My Name Is Khan:
A Path Toward How to Be

Film Basics

Title: My Name Is Khan (MNIK)

Year: 2010

Stars: Shah Rukh Khan as Rizvan Khan; Kajol as Mandira; Zarina Wahab as Rizvan & Zakir’s mother; Jimmy Shergill as Zakir Khan

Basic Plot: This well-made Bollywood movie is about fictional Muslim character Rizwan Khan, who has Asperger's syndrome, and the woman he marries — a Hindu single mother in America named Mandira. Then 9/11 hits and everything changes. Rizwan is detained. How will he find his way back to the woman he loves...especially when the tragedy of terrorism causes Mandira to reject him?

My Name Is Khan: Thoughts

In an early scene, young Rizvan is watching angry men on the street in Mumbai, spewing hate and plotting violence toward Hindus they accuse of atrocities during the 1983 riots. When he comes back in, repeating what they said over and over, his mother, Razia, takes him aside and draws a very simple picture for him: stick figures, one with a stick to beat him, the other with a lollipop to give him. “Can you tell which one is Muslim and which one is Hindu?” she asks him. He replies, “They look the same.”

Precisely the point. You can’t tell who or what someone is by looking. You can’t know what’s in their hearts or on their minds. 

My Name Is Khan isn’t your “typical” Bollywood film, and it did very well internationally. Still, it’s very much Indian.

One thing I’ve always liked about Indian literature and movies is their lack of a sense of a boundaries in terms of genre. Science fiction blends wildly with mythology. Spontaneous song-and-dance numbers pop up in films, complete with inexplicable wardrobe changes mid-dance. Science and religion coexist more or less peacefully. And a U.S. president stops what he’s doing to meet on foot a Muslim (or really anyone) who hasn’t been through a metal detector and a background check. 

But momentary flights of fancy don’t bother me. Sometimes they point to a greater truth — as in this case, when the deviations from hard reality show a path to how the world could be if people kept things a bit simpler, as Khan’s mother (played by Zarina Wahab) does for her young son with Asperger’s syndrome when he overhears those Muslim neighbors planning revenge, and she responds with the drawing. “There are two kinds of people: good people who do good things, and bad people who do bad things.” 

Granted, it might be more complicated than that, but not by much. Her point is a breakthrough in wisdom. The categories don’t matter. To paraphrase Jesus, who spent time with all kinds of socially unacceptable people, “By their fruit you shall know them.”

To state up front, I’m not polytheistic or the least bit universalist in my thinking. If A is true, and if A & B are contradictory, they can’t both be true. 

But that’s not what I’m getting at. I don’t think that’s what My Name Is Khan is getting at either. It’s more like, regardless of whether A is true, you can’t hate and fear and mistreat someone else because they believe B. 

This is what I love about My Name Is Khan. The main character, Rizvan Khan, is a Muslim and he never tries to be anything else. In a post-9/11 America where that makes him and his family a target, he is faithful. And remembering what his mother taught him about good people and bad people, he encounters everyone he meets openheartedly, despite his Asperger’s-related problems and despite the way they sometimes treat him.

The film portrays people of many different faiths, and it does so pretty honestly — good and bad. There’s one Christian who excludes him from an event, because he’s not Christian … then there’s Mama Jenny, who embraces him — literally — and makes him welcome. They trade stories of tragedy from both sides of 9/11. There are Muslims who share their food with him, yet are afraid to openly express their faith because of the dangers of being Muslim in that time and place … then there are the violent jihadis in the mosque, twisting scripture to their own ends. There’s Mandira and her Hindu friends, who never cared Rizvan was Muslim; they were simply kind … then there’s the hotel owner who was more than happy to find a place for him when he thought Rizvan was Hindu but denigrated the Muslims every bit as much as others in the fearful populace, at least in the beginning.

To a critic attached to the graphic “realism” of American film, some aspects may seem too simple or idealistic. I don’t think its simplicity makes it any less a good film. In fact, the main character's Asperger's necessitates a more direct and non-BS-laden approach.

My Name Is Khan manages to portray people of many different perspectives sympathetically, to bring viewers into the intimacy and playfulness of a husband and wife without showing a single graphic or questionable scene, to show how a person marginalized for his disability and his faith can change people’s minds by responding with integrity and compassion.

The themes are mature, but the film is overall family friendly. It’s not for younger viewers, since there are a couple of scenes of violence involving children. But it is well worth watching with family members around 12 and older, if only to generate some much-needed discussion. In America, I know 9/11 shattered many people’s sense of safety, awakening an era of fear and suspicion. I like the more rounded perspective My Name Is Khan adds to the problem. It is not one-sided. Pain and heartache never are.

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