So Salman Khan has once again failed to turn up before the Maharashtra State Commission for Women in response to a summons issued to him over his recent remark on rape. Why is anyone surprised?
Ever since the media and members of the public spoke up against Khan’s insensitive comparison between the plight of a rape survivor and his own gruelling preparations for the role of a wrestler in his latest film (so gruelling that he was “like a raped woman”, he told the press), the actor has doggedly avoided comment or any expression of contrition. His father, writer Salim Khan, unwittingly threw light on the family’s true feelings about the uproar when he took to Twitter following the episode, apparently to decry his son’s comments, but in truth to imply that those who were protesting were doing so to gain publicity. Khan Senior wrapped up a series of tweets on the subject with this one: “To err is human to forgive divine. Today on Intl yoga day lets not run our shops on this mistake,” (sic) resorting to a very literal translation of the Hindi expression “apna dukaan chalaana”.
The truth is quite the opposite: the controversy over Khan’s remarks have served as great publicity for his new film by bringing together disparate forces in ways that even a brilliant PR agent might not have predicted.
Group I: Misogynists, including those who may never have watched a Salman Khan film but are extremely disturbed by the manner in which the country’s women’s rights movement has become more vocal, more visible and more high profile since the December 2012 Delhi gangrape.
Group II: Khan’s hard-core fans for whom this too is an instance of what they have long considered the victimisation of poor Bhai by the media. That a large bulk of them are misogynists too is evident from their social media chatter.
Group III: regular folk who have, most disappointingly, given little thought to the ongoing discussion and have therefore mindlessly gone along with the position that Khan’s remarks are too minor a matter to be pursued. After all, he did not actually commit rape, right? Should we not concern ourselves with actual sexual violence, female malnutrition, the education of little girls, bride-burning, child marriage and other concrete problems that ail this country’s women? Besides, c’mon, he is “only a movie star” and “who takes them/him seriously anyway?”
That last set is an unexpected bonus for Khan. They need to be reminded that there is no either/or when it comes to human rights concerns; civil society has to attack every aspect of gender oppression from all sides, all guns blazing.
That being said, it is his committed fans that Khan is primarily addressing right now by not apologising.
These are the people who get furious if you critique the deep-rooted misogyny in many of his films or point out that his directors are usually careful to operate within an overtly patriarchal framework. These are people who do not understand why anyone with a sense of humour would object to that scene in 2014’s Kick, in which Khan’s character takes the heroine’s dress between his teeth and, unknown to her for a few seconds, follows her with a grin plastered on his face, surrounded by a gaggle of male dancers.
This is the gang he has sought to appease and appeal to, when he has played characters who leer at women, stalk them, treat them as his personal property or his protectorate, or spoken lightly of women off screen. They are the ones who have fiercely defended him ever since his former girlfriend, actress Aishwarya Rai, went on the record in 2003 to state that while they were dating he had subjected her to “abuse (verbal, physical, emotional), infidelity and indignity”.
These are the kind of people whose response to accusations of domestic violence by a man is to say, “If he was really hitting her, why did she not leave him earlier?” and “par ladki ne kuchh toh kiya hoga, nahin toh koi aadmi vaise hi thhodi maarega (but the woman must surely have done something, a man is unlikely to have hit her without any provocation whatsoever)”.
And so, what most observers do not realise is that Khan may believe that he cannot afford to apologise. If he does, he would be letting down his core constituency, in much the same manner that Narendra Modi would let down his long-standing followers if he were to say sorry for the 2002 Gujarat riots.
There is no comparison between the two transgressions, but the reasoning behind the refusal to apologise is the same. This logic is no different from why then British prime minister David Cameron described the Jallianwala Bagh massacre as “a deeply shameful event in British history” but stopped short of actually apologising, when he visited Punjab in 2013.
Of course, there are those who hold that Khan has already apologised for his words, that he withdrew them as soon as he uttered them during that now-infamous media interaction last month, but if you listen to the audio recording of the conversation – which is available on the internet – there is no concrete evidence to prove this claim. Khan makes his horrendous “like a raped woman” comment, some of those gathered around him appear to laugh in response, and after a minuscule pause we hear an incomplete sentence from Khan that includes the words, “I don’t think.” Since we cannot see what is going on, we have no proof of what he is referring to. And if indeed he was taking back his words, there is no explanation for why he did not issue a statement clearly saying so, when the news broke.
Still others point out that Salman is not the first man to speak casually of rape, and they feel others have not been similarly badgered to express remorse. This is absolutely false, of course. The media and India’s feminists in recent years at least have routinely taken to task many public figures for similar or worse statements, from the present Chief Minister of Haryana to Madhya Pradesh home minister Babulal Gaur and Trinamool Congress MP Tapas Pal.
The question arises: will an apology from Khan at this stage make a difference?
Well, yes and no. It goes without saying that his off-the-cuff remark reveals his mindset. An apology will not change that. It will also probably end up further helping the promotions of his film, which is currently raking in crores at the box office. It is possible that that thought has already occurred to at least one savvy publicist on the team of marketing geniuses working with him. Khan himself was perhaps alluding to this line of thinking when he responded thus to a question about his appointment as the brand ambassador of India’s Rio Olympics contingent this year: “I wish the controversy went on for a bit longer. Sadly, it didn’t.”
In that sense, if you think about it, this is a win-win situation for Khan and his film. If he does not apologise, his dedicated devotees will be relieved that all is well with the world and will admire him even more for what they see as a firm stand. If he does apologise though, those very devotees will continue to lament the victimisation of Bhai, and some liberals at least will be won over.
Still, the demand for an apology is important because it sends out the message that words have consequences, that no one – least of all a public figure – should speak lightly on grave issues, and that the trivialisation of grievous sexual violence will no longer be tolerated in this country.
Some film industry watchers have been disappointed by the silence of Salman Khan’s colleagues in this matter. Except for a few honourable exceptions like Aamir Khan, Anushka Sharma and Anurag Kashyap, most have stayed mute while a tiny number have defended him strongly. Look at it another way though: at this point Khan is a potent combination of popular and powerful within the Hindi filmmaking community, and he is also seen to be close to the present government at the Centre. There was a time when Hindi filmdom would have spoken up for him in a loud chorus, or at least silently supported him as almost all of them did following Rai’s allegations of abuse. Their silence this time round is an indicator that they too have begun to notice the vocal vehemence of India’s feminists, and they would rather not be caught on the other side of this debate. That may not be such a bad thing, after all.
Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. She tweets as @annavetticad. Views expressed are personal.