This week, I saw My Name is Khan. Generally, I do not like Bollywood cinema. And Shahrukh Khan, Bollywood’s Alpha Male du jour, specializes in my least favorite Bollywood genre: the “masala,” a saccharine mix of romantic comedy, melodrama and musical. Yet there I was, in line to see his latest venture, my curiosity piqued by the political maelstrom the film has unleashed.
First, the plot: Rizvan Khan, an Indian Muslim with Asperger’s Syndrome, immigrates to America, becomes a beauty products salesman, marries a divorced Indian Hindu beautician, and adopts her son Samir. Then 9/11 happens. Locals boycott the Khans’ beauty salon. A neighbor dies in Afghanistan and his son blames Samir. Samir is killed in a fight between the boys at school, Rizvan’s wife throws him out in a fit of rage, and tells him not to come back till he has convinced America not to hate on Muslims. She says, “Tell the President of the United States, ‘My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist.’” Autistic Rizvan takes her literally and runs off on a road trip across the country trying to convey his message to George W. Bush. At a presidential rally on a Los Angeles university campus, a social security operative overhears Rizvan shouting “terrorist” in the crowd, and has him arrested. A student journalist catches the incident on film and begins investigating, discovering just how harmless Rizvan is. When the story airs, disability rights groups begin phoning government offices, and Khan is released. Instead of going home to his wife, he continues his quest, but is derailed by a major hurricane that Washington is ignoring. [Sound familiar?] Khan takes charge of the relief effort in a small Georgia town, and becomes a national hero, again. By this time, Bush has been replaced by President Obama, who comes to Georgia to meet Khan on his release from the hospital, and the film (finally) ends.
There are no song and dance numbers and there are no long-lost cousins back from the dead. For Bollywood, that’s realistic, but to audiences unused to Indian cinema, the above should sound absurdly far-fetched. Many Indians had hoped that after Hollywood came to them via Slumdog Millionaire, their own work would have crossover appeal. But a plot like this is not going to appeal to American audiences.
Rather, I think MNIK’s merits lie in the conversations it can start inside India. It is these nerves touched that have invited all the outrage