My Name is Khan

This picture is an epic about the life of the fictional Rizwan Khan, a man who grew up in India and showed symptoms all his life, but didn’t get diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome until after reaching adulthood and immigrating to America, having been sponsored by his presumably neurotypical younger brother, who left India for college in the US, because he felt overshadowed by the praise and attention his mother and the community gave to Rizwan as a boy genius who could fix electrical appliances and recite historical facts.

Unlike his brother Zakir, Rizwan went to America not because he wanted to, but because his mother made him promise to pursue a career and a “happy life” in America following the example of his brother. Life in San Francisco may have been happy for his brother, but it is initially overwhelming to Rizwan: the cacophany of sounds and constant exposure to yellow, a color to which he has a strong aversion, overwhelm him, and lead to a near-fatal encounter with one of San Fran’s famed cable cars. It is this experience that results in his taking shelter in a beauty parlor where he eventually sells the cosmetic products his brother arranged for him to market, and meets his best customer, a Hindu single mother who later becomes his wife.

It is because of his late mother’s attention to teaching tolerance and the importance of looking beyond stereotypes and labels on other human beings that Rizwan develops the moral sense he exhibits throughout the movie and the ability to express emotions and function in life in the world which has resulted in him “being better off than most autistic people”, according to his brother’s wife, a professor of psychology. Another factor, which resulted in him having valuable skills which would later serve him well socially, was the seeming neglect in which as a boy, he was allowed to play in a junkyard and “learned to fix broken things”. Rizwan later applies this skill on his travels to fixing the roof of a church which the townfolks have taken shelter in during a hurricane when he goes to see if a woman who had helped him on an earlier part of his travels is all right. Rizwan may be slow to warm up to new people, but will go out of his way and above and beyond the call of duty when he has truly made a friend.

The timeline to this picture jumps around, opening in 2007 with Rizwan looking up President Bush’s itinerary on the internet and walking erratically around an airport, where he gets stopped by TSA agents who take him into one of their patented “sterile zones” to search and interrogate him. They find an “autism alert” card in his wallet, which prompts one of the agents to ask a bit more about Rizwan’s plans and intentions, and accept his explanation that he’s not a terrorist. (I later discovered that there is such a thing as an “autism alert” card for the wallet, but it’s issued by a nonprofit agency in England, which also provides instructional materials about autism and Asperger’s for law enforcement agencies. Unfortunately, this is not duplicated in the US. It might be a good idea if it was: the internet is full of accounts of adults with autism and Asperger’s getting into similar dust-ups with law-enforcement and getting into further trouble involving the justice and/or the mental health systems because of anxiety-motivated, defensive, or seemingly evasive behavior that is the result of their condition.)

Shahrukh Khan, the actor who played Rizwan Khan, was similarly stopped and detained by airport security in August 2009, shortly after production had wrapped. While Khan is big in Bollywood, in Newark he was subject to racial profiling as a brown-skinned man with a “suspicious” name, which got “flagged”. In the case of Khan the actor, the Embassy of India intervened and he was released. Khan the Aspie, however, was subjected to what are euphemistically known as “enhanced interrogation techniques” when he was seized by US law enforcement for the second time.

Unlike most movies, which evade or gloss over the anti-Arab/Muslim prejudice which erupted among the previously quiescent American public following the terrorist attack on 9/11, for this one the vigilantism that ensued is central to the plot. The quest upon which Rizwan embarks was the result of something his wife said in anger after a bunch of hooligans beat her son to death for having a Muslim last name: she told him to go tell everyone in an adjacent town and the president of the USA that his name was Khan and he was not a terrorist. Being a man of his word, and/or not understanding sarcasm, meeting the president and literally telling him that he was not a terrorist was what he tried to do. Actually shouting that out at a rally during one of his early attempts to fulfill this mission was what got him into prison.

Certain things about this movie are very realistic, but certain things are not. Both Shahrukh Khan and the actor who plays the fictional Khan as a boy do a very good job of portraying Asperger’s symptoms and behaviors, but at times both have seemed to do things that are more consistent with full-blown autism. When public attention is brought to Khan’s imprisonment, he eventually gets released because it becomes recognized by the powers-that-be that his actions were motivated by Asperger’s and that he was truly not a terrorist. In real life, many people with Asperger’s are not nearly so obvious, and neither do they receive public acclaim or understanding on the part of the officialdom to the extent that Khan did. (One wonders how many people with autism spectrum disorders there are imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay and similar places for being in the wrong place at the wrong time as well as having the wrong name and skin color.)

In spite of the well-told and original story, I can’t help but have ambivalent feelings about this picture. I’m favorably disposed towards the idea that this is a story which shows that sometimes Asperger’s characteristics can be an asset rather than a “disability”, that someone with Asperger’s has the potential to achieve positive things in the world in spite of pretty obvious symptomology. On the other hand, this movie threatens with the potential to be an ethnic Forrest Gump.

While most people with Asperger’s do have a strong moral compass, just as there are many who are not nearly so “obvious” and manage to do a better job of assimilating socially (some even understand saracsm and get hints), people with Asperger’s are not by any means all as religious or as abstemious as the fictional Khan, who bought a book on intercourse in preparation for his wedding night, and had no interest in the “nude channel” a Hindu hotel-keeper touted as one of the benefits of his establishment. By anyone’s standards, Khan is an exceptional man, and would be a difficult standard for anyone, Asperger’s or neurotypical, to follow as a role model.

Rory O’Shea Was Here