Film Review: My Name Is Khan

Directed by: Karan Johar

Starring: Shahrukh Khan, Kajol, Jimmy Shergill, Sonya Jehan

It says something about a quality of a film that even 4 days after seeing it, I am still thinking about it. By now, the world and the mother knows about the release of My Name Is Khan – reuniting the dream team of Shahrukh Khan, Kajol and Karan Johar, with a subject that one would not normally expect Johar to undertake and an unprecedented promotional campaign that has seen publicity pretty much across the world, it would be difficult to avoid knowledge of MNIK‘s release. Even when I went to see A Single Man yesterday, I was quite pleased to see the international trailer for MNIK beforehand and that triggered off more thoughts about what I had seen and what had been achieved.

This is one popular film. Apparently shows everywhere are sold out or close to capacity and anticipating this, when I heard of a screening on Wednesday night (the film released on Friday 12th Feb), I had to be there. In a rare example of punctuality, I reached the box office at 9.45am, 15 minutes before it was due to open (according the screening details) only to find it closed. Worse still, the cinema manager was rather bemused as to why I was there so early and dropped the bombshell that the box office wouldn’t open till 11.00am. After making the manager promise to put my ticket to one side, I went to work, full of anxiety I would not get to see the film that night and worried I wouldn’t get to see the film in its opening weekend at all.  I rushed straight after work to the cinema and with relief, managed to get a ticket. The cinema only ended being three quarters full but as I took my chosen place (god bless unreserved seating) it struck me how anticipated this film was and how much store I was setting by it. After seeing the trailer for Koochie Koochie Hota Hai (a canine version of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai), it was time for the film to start. This was it – no turning back…

MNIK is the story of Rizwan Khan (Shahrukh), a Muslim man who has Asperger’s Syndrome, which makes him see the world differently from other people. Undiagnosed whilst in India, it is only following his mother’s death,  when he goes to live with his brother (Shergill) in San Francisco ,that his sister in law (Jehan) is able to give his condition a name. In San Francisco, Rizwan meets Mandira (Kajol) a Hindu single mother and falls for her – Mandira in turn understands Rizwan on a deeper level and agrees to marry him after Rizwan proposes several times. The story takes a turn when the events of 9/11 lead Rizwan to become a hate figure in the community overnight due to his faith and peaks with a tragedy that changes their lives forever – to tell anymore would spoil the enjoyment of the film for those who haven’t seen it…

Johar weaves an amazing tapestry of a film that is so rich in detail, it is clear this film needs more than one viewing. Every frame is researched, thorough and presents the unfamiliar in a very familiar way. The subject may not seem like usual Johar territory but don’t be fooled – Johar’s trademark style is very much present here, in the dialogue, in the presentation of the film and in the performances of the actors. The scale of the film is huge and Johar ensures that everything fills this canvas is suitably sized – with the emotional quotient of the film at the top of the hierarchy.

Technically, as expected, the film is flawless. The film flows along at a good pace, the editing is smooth, and the cinematography exceptional with my favourite shots being long shots taking in the landscape and one very nice shot which starts from afar and then slowly zooms in on Rizwan walking down a desert road. I also thought the set design and the way some of the locations were used was also very good, especially in San Francisco.The music is beautiful and I liked that all the songs are played in the background, in full (rather than a frustrating edit) and move the story along and are integral to the film’s themes.

The only main gripe I had with the film was it did feel a bit long, especially in the second half. The first half moves nicely and sets up the scene but the second half did feel less watertight and for me, was powered along by the strength of Shahrukh and Kajol’s performance, both of which are top notch. I also felt Johar was under a great deal of pressure to appeal to as wide an audience as possible and as a result, cannot take too many risks with the screenplay. Having said that, there are some marvellous metaphors and scenes in the second half with my favourite being the scene in the mosque which is handled with sensitivity and respect – for me, that scene worked on every level.

Of course, with a K-Jo film, one is to expect super styled interiors and inspiring wardrobe combos and MNIK doesn’t disappoint. I liked SRK’s wardrobe of check and print shirts teamed with jeans and jumpers which compliment the check/print of the shirt. In general, I thought Shiraz Siddique achieved the preppy look rather well and SRK’s travel outfit also looked believable and non-filmi. Manish Malhotra does a great job styling Kajol in the brightly coloured Burberry trench coats and oversized handbags (I did have to laugh when Kajol had to keep pulling the bag up on her shoulder as it wouldn’t stay in place!). The long cardigans, sweaters, scarves bootcut jeans and boots also look good and make the character feel more real – all the pieces worn in the film are wearable in real life which sounds silly but there has been many a film where one could not hope to replicate the look so effortlessly. I thought the green/pink suit and red sari was beautiful in the Sajda song and I also liked the way Kajol’s make up is done in her introductory scene – the blue eyeliner in the inside of the eye matching the scarf she was wearing – all these little details are once again, Dharma Productions trademarks and on a selfish level, things that I love to look out for when watching a film!

In terms of performances, this film belongs to its lead pair – SRK and Kajol. I don’t know how K-Jo manages to contain and sustain their exceptional chemistry but whatever he does, it makes for amazing performances. SRK plays Rizwan Khan with remarkable innocence and clarity. His performance as someone with Aspergers Syndrome feels very natural and organic – one does not feel it is too studied or perfect but it is researched and nuanced – SRK mentioned in an interview he had read Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time and it seems a resourceful reference point for his performance. Even his body language, with a hunched back and the inquisitive look in his eyes always feels believable and relaxed. Although my favourite ever SRK performance is in Chak De! India, MNI ties in second place with his turn as Surinder Sahni in  Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi.

Kajol is wonderful as Mandira, playing all shades of the character with spirit and restraint. What I like about Kajol is that she is never overshadowed by SRK but matches his energy and effort in her own way. Two scenes in particular underscore what a fantastic actress Kajol is – the first is when she mourns her son and breaks down and the second is when she visits the scene of his murder once more with Rizwan – her emotions and thoughts are crystal clear at the moment and we can comprehend fully her state of mind and how her world has been turned upside down through no fault of her own and the magnitude of her predicament as she learns to deal with her grief and realise her love for Rizwan. Needless to say, when Kajol and SRK are on screen together, there is something so special about it, this makes the film very watchable and allows the film to venture into the unfamiliar without alienating the viewer. Credit must also be given to Sonya Jehan, Jimmy Shergill and Parveen Dabbas who play their brief roles with an understated strength and enthusiasm and give good accounts of themselves. I also was glad to see the American actors playing proper characters rather than stereotypical stock types and this all adds to making the film entertaining and realistic.

Not since 3 Idiots (which wasn’t too long ago!) is there a must-see film that the whole family will watch and that will invite debate and appreciation at the same time. If one wants to look at Johar’s body of work as a whole, MNIK is perhaps his most mature and eloquent film, and shows not only a talent for filmmaking but also an intense love for it too. The film is also preparing to release in traditional non-Bollywood markets and it will be interesting to see how it fares with those audiences (the trailer I saw for A Single Man was indeed the international trailer rather than the Hindi one). In the meantime, I highly recommend this film and definitely think it is a highpoint for 2010 and has certainly set the standard, not only for forthcoming releases this year but perhaps for the decade. As Bollywood moves towards international audiences, there is a challenge of serving its faithful viewers whilst inducting those who are new to the genre at the same time. If any advice was needed on how to tackle such a difficult task, watching My Name Is Khan would be a very useful starting point…

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