Remember a dialogue from one of the movies of Shahrukh Khan, “My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist.” The situation connects to his real life at present. And the big question is – Is an artist representative of a religion, community, caste, class and, of course, craft? Can you separate one part from the whole? Within that second question lies the dispiriting fact that the two seem to be increasingly twinned, the pitch rising in venom and hysteria with each passing day. The poisonous fallout, being played out in the public domain, is to the detriment of us all.
As we speak, Shahrukh Khan, Bollywood superstar, is being pilloried for speaking out on religious intolerance and how problematic that can be for creative people. This is what he said a couple of days ago, on his 50th birthday, and which was accompanied by the usual media hoopla. And this is something that all right-minded individuals, be they madly popular stars or regular Joes, should anyway be talking about.
It is more important than ever that this happens. Because increasingly, dissenting voices are being questioned, dubbed insidiously and meaninglessly “pseduo-secular”, and silenced. Celebrities take refuge in craven silence because the outcome could be uncomfortable. In India, film stars stay far away from taking stands because anything they say can blow up in their faces.
These are celebrities who live highly public lives, with cameras tracking every move, who turn out to be our brand ambassadors for everything from eradicating polio to creating “shauchalayas”. For a fat fee. Who would want to lose out on lucrative endorsements, which is almost always what happens when a star’s light dims? And there’s nothing like being excoriated by shrill dimwits tacitly encouraged by the establishment.
Which is why SRK’s statements gain importance. This is a man whose celebrity-hood is stratospheric. This is an actor who has spoken out in the past on being Muslim, on being Indian, on patriotism, and this is what he continues to do, even if sporadically, when he has the choice of keeping quiet like the rest of his brotherhood. This writer witnessed him in action two days back, and it was instructive on how being famous and saying it like it is can go hand-in-hand.
Waiting for SRK trumps Godot by a long chalk. The massive throng of media, fans and bystanders outside the suburban hotel in Mumbai, literally a stone’s throw from his house, mills about, restive and resentful at having had to wait for hours. But no one moves an inch. They will stay for as long as it takes, and everyone knows it: His army
of publicists, his staff, and the birthday boy himself.
Long-time film critics are not usually part of this sort of jamboree; we are usually on the side of the screen that has moving images of these people doing their jobs. I happen to be in Mumbai, and I am curious, so I go along with a colleague. I want to see what makes up his stardom firsthand, without a screen separating us. I want to see if he will break through the prism of self-serving statements that will be heaped upon him as soon as he comes on a stage lit up with garish strobe lights.
All day long he’s been on television, and he’s spoken about issues that matter to us all as citizens. From a previous encounter, it is clear that this is a rare celebrity who is aware of the country we live in, and of the events that shape us. Will he, in the middle of all the “happy birthday” choruses and the fawning, be able to do what he has done before — take on inimical statements from agenda-seekers targeting his religion, and speak out? He is unequivocal: “Creativity bahut secular hoti hai, uske andar koi jaat-paat, koi religion, koi region nahin aata.”
Later, as he sits with a much smaller group of journalists, I ask him: Is he not scared? He pauses briefly, and says, “No, not really.” Is he saying it for effect? Or does he really mean it? On balance, I’d say the former, because he could just as easily not have said anything at all.
Call him out on his acting, if you like, because you’ve bought a ticket. You have the right. On anything else, he has lien. If we let his voice carry, the way a star’s voice does, it can catch traction. It can change the narrative. Ambassador for tolerance? Why not.