the film tends towards the saccharine, abandoning the realism that has been the order of the day up to that point in favour of an unbelievably happy ending where the best of humanity prevails and love conquers all. This isn’t to say that it is a bad way to go out as it ensures the film ends on a high note, just that given some of the harder stuff that has come before it is somewhat difficult to really buy into it. Additionally, the manner in which the film shifts between languages, with a character one moment speaking English and the next speaking Hindi or Urdu (those unfamiliar will have difficulty discerning which is which) often proves confusing, especially when a character is speaking in these languages to people who shouldn’t be able to understand them yet clearly do. So, My Name Is Khan falls somewhat short of being a masterpiece but nonetheless proves to be a very compelling and very well made film that is inspirational, moving, heartwarming and epic. A very powerful movie going experience indeed.


My Name Is Khan is available to buy on DVD on Monday 28th June 2010.

Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)


  1. I came across it after half a bttle of wine...and apart from the dated sets...I enjoyed it!!

  2. I feel curious. Why is it hard for people with Asperger's syndrome to make friends?

    I also feel a bit confused. I understand you may not be able to know what others feel if others don't tell you, but, isn't it enough that people try and describe what they feel to you? I feel better, if I'm feeling sad or angry, when I describe how I feel, because when I do it I understand better how do I feel and why and helps me calm down. Even though the fact that you can't know that easily how I feel would be a bit confusing to me at first, and maybe even a little bit funny (because it would be surprising and surprise is a mayor factor in things being funny), once I know about your condition I think it should be easy.

    And you truly do not understand jokes easily? Why is that? Do you know?

    I will try to come back to this site sometime. Maybe tomorrow or one of the days next week. Please, answer my questions.

    I enjoyed the movie very much.

  3. People with Aspergers Syndrome find it so hard to make friends because we often don't understand or properly comprehend the rules of social interaction. I, for instance, never know what to say or do in a social situation and generally find the whole social thing to be very nerve wracking. I commonly freeze up and if I do manage to speak I tend to be speaking at the person rather than with them. I find it hard to hold a conversation outside of a topic that interests me personally.

    Unfortunately, people generally don't spell out their feelings to us. We are just expected, like everyone else, to automatically pick up on how they are feeling, something which we are completely unable to do due to a lack of understanding of body language and even common aspects of speech.

    As for jokes, it depends purely on the kind of humour. For me personally some kinds of humour will make me laugh very easily, particularly stuff in a film or TV show, but, when a person is actually saying a joke, I often don't get it. Jokes that people tell are of the variety that people like me just don't often understand. I don't know more specifically why this is the case.

    I hope this answers your questions and I apologise for my late response. I am very busy of late and so don't get on here much, hence the lack of updates for a while.

    Robert Mann