In a film industry that has gained worldwide renown for being all about the song and dance, it is but natural for material to be recycled. And unlike the west, which despite its many flaws has both an admirable respect for the concept of copyright and conscience enough to credit a remake, over here, we just call it “inspiration”. After the shameless rip-off of I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (Dostana, 2008), which coincidentally was a huge commercial success, Karan Johar had a very good last year as producer, rolling out two strikingly dissimilar but similarly fresh films in Wake Up Sid and Kurbaan. He continues his roll this year, with his own directorial feature My Name is Khan, and ignoring his glaring shortcomings as a director, needs to be applauded for this effort to at least find new settings and formats for the retelling of his trademark love stories.
Similar to the first person narrative style of his directorial debut, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, My Name is Khan is a story heard through the tongue of the Asperger’s-afflicted Rizwan Khan, who journeys across half the world and then through the breadth of another continent, to say as we’ve all heard or read somewhere, “My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist”. After watching the uninspiring trailers, and the edited, overly precious shots of Shahrukh playing Khan, I did not walk into the cinema expecting much from this seemingly gimmicky film. I walked out surprised though, and pleasantly for the most part. In a polarized world, where the line of demarcation is clearly becoming religion even over race, the intent of MNIK is noble. To its credit, unlike the also well intentioned Delhi 6 last year, this film manages to build on its premise more effectively. In a nutshell, the story is in the form of a question: Are the world and its inhabitants so far gone that you are not allowed an individual persona that may be separate from your religious affiliations?
My Name is Khan has many stories, and many Khans, in spite of what the titular protagonist may have you believing. There is Raziya Khan, the mother who brought up her son believing in him with faith and pride, and who ignored the rest of the world as she single-handedly taught him all that is right and just, even till her death. There is Zakir Khan, the under-appreciated but well loved younger brother, and Haseena Khan, his college professor wife, who are traditionalist Muslims but loyal family. There are Mandira and Sameer Khan, the mother and son who find a place in their lives for another, who seek love and happiness and the feeling of home. And there are the thousands of unnamed people, who in brief moments of time, Johar introduces us to, if only to show us the impact this Khan has on them. Independently, most of these stories, and most of these people, are interesting, but together, in this ambitious screenplay written by Shibani Bathija, none of the stories develop to real fruition.
I like to start with positive attributes, and this film has those in abundance. Like I’ve said multiple times before, the biggest success of this film is its intention. It’s pure and it’s refreshing. The casting is unusual for a Johar film (aside from the lead pair of course), and most of the supporting cast does a fine job. Zarina Wahab, a departure from the Kirron Kher and Jaya Bachchan mould of Dharma Production mothers, is very effective in her enthusiasm and both authentic and endearing in her manner. Jimmy Shergill is amongst the most underachieving of contemporary Indian actors (he was apparently a de facto choice after the actor originally cast for the film was denied a visa), and even though this isn’t his shining moment, he clearly needs to find a film where he can shine. Navneet Nishan is the cliché of the horny old woman/man Johar enjoys injecting into his films. The clear standout, though, is Sonya Jehan. It took me a while to place her as the actress who started out her career as the lead in Taj Mahal, but she is stunning, and a very gifted actor. Even in the few scenes that she has in the film, she will hopefully catch the eye of someone with a good script and a good role, ‘cause she has the looks and the acting chops, and deserves a shot.
The music of the film is the better of the two albums Shankar Ehsaan Loy have scored this year so far, and the tracks "Noor-e-Khuda" and "Sajda" and even "Tere Naina" are fantastic. One huge plus for the film, and this in fact pushes the film up an entire letter grade in my book, is the fantastic cinematography. Ravi K Chandran is nothing short of brilliant as he captures a panoramic view of the United States, especially in the scene at the point of intermission in the Arizona desert, and even in more intimate moments, such as the scene in the song "Tere Naina", whilst Kajol gives Khan a haircut, he uses natural light so effectively that it leaves you stunned. The look of the film also is suitably opulent without being jarring, in typical style for a Dharma film, and Kajol looks her best in years.
Of the leads, Kajol is good. Scratch that, she’s awesome in the material she’s been given, and in my personal opinion, after the crazy awesome turn she did in Dushman, this is perhaps her most accomplished performance. But more on that later. The film of course, unequivocally belongs to Khan. Shahrukh Khan has been called many things, but more often than not, a standout actor he is not. For so many years he has defined the term "star", and despite his many popular awards for Best Actor, apart from Chak de India, there is hardly another movie you could cite in which he was more an actor than a star (Swades was an awful bore for me, sorry!). In this film though, which I suspect was written specifically for him, he has the time and the meat to bite wholeheartedly into a game-changing role, and for the most part, passes brilliantly. He has a naturally intelligent sense of humour that he lends to his character and despite some of the cheesy lines that may put you off in the previews, this is an authentic, effective portrayal of a highly developed autist. Not even he can help pass this off as a masterpiece though.
The film has many flaws, and quite frankly, they overwhelm the film towards the climax. And that is very disheartening actually, because one hour and an intermission later, I actually thought it was turning out to be just brilliant. Whilst walking out of the cinema, I tried to figure out what changed in the second half. Perhaps it is a problem only I face, but dialogue is the crux of any film. It is what layers an idea into a screenplay, and what distinguishes achievement from ambition. Like I’ve said before, this script has ambition aplenty, but somewhere along the way, and it is my belief that it happened whilst penning the dialogues, it veers away from living up to its potential.
There are moments in the film where Johar and his collaborators could have perhaps opted for silence but instead choose to go for dramatic emphasis. It is the single threads of wool that make the quilt warm though, and in this particular case, just as you start to feel toasty, it shrinks to nothing. Also, unbelievably disappointing was the way they wrote bits of Kajol’s character and the initial interaction between her and Khan. Her opening scene and the terrible dialogue make you cringe at best, and then the constant fixture of Khan, a traveling salesman in her salon, was inexplicable.
There are two points on which I am going to elaborate here. First, the premise of Khan’s journey, whilst interesting, and some of his moments on the road, such as his meeting the motel owner played by Vinay Pathak, agreeably insightful, there is such a thing as too much. By the end of the film, the only good deed Khan had not done was blowing away Hurricane Katrina with the power of his breath, and honestly, I feel sure that Bathija at least considered giving him the Nobel Peace Prize. To go from entertaining to arduous in 20 minutes is a lesson to be learned from this screenplay. Secondly, the crisis in the film, once again, seemed so juicy to Johar and his associates, that they gave it not just one harrowing scene but two. Whilst the first was passable, if only because of Kajol’s natural talent, the second was just overkill. It was loud, obnoxious, unreal, and odious. What should have been a pivotal moment became a terribly overacted sham.
These may seem like a lot of shortcomings, but in truth and in all honesty, these are all of them. And since I’m being honest, they are far fewer than I thought they would be. And at the point of the interval, I couldn’t remove the smile plastered on my face, even if I tried. Whilst the second half may have been a tremendous letdown to the buildup of the first, it wasn’t all bad, and in a hackneyed sort of way, Johar does somehow get his message out. And it is a message that needs to be out. This may not be the best film Johar has made (KKHH will retain that for some time to come), but it is, at the very least far better than any other film to come out of his direction (and I’m counting the awful Kal Ho Naa Ho in that mix). Watch it, if only once, if only for Shahrukh Khan and Kajol together on screen, if only for the beautiful landscape of the US through RKC’s lens, or if only because not every Khan is a terrorist.