It’s hard to judge a movie after you’ve been inundated in the pre-release hype. You’ve heard about the billion-dollar deal with Fox Studios, you’ve read interviews with the stars and director, you’ve heard reports from the sets of fine performances, and you have a fair idea of the story line. All that remains is the visual representation of that torrent of information. In the case of MNIK, the real life detention of star Shah Rukh Khan at an American airport gave away ( or was publicized deliberately) one of the key plot points of the movie; his characteristic of Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) was endlessly discussed-was he going to do justice to the role? Would professionals think the script adequately explained AS?
MNIK is about Rizwan Khan, an autistic man who goes on a quest to meet the President of the United States after the events of 9/11 turn his happy little world upside down. The movie is largely about the quest, with Khan’s back story interspersed in an occasionally confusing way. Given how much we already know about the movie, I’ll try not to give away any more of the plot, which comes from the fevered brain of scriptwriter Shibani Bathija. (Bathija is a San Francisco University alumna who first made it in Bollywood with Fanaa, another emotional highly-charged roller coaster.)
So does Khan accurately portray AS? My own Aspie son looked confused when the grand revelation was made. “He’s nothing like me!” was his initial comment, and we had to do a quick whispered lesson on how autism is pretty non-standard. Khan the character owes more to Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man; there are the odd phobias, the sensitivity to noise, the unique talent, the discomfort with physical gestures, and the monotonous voice. Khan the actor does his very best, but the effort is overwhelmed by his long Raj-infused filmography and his superstardom. (I felt the same way about Ajay Devgn’s performance in Main Aisa Hi Hoon, the Hindi remake of I am Sam.)
In interviews, director Johar was careful to point out that MNIK was a “serious” movie, tackling not only a developmental disorder and its associated challenges, but also the attitudes towards and treatment of American Muslims in the post 9/11 world. And purely on the page, the movie is pretty serious. There is not only the minor indignity of being body cavity searched at the airport, but also a violent death and a natural disaster.
But on the screen the treatment is pure masala; every revelatory moment is telegraphed and accompanied by crashing cymbals, every character plays their part a little louder than life, and there are scores of stereotypes, (the Gujarati motel owner, the fundamentalist Muslim, the loud but well-meaning hairdresser). The simple message of the movie is “There are 2 kinds of people; good people who do good deeds and bad people who do bad deeds,” Unfortunately the characters in the movie are also as binary. The injection of such a Bollywood sensibility into a movie that is set in the United States is jarring. One expects characters to be a little more subtle, a little more restrained. The scenes shot in Georgia are the worst – everyone hams it up, including the two African American characters who befriend Khan, and the post-hurricane devastation and drama is just too unconvincing.
The only performer who stands out is Kajol as Mandira, Khan’s best friend, lover, and muse. Contrary to her usual high energy performances, here she is admirably restrained, even in an emotionally shattering moment when her life comes crashing down. Age has lent her beauty luminousness-she looks divine in a bathrobe, sans make-up, and she is in better shape than ever before. Kajol is the merciful anchor to Khan’s histrionics and if any performance in this film should be feted, it is hers.
The music, the art direction, and the cinematography are all what you would expect from a Dharma production – excellent and non-obtrusive. Bay Area residents will enjoy the scenes shot in San Francisco; the city has never looked more beautiful.
My Name is Khan has the ambitions of an epic. It wants to be an odyssey set in America; something hatke, something award-inspiring. In Johar’s hands it ends up being a mainstream Bollywood offering. Had movies like A Wednesday and 3 Idiots never been made, it may have even stood out for its bravery. But in the renaissance of Bollywood, its style is just a little too dated, its sensibilities a little too overblown. Will it make money? Perhaps, though that billion-dollar price tag is pretty intimidating. Will it get critical acclaim? From early reviews it seems likely. Will it be remembered as a classic? I don’t think so.
UPDATE: We saw the movie in the BIG cinemas multiplex in Fremont, the theater that used to be Naz 8. I think not many people know about the change yet, as the hall was not packed. The concession stands are better staffed and the ticketing system is more efficient. There were also greeters before and after the movie..I’m guessing that service is going to be temporary! The floors are still sticky with popcorn and soda, but I’m reserving judgment till a few months have gone by and they’ve had some time to clean it up. If anyone can tell me about the state of bathrooms, go ahead, add it in the comments.
My Name is Khan: *ring Shahrukh Khan, Kajol, Zarina Wahab, Jimmy Shergill. Directed by Karan Johar.
My rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.
Kid advisory: Not suitable for pre-teens and under.