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BERLIN — The thing about some Bollywood superstars is that they are actually fine actors as well as charismatic performers. So it’s not surprising in “My Name Is Khan” to see Bollywood mega-star Shah Rukh Khan — he’s light-years beyond a mere superstar in Hindi cinema’s cosmology — challenge himself to expand his acting range and possibly his international fan base. In convincing fashion, he plays an Indian in America battling the double whammy of living with Asperger’s Syndrome and as a Muslim man in the post-9/11 world.
The film is getting released in India, North America and many other territories Feb. 12, but its North American distributor, Fox Searchlight, adopted the puzzling strategy of playing the film out of competition here at the Berlinale but refusing to screen it to U.S. press ahead of its release. With Shah Rukh Khan as your star, you can get away with this since worldwide grosses for his films tend toward the stratosphere. But it’s a pity that the non-Indian press are discouraged from shouting out the news about a film that delves compellingly into Americans’ anti-Muslim hysteria.
True, the film veers into melodrama and contrivances in the second half. Yet its director/co-writer Karan Johar is, here and in other films, trying to bring fresh ideas to Hindi commercial cinema with a little less masala and a dash more reality to its fantasy stories.
Johar, Khan and co-star Kajol, who all worked on Johar’s smash hit “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” (1998), reunite on this much more serious project that finds Khan as a man with a disability who nevertheless wins people over through a loving personality that peeks through his emotional shortcomings. For the first half, the film plays a dicey game of skirting sentimentality without ever quite crossing that line into pure hokum.
Khan is Rizvan Khan, who is on the road in a quest to meet the president of the U.S. to deliver this message: “My Name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist.” In flashbacks beginning with his early life in India, where a doting mother helped nurture and give strength to a child (played well by Tanay Chheda) suffering from a form of autism, the film recounts its hero’s journey up to this point.
A younger brother, who never felt as appreciated since he was a normal boy, emigrated to San Francisco and achieved success. Upon their mother’s death, his older brother joins him but the two never really adjust to one another.
Against all odds — which more or less is the theme of most Bollywood stories — he woos and wins the love of a beautiful single mom (Kajol). Only one problem: She is Hindu. The brother cuts him off, but Khan basks in the love of his new bride and her young son.
Then Sept. 11 happens. The film pictures Americans as unable to tell the differences between Muslims and Hindus or Arabs and Indians. Which is not exactly wrong, when it comes to certain redneck elements, but locating these hatreds in left-leaning San Francisco demonstrates a certain lack of comprehension on the filmmakers’ part as well. Perhaps they just liked the idea of cable cars in their movie.
So a somewhat predictable tragedy tears the new family apart. Worse, Khan’s wife blames him of all people, an exasperating plot turn that lessens her as a character and makes no sense at any level.
The movie then become a pilgrimage of redemption where the hero must fulfill his wife’s demand to tell the country and the U.S. president that even though his name is Muslim he is not a terrorist. This has a certain Capra-esque quality so it might have worked, but the linchpin to his redemption seems to be a poor rural and black county set in the Deep South that defies any credibility whatsoever. These are also the only sequences that clearly take place on a soundstage set. Everything here screams: Fake!
Nevertheless, the film and especially Khan hold on to their integrity through conviction and warmheartedness. Without any gimmickry, Khan captures the nervous ticks and emotional barriers that an afflicted individual must battle against daily. It’s a showy performance but in the right kind of way.
The production seems to grow bigger as the movie progresses as Khan’s odyssey must include a Guantanamo-like imprisonment and a hurricane. Even Barack Obama (Christopher B. Duncan) puts in an appearance.
This is a movie not built for subtlety, but it does tackle a subject American movies have mostly avoided — that of racial profiling and the plight of Muslim-Americans. It also allows Shah Rukh Khan to display his talent to an even wider audience. It’s well worth the 162-minute journey.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival — out of competition
Production companies: Fox Star Studios and Fox Searchlight present a Dharma Prods. and Red Chillies Entertainment Prods.
Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol, Jimmy Shergill, Tanay Chheda
Director: Karan Johar
Screenwriters: Karan Johar, Shibani Bathija
Producers: Hiroo Yash Johar, Gauri Khan
Director of photography: Ravi K. Chandran
Production designer: Sharmishta Roy
Music: Shankar, Ehsaan Loy, Manish Malhotra, Shiraz Siddique
Costume designer: Shanoo Sharma
Editor: Deepa Bhatia
Rated PG-13, 162 minutes
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