Rizwan Khan is a young Indian man with Asperger’s Disorder. A literal interpretation of an angry statement from his estranged wife Mandira leads him on a quest to deliver a personal message to the President of the United States that he is not a terrorist. Khan’s quest to fix things with Mandira leads him into adventure, misfortune and friendship as his Asperger’s Disorder, and with it its proclivity towards restricted interests and obliviousness to social cues, both helps and hinders Khan’s efforts to win Mandira back.
My Name Is Khan isn’t a film about Asperger’s Disorder; rather it is a film about a man with Asperger’s Disorder. Before we ever meet Rizwan Khan, we learn from a placard...
A hallmark of Asperger’s Disorder is that people with the disorder often interpret language very literally, and it is this literal interpretation of language that sets Khan’s journey into motion. After he and his wife Mandira suffer a personal tragedy, Mandira orders Khan to leave their marriage. When he asks her in innocence, “When should I come back?” (1:29:35), she answers that he should return only after he personally tells the US President that he is not a terrorist. Mandira surely does not expect Khan to actually do this, but Khan takes her at her word. Naive to the dangers that could befall a Muslim man with a mission to track down the President of the United States, Khan packs his bag and heads to the airport.
While Khan inevitably suffers various setbacks on his quest (including eventually being held as an enemy combatant), turning back without completing his mission never enters Khan’s mind. Like many people with Asperger’s, Khan has a tendency towards restricted interests, and in his case his interest is to repair things. He is resolved to “fix” his current problem (getting his wife back) with the same singularity of focus he has displayed since his childhood when he was the unofficial village handyman. Even though his current problem is much greater than a broken clock or car engine, Khan is just as determined to make things right. This theme, of Khan trying to fix what is broken, is repeated throughout the film, even when the problems of the world become bigger than any one person can take on.
While Khan’s proclivity to fix things, including his current situation, does stem from his disorder, this doesn’t mean that he isn’t also motivated by his emotions. The film succeeds in making it abundantly clear that Khan is highly capable of love, loyalty and feeling. From flashbacks to his childhood with his mother to his courtship with Mandira and his eventual bond with her son Sameer, who Khan refers to as “my only best friend” (1:47:08), the film’s portrayal of Khan as a man capable of deep human connection refreshingly works against the stereotype that people with autism spectrum disorders are unable to form meaningful relationships.
In fact, throughout his journey Khan forms countless friendships, and he is almost universally accepted despite his sometimes-obvious differences. People with Asperger’s Disorder have trouble understanding social norms, which we see in Khan when, for instance, his neighbor asks if he likes her cooking and he responds, “no, not at all” (1:13:16) and when he indicates to Mandira that a snack she is about to eat will make her fat (37:12). In the real world, these behaviors would likely be interpreted as rude or insulting, but Khan is hardly ever reprimanded for these faux pas. Ideally people would react with this level of understanding, but it does at times require a willful suspension of disbelief to accept these interactions as plausible.
Although it is not currently a criterion for a diagnosis of Asperger’s, many people with the disorder suffer from sensory difficulties. Khan is no exception. We learn through flashbacks that from an early age Khan has an intense dislike for the color yellow (10:03), has trouble hugging his mother (21:10) and is easily overwhelmed by noises. It is in fact when he is overwhelmed and disoriented by the noises and colors on the streets of San Francisco that he meets Mandira for the first time (27:35). This is one example of how Khan’s Asperger’s happens to serve him well on his journey- if not for his disorder he likely wouldn’t have met Mandira, and her immediate sympathy with his situation shows both Khan and the audience that Mandira is good person worthy of Khan’s devotion.
Some of the most heart-wrenching parts of the film are the scenes when Khan is being interrogated for his meticulous mapping of the President’s itinerary. Khan doesn’t understand why sometimes the temperature in his cell is freezing and why at other times it is boiling, why no one will tell him the time of day so he can pray, and why the lights don’t work properly. In voiceover as he composes a letter to Mandira we learn that he has offered to repair these things; he has no idea that he is being subjected to what many would call torture. And when he is being questioned, he says with all earnestness that he wishes he had studied up on al-Qaeda so he could be more helpful to his interrogators. It is scenes like this that remind the viewer that as smart and capable as someone with Asperger’s can be, the deficits are real and can lead to situations that are unsafe and life-threatening. In one of the early flashbacks in the film, a youthful Khan returns home to his mother repeating anti-Hindu propaganda. Dismayed to hear this coming from her son, his mother sits Khan down and, using pictures, teaches him that there are two kinds of people in the world, “Good people who do good deeds. And bad people who do bad,” (13:16) and that that is all that matters. Her overt point is that people shouldn’t be judged based on race or religion, but she could easily have also been teaching him that people shouldn’t be judged for having a disability. Thereafter, Khan makes it his mission to seek out and fight for the good people he meets in life, and in so doing he himself becomes a force for good. Ultimately the humanity that Khan puts out into the world is stronger than the forces that are trying to hold him back. While My Name Is Khan is not always one-hundred-percent true to life (people’s reactions to Khan are unfortunately not like “real people” would tend to behave) and at 165 minutes, half of which are with Hindu subtitles, it can at times feel long and meandering, in the end My Name Is Khan is an inspiring story of the power of love and loyalty despite perceived disability.