An unlikely hero’s journey! My Name is Khan


When Joseph Campbell wrote his “Hero with a Thousand Faces” in 1949, it inspired many a heroic journey on celluloid, including the Star Wars trilogy and the Matrix series! Campbell’s archetypal hero was based on the many mythic heroes, and their journey was divided by him into three phases – departure (or separation), initiation (or journey/adventure) and return (in triumph of course!). The hero was heroic, noble, skilled and born into the role, and his journey was usually into an alien world, involved many travails, “dragons” slayed, and when he did return triumphant, he usually had a boon that could change the world he was a part of. This hero type has been seen over and over again in Hindi cinema too.

Then of course there are unlikely heroes. They are neither to the manor born, nor equipped to be heroes. These heroes have occupied the realm of fantasy for ever. J R R Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Stephen Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane, and more then ever before, Donaldson’s A Dark and Hungry God Arises (The Gap Trilogy), all have most unlikely heroes whose destiny never included becoming a hero but they just happened to chance on circumstances that began their separation, initiation and eventual triumphant return to a better world. In The Gap Trilogy the hero is a most villainous and brutal man who by the end of the tale has become an unlikely hero.

Strangely enough then, our myths and fantasies differ remarkably in the hero archetype. It is not surprising that Director Karan Johar and Scriptwriter Shibani Bathija use the fantasy archetype to design their unlikely hero in My Name is Khan. We have seen a similar heroic journey in the Hollywood epic Forrest Gump, that tells of the challenged man Forrest, his separation as he joins the military, his heroic journey through troubled times and his numerous, often verging on unreal, triumphs as he returns back to his dreams. Forrest’s journey is not a linear one, and shows him as an unlikely hero in numerous situations. And while the journey is larger than life (including Forrest single-handedly saving an entire battalion), the return is simple in comparison, he is recognized a war hero, gets to buy his shrimp boat, and also has the love of his life come back to him (before she dies of unstated causes). KHAN follows a similar though much simpler graph. A mentally challenged (though NOT low IQ) man is the unlikely hero here. Unlike GUMP his journey is more clearly divided into separation as his carefully collected family falls apart, the initiation is a simpler one – that of a bewildered man who is mistaken for a trouble maker, and yet he comes through many a situation touching the lives of people he meets in simple and poignant ways, and eventually he is able to achieve his simple (though fantastical) goal after a triumph (while necessary in the hero’s journey, yet this is stagey and not quite real), and can return to gather back the pieces of his life while having made a small difference (however transient it may be) in how people perceive the ones who are not the same as them.

This theme of the “others” or profiling was last explored in District 9, and there too it was done in a very unsubtle and in your face way in the beginning (deliberately so), and then slowly the overt differences morphed into a realization of the inherent similarities that bind all living beings. KHAN is hardly subtle at all in the telling of the tale, tells it in a flamboyant in your face manner. What is subtle is the fact that we view it through the prism of an unlikely and reluctant hero.

Rizvaan Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) is an Apserger’s afflicted man who has embarked on a journey to meet the president of the USA. WHY? Towards the end we see a man watching TV in his living room, asking – why do they keep asking him why? Why not? Is it not OK for a resident of a country to try and meet the president? This explains partly the simplicity of the need to meet the president. He is the president, and one should be able to meet him if one wants. For this simple one track minded soul, his way back to his family involves meeting the president and telling him something – that his name is Khan and he is NOT a terrorist!

This story is non-linear, jumping between times and gradually unfolds the events behind the journey. This parallels the lack of focus usually seen in Asperger’s (and indeed autism spectrum) patients when it comes to normal day to day matters. But it is matched with an obsessive focus on some things to the exclusion of others. Thus Khan obsesses over details about places, things, the products his brother asks him to sell door to door at salons. But he cannot prevaricate and so always tells them the real truth about each product! This endears him to the salon owner Mandira (Kajol in a strong emotion packed performance), and they keep meeting. Eventually Mandira allows Rizwaan into her life and that of her son Sam. The happy family is torn apart after 9/11 and an upswelling of resentment against Muslims. And out of rage and hysteria in the aftermath of the breakup arises a simple fact for Rizwaan – things can get back to normal if only he can meet the President and tell him that he is NOT a terrorist!

The script goes from uplifting to a unbelievable in some parts of the film. Whether this is by design, to create a “heroic” moment and make a journey of mythic proportions, is hard to tell. Certainly it makes for some seriously funky moments in the film as a hurricane hits rural Georgia (yes hurricanes can hit Georgia, it does border the Gulf Coast!). However, this plot device, and Rizvaan’s role in help being mobilized to the beleaguered town, is important for the hero’s journey to conclude and for him to return with a boon. In this case the boon is the love of Mandira, and a slightly more aware world as in the public eye Rizvaan has become an unlikely hero who is not to be judged by his name alone.

Performances in the film are top notch. The crowning performance comes from Shah Rukh Khan as the Asperger’s syndrome afflicted Rizvaan Khan. The performance is set up with a masterly turn by Tanay Chaddha as the young Rizvaan. His literal take on anything said to him (Jhakh maaro ja kar) presages the quest to meet the president by the adult Rizvaan. The intelligent though emotionally detached child is nurtured well by his mother (Zareena Wahab), and the two together have some fine moments on screen. The younger brother grows up to be Jimmy Sheirgill, and he gets little screen time to do much, but still is very good in the role of the resentful brother. Upon moving to the US he marries Sonia Jehan, and here we see an excellent portrayal by Sonia of the empathetic sister-in-law who understands Rizvaan’s problem. As Mandira, Kajol shines in the role of mother, lover. Her magical interactions with the emotionally remote Rizwaan form the mainstay of the first half of the film. Some interactions of note are when Rizvaan finally asks her to cut his hair – it is the closest to emotionally physical interaction that he can think of, and then when she finally proposes and he hides his face and giggles, magic is made. Kajol as a mature woman, a mother who still manages to create some magic in romantic moments on screen. She is the last of our acting leading ladies, after this we have the beauty queen parade. She can be hyper and yet also immensely quiet and grave and her eyes inspired two songs in the film – and rightly so!! Is it time for her to retire? She is our Meryl Streep, so hell no! Finally some lesser roles must be mentioned. Arjun Mathur plays the catalyst – an idealistic university student who sets things in motion so that Khan’s goal can be achieved and his goodness come to the fore. Parveen Dabbas as the TV anchor has a significant role and he is good in it, as is Vinay Pathak in a brief cameo as a motel owner! The foreign actors are all decent and not caricatures. Which brings me to the two African American characters in the small village in Georgia. Was that reasonable? A quick check tells me that Georgia is second from the bottom in rural poverty, so it is not unimaginable. And they are famous for their Southern hospitality, though it may not extend the length of buying our hero a man’s clothing while his clothes are washed! He ends up wearing Mama’s pinafore for a bit, and if you do not like that, I say I prefer that to his going around in a blanket or buck naked!

The screenplay does do some fast and loose with facts but in the end it serves the purpose of the film pretty well. There are aspects that may seem a trifle incongruous, but the work in the narrative and are not major deal breakers. Would people plot Jihad in a mosque? As far as I could tell no specific plans were made, and the setting was intimate and real. Were all non-autist muslims shown to be zealots? I think not, as a few clearly wanted to hear what Rizvaan had to say in the mosque, and the couple in the bus were helpful though scared. Were there racial attacks that were hate and ignorance generated? Of course there were, the aftermath of 9/11 had many such incidents. And it was quite realistic that the motel owner (a Patel, and why not, they own a majority of motels of that type in the US) would have a shotgun to defend himself! Why did Mandira let Rizvaan into her life and why did she send him away? A man like Rizvaan no doubt would be part husband part child-like in the relationship. So I see this as Mandira’s warm heart, single parent state, and yes a deep caring for the inherent simplicity and goodness in Rizvaan. BUT the death of Sam changed all that for a distraught mother. And the need to focus on getting justice became paramount. It was an irrational act of a distraught parent, not a loving spouse, and being a parent came first. The hurricane scene is the most troubling as it os dramatic, over the top and pure chance in play. I see it as a necessary driver for the heroic act that would complete Rizvaan’s journey, much like Forrest saving his entire battalion by carrying them, man by man, to safety! The moments of poignant beauty were Rizvaan tucking Jimmy;s head under his arm and awkwardly patting it while saying ‘do not cry my son’, saying his prayers in the desert, finding out he has under $3 at the ATM, and carefully picking up two rolls, eating one and pocketing one.

Finally I want to talk about the music. It was excellent, well placed and situational. Noore Khuda and Tere Naina were standout tracks that were magical. The cinematography was spectacular and Ravi Chandran’s lens captured the stunning beauty of both the city by the Bay and the Mojave desert with equal ease. The production values were top notch.

The message of the film was brave and not simply one that tackled our misunderstanding of and eying with suspicion people of the Islamic faith, but rather it extended to any ethnicity that was not mainstream. Yes the Jihad against Wester civilization has been perpetrated by Muslims, but does that mean all Muslims are the same? There are two types of people in this world – good people and bad people, good people do good deeds and bad people do bad deeds. This is a simplistic message, but one that may stand us in good stead.

The film gets 8/10 from me for exceptional performances, and a heartfelt story that manages to hold together until all but the very end.

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