My Name is Khan: A post-9/11 epic Bollywood journey for love
“My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist.”
These are the words Rizwan Khan, a Indian Muslim immigrant living in California, wants to say to the President of the United States. Khan travels across the country for nearly a year by plane, bus and foot to meet the Pre ident (first Bush and then Obama) to share his message, attracting attention from federal authorities and the media. But Khan, who suffers from Asperger Syndrome, doesn’t quite understand why the media, authorities, and the American public are invigorated by his journey. Khan doesn’t see the message of identity and tolerance that he is spreading. As far as Khan knows, he is simply traveling across the country for love and to reunify his family after a great tragedy.
If this plot summary makes My Name is Khan seem far-fetched and overwrought with melodrama, you are correct. After all, My Name is Khan is a Bollywood film and melodramatic love stories are an essential aspect of these films. Here the main protagonists, Khan and Mandira, are played by Bollywood megastars Shahrukh Khan and Kajol. But My Name is Khan is certainly not a traditional Bollywood film like Devdas (2002), Main Noon Ha (2004) or Om Shanti Om (2007). There are no song and dance sequences that saturate the screen with movement and color. In fact, the three musical-esque numbers in My Name is Khan are just montages that show Khan and Mandira’s sweeping and abruptly disrupted love for one another.
My Name is Khan moves beyond the melodramatic love story and the Aspergers Syndrome subplot. Like 2009’s New York, it is one of the few Bollywood films set in paranoid post-9/11 America that emphasizes the affect the attacks has had on the Muslim-American community. As Khan tells us, there are three periods in Western history: B.C., A.D. and 9/11. Movies rarely show the effects that 9/11 had on Muslim immigrants living in the US; not in Bollywood films and certainly not in Hollywood films. (American independent cinema is a completely different market, where these films such as Man Push Cart (2005) and Amreeka (2009) are lauded to no end.)
My Name is Khan shows stereotyping, victimization and racially-motivated violence endured by characters such as the teased middle school student and the tortured shop owner who’s stories feel straight out of a “This American Life” podcast. The devastating effect this prejudice has on Khan and Mandira’s young son Sam, and the reason for Khan’s Odysseus-like journey, is absolutely heartbreaking. The film goes as far as to compare the plight of Indian Muslims in the US to that of black Americans, in scenes where Khan finds himself in rural Georgia and taken in by Mama Jenny, a woman whose son was killed in Iraq. These scenes are as comical (for instance, the sight of Shahrukh Khan in an oversized woman’s dress) as they are enlightening (a group of Muslims rescuing black Americans from a devastating hurricane).
I am compelled to call this film the Bollywood Forrest Gump. There are several similarities—an autistic character, a sweeping look at American history, even a character named Jenny. But to do so is to broadly categorize it as one type of movie and to discredit it in some ways. While its post-9/11 narrative is, at times, far-reaching and its romance is melodramatic but sincere, My Name is Khan is about the reclamation of identity in the face of personal tragedy and prejudice. Khan’s journey inspires countless others to stand up to the intolerance they face.
This is why the most powerful story in My Name is Khan is not Khan’s or Sam’s or Mama Jenny’s but his sister-in-law’s, Haseena, a professor of psychology who chooses to wear a hijab. After 9/11, Haseena is verbally abused and in one instance, she is shoved to the ground as her hijab is forcefully removed. For most of the remainder of the film she remains uncovered. Inspired by Khan’s cross country journey she boldly wears her hijab again, not because it is just her religious identity but because it is her identity.
Bollywood is arguably the most popular and influential film industry worldwide. The fact that films such as My Name is Khan and New York tackle current social and political issues speaks volumes. It removes the notion that Bollywood cinema is just fantastical and audience-pleasing. My Name is Khan is no doubt a moving and entertaining film; you will find yourself rooting for Khan to meet the President. My Name is Khan engages its audience by addressing current issues, instead of through fantasy. This film is emblematic of the necessity of cinema to represent and not downplay current issues that seep into our everyday lives.
Published: February 25, 2010
Mount Holyoke News