With three of the biggest worldwide Hindi film successes in recent memory--1998's Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something Is Happening) and 2001's Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham... (Sometimes Happiness Sometimes Sorrow...), both of which he wrote and directed; and 2003's Kal Ho Naa Ho (Tomorrow May Never Come), which he wrote and produced--to his credit, Karan Johar could have easily rested on his considerable laurels spent the rest of his career making tearjerking masala melodramas such as those. But Johar's efforts since KHNH (which is, for me, the final, definitive word on the quintessential Bollywood laugh-and-cry, sing-and-dance masala formula) have found him branching out beyond his comfort zone. His 2006 return to the director's chair, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (Never Say Goodbye), tackled no less of a touchy issue than adultery, but the film was ultimately not nearly as bold as its subject matter would suggest or require; and now My Name Is Khan, backed by no less than Fox Searchlight, is even more ambitious: an exploration of post-9/11 racial/religious attitudes in America told via an autistic protagonist--and without the traditional dance numbers, no less. While the rather intense trailers fall in line with these grandiose-sounding notions, make no mistake: while Johar's film does offer some extra food for thought within the conventional confines of an Indian commercial entertainment, it is, above all else, a love story--and a rather moving one at that.
And how could it not be, when the central couple is played by two of global cinema's most appealing stars and one of its most legendary screen pairings--Shahrukh Khan and, in her first reteaming with her leading man and director since K3G, Kajol? Nearly ten years after that film, their rapport is as natural and effortless as ever, easily selling a romance that is by definition difficult: that between Mandira, a divorced mother in San Francisco and the "Khan" of the title, Riswan Khan, a technical savant living with Asperger's Syndrome. It's a careful task to not make such a love story feel forced or patronizing, and Johar is smart enough to let the characters' relationship evolve patiently after their initial meet-cute, allowing his stars to work their considerable magic as Riswan and Mandira's connection develops and deepens. So vividly do Khan and Kajol--and Johar and scripter Shibani Bathija--paint each phase of falling that one does not question that Riswan and Mandira are indeed soulmates.
That is not an insignificant accomplishment, for their love, in particular Riswan's for Mandira, is the driving force for all else that follows in My Name Is Khan. The happy life Riswan finds with Mandira is first shaken by 9/11 and then completely upended by an even more intimate tragedy, which in turn sends him on a cross-country mission that brings him face-to-face with the prevailing post-9/11 prejudices against Muslims. Not surprisingly, the lead pair shift gears to weightier subject matter with considerable ease. The man affectionately known as King Khan again shows that on top of being one of the most naturally magnetic film stars around, he also is an actor whose true versatility is often unheralded. It certainly does jar somewhat at first to see him play someone so far from his usual charming rogue persona, but his innate likability goes a long way in convincingly conveying Riswan's completely relatable goodness and innocence under the intially alienating tics. Kajol's role is far less of a departure, but the remarkable elasticity of her talent still impresses anew: luminously gorgeous and playfully humorous in the first half, then piercing and absolutely heartbreaking in the second. The main variable in the mix is Johar, who by his own admission has never been the most subtle of filmmakers, and indeed the serious subject matter does sometimes lead him into the trap of overstatement, such as throwing in extraneous, redundant moments of other Muslim characters completely unrelated to the main cast also experiencing racial and religious profiling. But that familiar, romantically sincere sense of sweep that Johar is so adept at crafting is a critical ingredient here, as it never makes one lose sight of the core of Riswan's motivation and the heart of the story as a whole--to not only earn Mandira's love but prove to himself that he deserves it--even when the script takes some off-the-map turns.
The most notable digression is when Riswan makes a post-intermission stop through the African-American community of Wilhelmina, Georgia, where he forms a strong, family-like bond with the townsfolk. If the sunny depiction of downtrodden people of color is an initially uncomfortable throwback to more simpleminded racial depictions from Hollywood over a half-century ago, it is ultimately forgivable as it is all filtered through the genuinely innocent perspective of the purehearted Riswan; all of his adventures on the road are framed within the context of a letter he is writing to Mandira. The most intriguing aspect of this thread, whether intentional or rather fortuitously inadvertent by Johar, is how it clearly underscores in cinematic terms the close kinship I've always maintained as existing between Bollywood film and the African-American gospel play genre. This passage--including the character of Riswan and his general situation--would fit just as easily in a Tyler Perry film as it does here in a mainstream Indian film, from the blending of broad humor with earnest emotional sentiment to certain character archetypes to the spirituality-affirming message. The latter point is rather cannily driven home in how earlier, brief instances of Riswan and Mandira singing "We Shall Overcome" in Hindi reaches their natural culmination when Riswan and the local church congregation join their voices in a bilingual rendition that serves as a universal and transcendent call to arms.
That's the only moment in the film that comes close to being a traditional burst-into-song number, with the original songs composed by frequent Johar collaborators Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy used as background score, and quite effectively as evocative musical atmosphere and, most importantly in the classic Indian film tradition, lyrical reflections of the characters' thoughts and feelings. Even if the songs aren't either lipsynched nor danced to in this film, the film is rather unthinkable without them, and one can't quite imagine the story being as effectively told without the musical voice. Furthermore, one can't quite imagine My Name Is Khan being quite as distinctive and effective without the very characteristically Bollywood excesses the film takes in its final stretch. The difference between being a good person and a bad one is another major concern of the film, and the fairly epic lengths to which Johar goes to further confirm what type of person Riswan is reinforces the story's outsize Capra-via-India flavor. On a related note, speaking of epic lengths (in a more literal sense), the film's concluding payoff goes a number of minutes and a few steps beyond what would be its expected and more natural and realistic end, but given the ordeals endured by such a terribly lovable pair to reach that point, over-the-top feels just about right--and is an appropriate capper to the hyper-emotional, quintessentially Hindi film journey of My Name Is Khan.