The 2010 film My Name Is Khan tells a beautiful and unique love story through an Indian lens and against the backdrop of America before and after 9/11. The film was directed by Karan Johar with music by the trio Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy.
The film tells the story of Rizvan Khan (Shah Rukh Khan), a Muslim man from India who moves to San Francisco to live with his brother and sister-in-law. Rizvan, who has Asperger syndrome, falls in love with Mandira (Kajol), a divorced Hindi woman with a young son. They get married and start a small business together. They are happy until September 11, 2001 when attitudes towards Muslims suddenly change. When tragedy strikes, Mandira is devastated and they split. To win Mandira back, Rizvan embarks on journey across America.
My Name is Khan is the triumphant story of an unconventional hero overcoming obstacles to regain the love of his life. In the film, Rizvan faces three main challenges: Asperger syndrome, Living in a Post 9/11 America, and an Impossible Journey.
Asperger syndrome was named after Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger who discovered this disorder in 1944. Characteristics of Asperger syndrome include being an introvert, repetitive behavior and reluctance to listen. People with Asperger syndrome have a high sensitivity to sound, taste, smell and sight. Bright colors, such as yellow, may be very disturbing to them.
To help shape the character of Rizvan, the cast and crew did a great deal of research with Asperger groups in London, New York, Los Angeles and India. Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) met people with Asperger syndrome to better understand the condition.
According to SRK, portraying Rizvan is challenging on a number of levels:
"...whenever you’re dealing with a disorder or a near…atypical situation, the first thought is what the sort of parameters you have to set that in no which way you are derogatory or deriding the disorder. You have to make the protagonist very proud of what it is. The second part is you have to come as close to reality in depicting that characterisation and so one had to study a lot and one does get worried… Of course, having said that, I have taken a few cinematic liberties with it, because I’ve used three or four traits which may not exist simultaneously in one person and tried to create one character who has Asperger’s, called Rizvan Khan."
Living in a Post 9/11 America
In the film, Rizvan says, "In the western world, history is marked simply by BC and AD. But now there is a third distinction. 9/11."
The title of the film comes from the message that Rizvan carries, "My name is Khan and I'm not a terrorist." In February 2010, National Public Radio spoke with SRK about this aspect of the film:
A Muslim star in a mostly Hindu country, Khan says he has always been interested in the challenge of starting from a real-life incident and weaving a fictional story around it. "And there is an aspect of Islam that needs to be addressed now, otherwise this demarcation, this divide we keep on increasing," he says. "So I just thought we should have a message about a film with humanity. Just goodness."
In one way, Khan says, his character is speaking for millions of Muslims with that startling sentence. "Yes and no — because the line is actually very emotional," he says. "People who are autistic or have Asperger's have a compulsive behavior. He just gets this line in his head, and compulsively keeps saying, 'My name is Khan, and I'm not a terrorist.' And it's a more emotional thing."
The movie, he says, isn't really about Sept. 11, or about terrorism. It's a love story. It's about "the butterfly effect of an incident like this. That, you know, two people who are actually unrelated to an incident somewhere in the world and how their lives and their love changes, and gets completely thwarted."
VM: How did you write this story? Was it based on personal experience or someone you know?
SB: Karan Johar wanted to tell a tale of a Muslim man in a post 9/11 world and we took it from there. There was a lot of research that went into the script and though the story itself is fiction, a lot of the incidents are culled from real occurrences.
VM: The subject matter of the film really hits the core for the most important international political matters at hand today (immigration, cultural marginalization, fear of terrorism, poverty and the dangers of stereotype)… Do you think the reason for the success of the film is due to hitting the international collective psyche?
SB: I had always intended for Khan's story to be the story of our times, so yes touching on those themes were important to me. Also, my favorite hero of all time is Don Quixote and to me Rizvan is a modern day Quixote. The following is a quote I had started the script with. It didn't make it into the film, but I think encapsulates it exceptionally well. "One man scorned and covered with scars still strove with his last ounce of courage to reach the unreachable stars; and the world was better for this." - Don Quixote. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
An Impossible Journey
The movie begins and ends with Rizvan's quixotic journey across the United States after Mandira instructs him to find the president and tell him that he is not a terrorist.
Besides his love for Mandira, there are two key events which I think help Rizvan succeed on his journey:
- When Rizvan first meets Mandira it is in the middle of a street crossing where he has become paralyzed with fear. As people crowd around him, Mandira speaks to him in Hindi, saying, "Are you scared? It's okay. Look, there's nothing wrong with being scared. Just don't make your fear so large that it stops you from achieving your goal."
- Early in the film Rizvan's mother tells him, "There are only two kinds of people in this world. Good people who do good deeds and bad people who do bad. That's the only difference in human beings." This is a lesson Rizvan takes to heart and which permeates the film.
Through the eyes and acts of an honest and simple man, Rizvan's journey becomes a celebration of our common humanity and the value of love, understanding, community, and acceptance.
The following video playlist features the international trailer and a featurette about the film My Name is Khan.
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