As a film, My Name Is Khan (MNIK) is many things. A statement on Islam, its identity and its struggle - both internal and external - against stereotypes in post 9/11 US. A classic Bollywood romantic story starring modern Bollywod's celluloid first couple. An out and out Shah Rukh Khan vehicle. A mainstream global commercial venture between Karan Johar, Shah Rukh Khan and Fox Pictures. One man's impossible journey to make a point about defining people as good or bad, and nothing else. Depending on how you look it at, it succeeds at many levels, and not so much at others. But it is applause-worthy, and there's no argument about that.
The most notable thing is the uncompromising effort on the part of the makers while addressing the issue of Islam's identity and perception post New York's terror attacks. Albeit not a world-view of the issue and limited only to the US, this is still far more relevant and useful to the cause then other Hindi films made on this subject (New York or Kurbaan come to mind). It's not the best film on the subject, not even the best Hindi film, by some distance. But when you consider the commercial motivations riding behind it, the history and nature of Karan Johar and Shah Rukh Khan films, and the highly visible position of Shah Rukh Khan in mainstream Bollywood, you want to doff a cap to Karan Johar for finally "growing up" with MNIK. It has none of the elements and fluff that make up a typical Johar film, and in fact is more heavy-handed then one would have liked it to be. A complete turnaround this for the director and absolutely in the right direction. People in a position to influence or make a difference to popular perceptions often choose to pursue more personal goals. MNIK is not one of those instances. For trying to make an issue-based, socially relevant film in mainstream cinema at this scale, take a bow Karan Johar and Shah Rukh Khan.
So full marks on the effort, but what of the product? MNIK has a rocking first half. Unusually free of major melodrama, fluid in most aspects, the thrill of watching Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol, and you'e lapping up every second of Rizwan's tale told in his oft-repeated words. The story takes it own shape, and at intermission, Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol and Karan Johar have got you where they wanted. Almost ho gaye kamyab. But as the second half unreels, that day seems some other, not today. The scope of the tale becomes too big for Karan Johar to handle. He's out of his comfort zone here, and he tries hard, but is not able to hold the film together. Even with some very good scenes and moments - bad hair Joel and Mama Jenny stand out - you miss a strong cohesive plot that can hold the narrative as the story moves forward. The fact is, there is not a lot of substance as events unfold. What should have been an epic, moving journey of a man against odds - think Forrest Gump, yeah - ends up being a series of disconnected plot points stitched together with a weakly defined thread. The grip is lost, then tension fizzles, and the climax dribbles to a predictable end.
The main culprit is the handling of the film's motivation in the second half. Kajol's Mandira is actually a relatively single dimensional character, and it is only the actress's sheer charisma and effervescence that hide the flaw. Mandira's reaction to her tragedy is extreme and contrived, and seems a clumsy thrust for the rest of the film. The general treatment of her plot is in fact a letdown, as also with the other characters. They all seem to become perfunctory for the latter part of the film, and are reduced to doing things purely to push Rizwan towards his goal rather then follow a grander scheme of the narrative. This takes away from the dramatic edge of Rizwan's journey, and even Georgian heroics of hurricane proportions fail to salvage the situation fully.
But even at its flaws, this is a Karan Johar film, and in being so, better that most we have seen in a while. The canvas may be different, but when it comes to emotion - and there is no cinema without it - Johar and Khan deliver. Repeatedly. And you can take that literally. Subtlety will never be his strength. Yet, where Karan Johar has grown up is the restrain he shows in playing up - or down, actually - the emotional bass through the film. From the superbly sensitive portrayal of Rizwan's mother to the incredibly original Mama Jennie track, with Rizwan and Mandira's yes pink, no yellow love story in between, the warmth of the characters shines through thanks to a very well written screenplay - mainly in the first half - and outstanding performances all across. The dialogue is consistently good, the background score surprisingly and pleasantly underplayed, and in all things his strength, Karan Johar lives up to some seriously high expectations. And of course, all this is made possible because of his not-at-all secret weapon. Weapons, actually. Two of them.
In spite of her character's flaws, Kajol burns the screen with her radiance. It seems so easy for her to be happy or gleeful or sad or devastated. She is truly effortless, and you wonder how we managed to watch movies without her for so long. It's a sparkling performance, and she deserved a stronger role to reprise her Mandira in what is yet another whopper pairing with Shah Rukh Khan. And I am not even mentioning how stunning she looks, shedding any extra kilos that she may have been rumored to put on. We're glad to have you back, and we hope you stay for a while.
Of course, MNIK is finally Shah Rukh Khan's film, from the first scene to the last. Leave comparisons with Hoffman's Rainman outside the cinema hall when you see this, and you'll be the better for it. It's an awe-inspiring performance purely because it moves you so easily. Playing Rizwan Khan with a grace and warmth that very few actors can conjure on screen, he hooks you in without even once looking directly at you. So un-Shah Rukh like, that. He hits the right note playing a character with Asperger's syndrome, and without overplaying or caricaturing it, Rizwan's charm, innocence and innate goodness win you over in the first 10 minutes, and the entire US by the end of it all. People suffering from autism are not prone to emotions. Ironically (and beautifully), Shah Rukh Khan taps this to move us more than any Rahul avatar in the past. It is satisfying to see him hit gold with a super performance, and worth an annual wait if this is what it brings. Bravo.
MNIK is a gutsy effort for a mainstream film. The Shiv Sena controversy may affect its BO performance in a good or bad way, and we'll wait to find out. But it can't take away the fact that people who see it will find it easier to pick a side. Even if Karan Johar and Shah Rukh go on to make a better film in the future, MNIK has already created a place of its own, on screen and off it. And we're glad about it in both cases