The Practice Movies

My Name is 'Khan', from the epiglottis

Shah Rukh played Rizvan cross-eyed, and that sealed the deal

Shah Rukh played Rizvan cross-eyed, and that sealed the deal  

SRK was invested in Rizvan, Asperger’s and all. But what about his superstar aura?

What sort of person goes searching for the President of the United States to say my name is Khan and I’m not a terrorist?” Karan Johar asked. The year was 2007 and we were well into the groundwork for My Name is Khan, exploring what it meant to be Muslim in a post 9/11 world. So far we had zeroed in on the character’s name, Rizvan Khan, and on his President stalking mission. But the most essential questions remained, “Who is this man, why is he doing this, and how will he go about it?” Karan and I agreed Rizvan was not going to be a filmi ‘paagal’. We were dealing with a real issue, in the real world, and so he had to have a real reason for his quixotic actions.

Enter character development tool primero: research. It can mean somewhat reluctantly subjecting oneself to underarm fragrances on a train, or equally reluctantly subjecting oneself to eardrum numbing EDM, all in the name of getting familiar with a character. But in this case, the quest introduced me to Asperger syndrome. An autism spectrum disorder, Asperger’s manifests differently in each person, but they all have social anxiety and communication difficulties.

Character building

Rizvan disliked touch, had a nerd brain, and used and understood language literally. So, when his grief-stricken wife tells him to exonerate himself before the U.S. President before she takes him back, he sets out on the mission.

Our aim was accomplished. It also came with bounties. Asperger’s meant Rizvan could be innocent and intelligent, difficult and simple all at once. He was beginning to reveal himself. And this takes time and patience from the writer and support from the producer and director.

It was also crucial to be conscious of the difference between character and characterisation. A man who constantly scratches his head is a piece of characterisation, but if he scratches his head at times of extreme stress at exactly the point he fell on it as a kid, that’s character.

With Asperger’s came the opportunity to build character through the fears and seeming oddities of Rizvan’s behaviour, but it was essential not to make them mere characterisations. So, his fear of loud sounds or aversion to the colour yellow were chosen to enhance the dramatic purpose of his character, and for the progress of the story. For instance, when Mandira ‘rescues’ him from the loud sounds of the cable car, her advice creates a connection. Or Rizvan’s repeated utterances of “Don’t die, please don’t die” reflect his history and fear of losing loved ones.

Characters have inner and outer worlds, with aspects like habits, preferences, and beliefs. In My Name is Khan, Rizvan’s religion was always going to be crucial. And religion is a minefield. A misguided or misunderstood reference can bring wrath upon your head. And here we were diving headfirst into a film centred on religion.

So, back to research I went. I discovered that Rizwan would have to be taught his faith, for him to know and embody its strongest tenets. And so entered his Ammi. A mother who not only taught him the true meaning of his faith, but also instilled a few principles of her own: “There are only good people who do good, and bad people who do bad. There is no other difference.” So, thanks to a complimentary character, Rizvan put on some more muscle.

By this time we knew Shah Rukh Khan was going to be Rizvan Khan. But with a huge star comes character-defying stardom, and we had to make people forget it was SRK they were watching. Karan, for his part, made sure his treatment took this into account, and Shah Rukh was also invested in being Rizvan, Asperger’s and all. But what could we do about the SRK superpower aura?

It was Rizvan to the rescue. I saw him, saw his Asperger’s, and an aversion to making eye contact was written into the script. With that, unlike SRK, Rizvan was not lover par excellence. He couldn’t even look a woman in the eye. Shah Rukh played him slightly cross-eyed, and that sealed the deal.

Creating empathy

I am ever grateful to Karan and Shah Rukh for taking Rizvan from the pages and embodying him on screen. It takes a lot to create empathy for a character who can’t express emotion.

But above everything else, the key to developing a memorable character or a memorable film is telling the tale from a place of truth. I have found it necessary to research, but more so to live. My yoga teacher taught me Ujjayi breath by pointing out the epiglottis, and all my life I have heard my mother complain about people who don’t pronounce the Urdu ‘Kh’ as in ‘khandaan’ correctly. Put these two random lessons together and we get “My name is Kh.. Khan from the epiglottis.”

By chance human, by design flawed, and by temperament a writer, the author is screenwriter for My Name Is Khan.

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Printable version | Jun 3, 2020 12:42:59 PM |

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