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The Bathos of Khan

May 10, 2010
My Name Is Khan

Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan plays an idiot-savant mistaken for a terrorist in My Name Is Khan.

In India, Slumdog Millionaire was criticized as “poverty porn” and “a white man’s imagined India.” It, of course, was a major hit in the U.S. and won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Now comes My Name Is Khan, Bollywood mega-director Karan Johar’s vision of post-9/11 America, a place where hairdressers live in McMansions in tony suburbs. This Shibari Banthija-penned “epic” is an international blockbuster. Karma is a bitch.

However you feel about Slumdog’s cultural politics, it’s hard to deny director Danny Boyle’s spectacular craft. The same cannot be said for My Name Is Khan. Johar’s and Banthija’s hilarious ignorance about American culture, politics and geography turns out to be the only entertaining part of this otherwise insipid film.

The Khan of the title is a plucky Indian Muslim (Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan) who comes to the United States and is mistaken for a terrorist. He also has Asperger’s. And he also lets everyone in earshot know there are only two types of people in the world—good people and bad people—a lesson his mother taught him during the 1985 Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat. Oh, and he really wants to meet the president to tell him, “My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist.”

Like his spiritual forebear Forrest Gump, Khan has his Jenny. Madira (fellow star Kajol) is a beautiful hairdresser who sees beyond Khan’s fear of the color yellow to recognize instantly what a wonderful person he is. They marry, and move to the suburbs of San Francisco, where Madira opens up a salon, Khan reads a book on having sex and Madira’s son Sameer joins the soccer team. Then comes Sept. 11. Anti-Muslim hatred hits their family violently and tragically, sending Khan on his quest to speak to the leader of the free world. Following a stint in Guantanamo-like detention, Khan helps the victims of a Katrina-like flood in a Georgia-like state. Life is like a box of rasgulla. You never know what you’re going to get.

Unlike Gump—but much like Rain Man—Khan also has a successful, handsome brother. Zakir (Parvin Dabas) emigrated before Khan and is now the owner of an herbal beauty product distributor. Apparently impressed by Khan’s inability to make eye contact, touch other people or lie, Zakir gives him a job as a salesman. He is less impressed by his choice of wife. When Khan announces his plans to marry the Hindu Madira, Zakir disowns him. He should’ve listened to his mom’s lessons.

If filmed with a light touch, this far-fetched story could be a satirical picaresque along the lines of Being There. But Johar doesn’t do understated. He directs like an unchaperoned 5-year-old making himself an ice cream sundae. Two scoops of unnecessary camera angles and three scoops of excessive slo-mo are drowned in a syrup of relentless, exhausting music that aims to pummel the audience into feeling compassion. I’d call the technique manipulative if it had provoked a single intended emotion. (And a Bollywood spectacular without a non sequitir dance sequence? It’s like a Hollywood action movie without an unnecessary explosion—inexcusable.)

Khan’s performance is a painfully broad Rain Man imitation. Not that the script helps matters. Johar and Banthija can’t seem to decide whether Khan (the character) is an idiot-savant, or just an idiot. In a redundant voiceover, Khan tells us he is incapable of expressing emotion. Except, that is, when he smiles, laughs or cries. He also is supposedly incapable of understanding figures of speech. When Madira exasperatedly says she’ll kill herself, Khan freaks out. But when Sameer tells Khan he’ll kick his butt in basketball, Khan gets the metaphor.

This film isn’t an insult to one’s intelligence, it’s an assault. Johar and Banthija have not met a topic in recent American history they can’t sentimentalize, caricature or misrepresent. Their Wikipedia-deep knowledge of the U.S. has its moments of unintentional amusement, though. When George Bush visits a California university in early 2008, he is greeted by cheering young crowds waving signs that read “Peace for America” and “Youth for Equality.” The announcer bellows, “I present to you, the man… the legend… the President of the United States of America!!” One half-expects a shirtless Barack Obama to pile-drive him.

Khan’s disastrous near-encounter with the President leads to his imprisonment, and inspires a plucky pair of young Indian-American journalists to find out the true story behind this strange man. By the time they’re wading through abs-deep water in America’s “southern region” to find Khan leading hurricane rescue efforts in a black church, you have to give Johar credit for pure balls.

Part of what makes this over-the-top scene so unexpected, though, is that the new arthouse release of the film is 25 minutes shorter than the version first shown in the States in February. In that missing section, Khan befriends a kindly black woman named Mama Jenny (Jennifer Echols). Fox Searchlight found the portrayal so condescending that they excised her from the film entirely. I’m just thankful they saved me from enduring a half-hour more of this garbage.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Ivan Nunes permalink
    May 10, 2010 11:35 pm

    This made me laugh. Money quote: “Two scoops of unnecessary camera angles and three scoops of excessive slo-mo are drowned in a syrup of relentless, exhausting music”.

  2. Manasi permalink
    May 11, 2010 9:07 pm

    This made me laugh too 🙂 frustration makes for the best kind of reviews! The thing with Karan Johar’s cinema is the OTT style is his shtick, and you really have to immerse yourself in his style sans judgement to sit through his movies. His earlier work grew on me once I gave it a chance, but this one was just a steaming pile…totally unredeemable.

  3. ciandra dsouza permalink
    May 23, 2010 1:37 pm

    very on the dot! enjoyed the humor in your writing! nicely done!

  4. May 25, 2010 7:30 pm

    I hear the leading cause of Asperger’s Syndrome is Ceti Alpha Five eel larvae wrapping themselves around your cerebral cortex. True story!

  5. May 25, 2010 7:35 pm

    I thought it was caused by a signal from the mysterious entity known as “Yager,” but I could be wrong.

  6. June 12, 2014 8:25 am

    GREAT LOVE STORY
    JAYESH DESAI

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