Karan Johar and Shah Rukh Khan's latest arrives amidst overblown controversy, expected hype and the mainstream critical community firmly on its side. My Name is Khan is the first directorial effort by Johar that isn't based on his own writing, and right from the outset, you can tell that the director is trying to break away from his previous work -- the opening credits do not arrive with a booming chorus or fancy lettering. Instead, they quietly play over the scene as we find our lead character, Rizvan Khan, heading to the airport. We follow him to the security checking area, where his co-passengers look at his behavior with increasing suspicion. With its dramatic camera angles and background score, the strip search scene that follows immediately sets out to plant the viewers on the protagonist's side.
It is here, that Johar makes the most over-abused narrative choice -- the voice-over. We are taken back to Rizvan's childhood in Mumbai. He suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, and the screenplay establishes his relationship with his mother (wonderfully played by Zareena Wahab) which will deeply affect the choices that he will make in his life. By the time these early scenes end, the first of this film's many half-assed sub-plots has already been set up and tossed aside -- that of Rizvan's brother and how Rizvan's condition affects the relationship between him and his mother (as Baradwaj Rangan notes in his review, this angle was already explored by Sanjay Leela Bhansali in Black).
After a series of events that follow, we find Rizvan heading to the US, to live with his brother and his wife. In San Francisco, Rizvan meets Mandira (Kajol), who as we discover later, is a single mother who walked out of an unhappy marriage (the screenplay isn't interested in the effect that this situation may have had on Mandira's son). The early scenes of their relationship are shot extremely well, and cinematographer Ravi K Chandran deserves as much credit as the director for bringing to life the sequences and locations of their early courtship (as well as the gorgeous locales on display in the second half). They're soon married but blissful life doesn't last very long, as the whole family finds itself being affected by the 9/11 and the events that follow in the its wake. The rest of the film follows Rizvan on his journey to meet the President, to tell him that he's not a terrorist.
If that last part makes it sound like this is a movie dealing with terrorism (as the filmmakers and studio would like you to believe), you are in for disappointment. New York and Kurbaan at least set out in that direction -- of trying to understand the mindset of the terrorist and what causes them to cross the line over to the other side -- even if they were failures in the end. My Name Is Khan is not bothered with those details, choosing to focus on its lead character's journey and the challenges he faces in overcoming a life affected with Asperger's Syndrome. The obvious template is Forrest Gump, another simplistic tale of a man beating the odds; "Life is like a box of chocolates" is replaced here by "Duniya mein sirf do tarah ke log hote hain, acche or bure" ("There are only two kinds of people in the world: Good and bad"). But the main ingredients that made Forrest Gump work -- a continuously inventive plot and a focused screenplay, even as it chose to skirt around the complexities of the events that unfolded in the span of Forrest's life -- are evidently missing here.
Human complexity is not Johar's strongest suit -- he failed on almost every level the last time he made an attempt at exploring complicated characters and situations (Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna). But I can sense that there is a desire in Johar to prove his "seriousness" as a director. Although his first two films were huge box office hits and were very well received by mainstream critics, he's had his fair share of vocal detractors who've labeled his brand of melodrama and flashiness as "bubble gum" fare. Johar is out to prove that he has matured as a director and is capable of handling serious themes. Sadly, that is also the ultimate undoing of this film, as it sits uncomfortably between an all-out mainstream melodrama and a more serious "message movie".
The film depends on its lead actor to sell the story and Shah Rukh Khan is mostly effective in that department. It's an uneven performance that has honest, believable moments and self-aware, "look at my performance" scenes in equal measure but it's certainly among his better performances and has flashes of brilliance that rival his best work in Swades. Kajol has always been a natural performer, and she is exceptionally good here -- even if she's hitting the same notes that we may have seen in her earlier performances. (Johar reigns in any possibilities of the actress going over the top, as she tends to do in excessively comedic or dramatic scenes). Other actors are mostly wasted -- most notably Arjun Mathur, Sonia Jehan and Sugandha Garg who have delivered memorable performances earlier in small roles (Luck By Chance, Khoya Khoya Chaand and Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na, respectively) and are relegated to the most troubling part of the film -- the last act.
I'm deliberately trying to avoid writing about the last act, which is as insulting, unfocused and unforgivable as anything you might've seen. The screenplay creates a series of events that are devoid of any realistic emotion or credibility, undoing all the better moments that have worked in the film till that point. It is essentially a repeat of the "Shah Rukh Khan as Messiah" last act from Kal Ho Na Ho, another film that lost its way in the final stretch. At more than two and a half hours, the film overstays its welcome and would have hugely benefited from a more disciplined editing.It is evident that Johar understands mainstream cinema extremely well, and as much as I may choose to ridicule that brand of film-making, I would love for Johar to go back to his strengths in his next project.
In one of the film's most memorable visuals, Shah Rukh Khan holds up a signboard that says "Repair Almost Anything". Unfortunately, this screenplay and film are beyond repair. Grade: C+