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Feb 13, 2010 at 07:49pm IST

Review: My Name Is Khan is inherently sincere

Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol, Zarina Wahab, Tanay Chheda.

Director: Karan Johar

In an early voice-over in director Karan Johar's My Name Is Khan, Shah Rukh Khan's character Rizwan says his mother loved him unconditionally from the moment he was born, never disappointed or embarrassed of his autism. It's hard not to feel the same kind of unconditional love for Rizwan when you're sitting there in your seat, listening to him as he innocently offers to repair the air-conditioner in a high-security US prison where he is being held and tortured by a suspicious FBI who cannot understand why he's determined to meet the US President.

Rizwan Khan has Asperger's Syndrome since birth; he has a problem expressing emotions, he rejects physical intimacy, he's bothered by crowded spaces and loud noise, and he's disturbed by the sight of anything yellow. Other than that, he's quite smart actually. He can repair faulty home appliances and crack word puzzles in an instant. What he cannot mend is his wife's broken heart, when 9/11 delivers a personal blow.

My Name Is Khan is an inherently sincere, yet unabashedly sentimental story of Rizwan Khan and his Forrest Gumpish journey across America to meet the US President so he can tell him that every Muslim is not a terrorist.

The film's message of religious tolerance and global secularism is an important one, but hardly new. Johar's occasionally naïve script places a series of seemingly impossible hurdles in the way of Rizwan, that he overcomes with sheer good-heartedness and love. Like the clunky portion where he returns to a hurricane-hit small-town in Georgia and inspires a community rebuilding effort.

The director sacrifices subtlety and goes all-guns-blazing to emotionally seduce you. Rizwan's romance with Hindu single-mom Mandira (played by Kajol) and his bond with her son provide the anchor points in a film that tends to overwhelm you with convenient touches.

My Name Is Khan has Johar's typical cheesy flourishes, like the moment when a church choir sings We Shall Overcome and Rizwan breaks into Hum Honge Kamyab. However, for the most part, the director makes a departure from his bubblegum themes.

At roughly two hours and forty minutes, the film is a tad long and packs in every possible plot point that might elicit an emotional response. There are encounters with fundamentalists, the stirring of a nationwide humanitarian campaign, even montage moments of hate crimes against innocent Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11.

But My Name Is Khan steams ahead confidently, propelled by the chemistry of its leads. Johar is on rock-solid ground when he's exploring the relationship between Rizwan and Mandira, investing the film with its finest moments. Watch how Shah Rukh and Kajol virtually bounce off each other in the Tere naina song, and the innocent cheekiness of that post-wedding bedroom scene when they finally discuss what they must get down to doing.

In a striking performance that's right up there alongside Swades and Chak De India, Shah Rukh Khan is endearing and restrained and makes it very hard for you not to lose your heart to him. He never turns the Aspergers-afflicted Rizwan into a caricature, using his peculiarities to warm up to you instead. Notice how he repeats his lines over and over again, or jumps in to correct someone when they've mispronounced his name, or how he hides his face and blushes when Mandira asks him to marry her.

Bringing emotional depth to what is essentially Rizwan's story, Kajol is immensely likeable as Mandira, using her eyes to convey volumes, topping the performance off with a powerful breakdown scene that literally puts her through the wringer.

In all fairness, My Name Is Khan benefits considerably from inspired casting. Zarina Wahab is heart-warming as Rizwan's mother, and Soniya Jehan exudes a quiet grace in the role of his supportive sister-in-law. A thumbs-up also for Tanay Chheda who plays the young Rizwan with remarkable consistency.

The film shamelessly tugs at your heartstrings and on more than one occasion wallops you to weep. Aided by solid camerawork, tight editing and a layered story, Johar crafts an engaging, stirring saga that is earnest and noble. With this message movie in the mainstream format, the director takes a step in the right direction.

I'm going with three-and-a-half out of five for Karan Johar's My Name Is Khan. Watch it for its star who doesn't miss a beat.

Rating: 3.5 / 5

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