February 18, 2010

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My Name Is Khan (NR)
A Muslim Indian man comes to America and eventually sets out on a quest to prove that he is, as he says, “not a terrorist” in My Name Is Khan, a thoroughly fascinating Bollywood movie about prejudice and religion.

Rizwan Khan (Shahrukh Khan), pronounced “Hhhan,” unnerves his fellow passengers when, attempting to clear security for a cross-country airline trip, he is nervously mumbling to himself, mumbles that include a mention of “Allah.” When security scrutinizes his luggage we learn that (1) Khan has Asperger’s and (2) he’s on a trip to meet the President (who, at the time, is George W. Bush). What do you want to say to the President, the security guys ask. “My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist,” he responds.

This statement and voiceover narration that comes from a journal-style letter Khan is writing to his wife Mandira (Kajol) tie together a saga, told in extended flashbacks along with “present day” stretches, of Khan’s entire life. There’s his youth as a smart but emotionally hard-to-reach boy who is protected by a loving mother (Zarina Wahab). His days as a newcomer to America working for his brother as skin products salesman. His sister-in-law’s discovery that he has Asperger’s and her helping him develop strategies to compensate for the disorientation he experiences in a new city. We watch Khan win over Mandira, a single mom with a son, Sam (Yuvaan Makaar), a boy who quickly becomes one of the few people Khan can easily relate to. The family finds happiness and success in their northern California hometown — and then comes Sept. 11, 2001, and the dramatic effect the aftermath had on Muslims living in America. Through it all, Khan tries to live the lesson his mother taught him in the aftermath of Hindu-Muslim riots back in India: there are only two kinds of people — good people who do good deeds and bad people who do bad deeds — and no other difference matters.

My Name Is Khan is strange and fascinating. It has a view on American culture that is, at times, thoroughly weird (and even, when it comes to African-American culture, shockingly, uhm, let’s be charitable and say, out of date) but also occasionally revealing. Particularly in the scenes that deal with life for Muslims (and Indians and Sikhs) in America after 9/11, we get a view of that period of recent history that is different — more terrifying — than we might remember. The movie eventually stretches to 2008, giving us a sweeping look at modern history, ending with President Obama and what his election seemed to mean not just in our country but around the world.

Is this a good movie? I don’t know that I’m culturally equipped to answer that question. But even at nearly three hours it is a thoroughly captivating one. You will leave thinking about religion, ethnicity and the experiences of immigrants in ways you probably haven’t after seeing other, subtler movies that touch on these subjects, and the cultural and story-telling tics unique to Bollywood will keep you from ever getting bored. Cultural immersion for $9? Not necessarily a recipe for an Oscar but a good, worthwhile use of your three hours. B-

Not rated. Directed by Karan Johar and written by Shibani Bathija and Niranjan Iyengara, My Name Is Khan is two hours and 45 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Fox Searchlight.