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Why My Name Is Khan is an important film to revisit

On the seventh anniversary of the film’s release today, we look at how the social drama is relevant again in this tumultuous post-Trump world.

Sonal Pandya

Four years after Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (2006), which divided the audiences, Karan Johar got back in the director’s chair with My Name is Khan (2010). Casting the two actors - Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol - he was most comfortable with, Johar set out to make a film about a Muslim man who goes up against racism and religious discrimination in post-9/11 America.

Written by Shibani Bathija and Johar, My Name is Khan followed an unusual lead character in Hindi films. Shah Rukh Khan’s character Rizwan Khan suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism. This is revealed to audiences in the opening credits of the film. But Shah Rukh’s Rizwan has an added burden, he is also Muslim. This element becomes more instrumental in the second half of the film.

As a child, Rizwan receives extra special attention from his mother Razia (Zarina Wahab), a woman raising two sons alone. His brother Zakir (Jimmy Sheirgill), slighted by this treatment, emigrates to USA for a better life. Eventually, after their mother’s death, he calls Rizwan to live with him.

There, Rizwan is diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome by Zakir’s wife, Haseena (Sonya Jehan). Despite having awkward social skills, he has a knack for figuring out mechanical objects and repairing them. While in San Francisco, he meets and falls in love with Mandira (Kajol).

She already has a young son Sameer (Arjan Aujla) from a previous marriage and in the face of his brother’s objections of marrying a Hindu woman, Rizwan marries Mandira and a new family is formed. The two even take up Rizwan’s last name as their own.

However, the attacks of 11 September 2001 (one of the deadliest terror attacks on US soil) change their lives in ways they couldn’t have expected it. The growing unease and Islamophobia forces the Khan family in the line of fire. They all experience it, but young Sameer is dealt the harshest card.

Taunted at school, Sameer gets bullied by his schoolmates including his former friend and neighbour, Reese. He gets beaten up and dies from his injuries when a soccer ball hits him squarely in the chest. A distraught Mandira unfairly blames his death on Rizwan, telling him she shouldn’t have got married to Muslim.

Shah Rukh Khan with Kajol

She refuses to be with him and asks him to leave. Rizwan, who takes everything at a literal value, asks her how he can fix things when Mandira tells him caustically that he can tell the people and President of the United States that his name is Khan and he is not a terrorist.

This becomes Rizwan’s mission as he treks across the nation on a long and arduous quest to meet then President George W Bush. As he attempts to arrange a meeting, he comes up against obstacles and in one instance is even arrested by the FBI who believe he poses a threat to President Bush. In his quest, he comes across a town badly hit by a hurricane when he and his friends help out the community.

Rizwan is taken away by the police in My Name is Khan.

As his deeds as a good Samaritan are widely publicised, he gets the opportunity finally to reconcile with Mandira and utter the words “My name is Khan, and I’m not a terrorist,” to President-elect Barack Obama at a rally. Incidentally, the new president may have been more receptive to this sentiment than the previous one. His middle name is Hussein and he spent a number of years in Indonesia where he grew up with Muslim friends.

Today, with the recent travel ban in America by newly elected president Donald Trump on Muslims from select countries, the events presented in the film come to mind. There are thousands of ordinary Muslims, like Rizwan and Zakir, who are living normal lives in the USA, contributing in their own way to the fabric of the nation. To label them all as unstable and terrorists is dangerous and counterproductive.

Even today, many may want to stand up and repeat Rizwan's line from the film: My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist. 

Johar wrote in his autobiography, An Unsuitable Boy, that he made the film “to win over the critical audiences who thought I couldn’t make a different kind of film. I made it for just that reason. I wanted to make a film based on a social cause because that is what those kinds of people like. Of course, I believed very strongly in it. I am one of those people who is very open-minded about religion. I don’t have any prejudices. When there’s talk about Islam and terrorism, and the association between the two, I believe there are larger political reasons for everything. You can’t generalise about a religion. There are millions of people across the world who are Muslim, who are suffering on account of a faulty perception, and I felt very strongly that I wanted to tell that story.”

My Name Is Khan won three Filmfare Awards for Best Director, Best Actor and Best Actress. And yes, it was unlike, any Karan Johar film the audiences had seen before. At the heart of it, there was a love story but Karan had shared the fears and anxieties of a large community on screen, who wanted to be looked at for more than their religion and beliefs.

In the book Johar claims that he is always “associated with popcorn, bubblegum, frivolity, NRIs and rich people”. But My Name Is Khan was his attempt at trying to ease prejudices and open minds about religion. The film dealt with real world problems and the difficulty of moving on in life after the death of a child. But importantly, it started a conversation about what it meant to be Muslim.

My Name Is Khan’s lead actor has been quite vocal with his own experiences with US immigration authorities, who detain and interrogate him every time he enters the country. His own familiarity with being detained may have added an extra layer to his performance.

When someone judges you on the basis of your skin colour and/or religion, it demeans you at every level as a human being, when we start marking up differences instead of equality. Most Hindi films are our escape from everyday life, our source of entertainment, as it were. My Name Is Khan is one of the few films that openly talked about the racism Indians face when they migrate and even today, remains topical and relevant.