In his autobiography, the original Hindi film superstar Dilip Kumar writes of how he got his screen name. It was the Bombay Talkies owner Devika Rani who told him, “Yousuf, I was thinking about your launch as an actor and I felt it would not be a bad idea if you adopted a screen name. You know, a name you would be known by and which will be very appropriate for your audience to relate to and one that will be in tune with the romantic image you are bound to acquire through your screen presence. I thought Dilip Kumar is a nice name. How does it sound to you?” What the book leaves unsaid is that Devika Rani probably meant a Muslim surname would not work in the India of the 1940s. Thus, the first great hero of the Nehruvian age of multi-faith Indian democracy was rechristened Dilip Kumar.
Nearly seven decades on, the Khan triumvirate that dominates Bollywood faces no such pressure to change their names, a reassuring sign suggesting that Indian society has come a long way: Each of them can wear the ‘My Name is Khan’ badge with some pride. Their on-screen names maybe more familiar: Shah Rukh has played Rahul in 6 of his films, Salman has been named Prem in fifteen of his films (Aamir seems to have no fixed preference). And yet, the world knows them as the King Khans, as proud legatees of the great tradition of Hindi film heroes stretching back to Dilip Kumar.
There is no evidence that their identity as Indian Muslims has ever come in the way of their superstardom. Salman and Aamir come from film families, Shah Rukh has had no such privileged background. The only time when the Khan surname seems to have stirred a controversy was when the Shiv Sena targeted Shah Rukh’s film My Name is Khan a few years ago after the actor spoke out in favour of including Pakistani cricketers in the Indian Premier League. “This is not Shah Rukh, but the Khan in him who is saying all this,” a Sena spokesperson was quoted as saying at the time. And yet, the dominant image has always been of the Khans as heroes who cut across the religious boundaries like few other Indians:
Be it Salman celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi with enthusiasm, Aamir being the brand ambassador for Incredible India campaigns, or Shah Rukh being embraced by crazy fans itching for him to do the ‘lungi dance’.
And yet, in the last few weeks, the ‘intolerance’ debate has suddenly pushed the Khans into being asked to take positions on their status as Indian Muslims. I did the interview with Shah Rukh which first stirred a controversy, where he angrily spoke out against those who questioned his patriotism. While speaking in generic terms about “extreme intolerance” in the context of a growing impatience of the young to even listen to each other, Shah Rukh remarked that “not being secular is the worst crime you can do as a patriot.” It seemed a perfectly reasonable response from an actor who likes to speak his mind. But it was enough for a section of the saffron brotherhood to dub him as an “anti-national” who should “go to Pakistan”.
Now, barely a fortnight later, Aamir is facing a similar backlash for revealing that his wife had suggested a few months ago that maybe they should consider leaving the country as she feared for the safety of her children in a climate of insecurity. It was, the actor said, a “disastrous” statement to make and one that reflected “growing disquiet”; its been enough for the familiar “anti-national”, “go to Pakistan” rhetoric to resurface.
The question is, are Shah Rukh and Aamir being targeted as celebrities or as Indian Muslims who just happen to be public figures? Would a Ranbir or a Hrithik face similar abuse if they joined the ‘intolerance’ debate? Clearly, there is a link between stars and their surname here: Their remarks make them particularly soft targets because there is a section of society which will always question the patriotism of an Indian Muslim who enters potentially controversial terrain. Even Dilip Kumar was dubbed a ‘Pakistani agent’ and ‘sympathiser’, especially after he was accorded the Nishan-i-Imtiaz by the Pakistan government. And who can forget how Sania Mirza was reduced to tears by those who questioned her patriotism because she had married a Pakistani.
You could argue that mega-stars need to be more careful while expressing their feelings instead of adding to the fear psychosis of the Indian Muslim. But you cannot deny that there is a Hindutva hothead brigade that is seeking any and every opportunity to demonise the ‘other’ as ‘untrustworthy’ because of their religion. There is a creeping ‘them’ versus ‘us’ polarisation which makes even popular icons vulnerable to the pressures of those who are looking for political mileage by taking on the Khans. It is this polarisation of public opinion, especially on a permanently outraged social media, which is at the core of the ‘intolerance’ debate, where any expression of a contrarian view is seen as potentially ‘anti-national’, where even food choices can determine one’s ‘nationalism’.
Sadly, lost in the pseudo-nationalist lynch mob hysteria is the fact that a large section of 21st century India is looking to go well beyond the Hindu-Muslim divide, that both Shah Rukh and Aamir are in fact symbols of this new India, both in inter-religious marriages that mirror this change. As Shah Rukh with typical flamboyance told me, “In our family, we celebrate Eid with crackers and Diwali with sevaiyan!’’
Post-script: Interestingly, Salman Khan has been mostly spared of any direct attack by the Hindutva army, although his controversial tweets on the hanging of the Mumbai blasts convict Yakub Memon did spark off street protests. Maybe, Salman is more secure because he chose to fly kites with Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year in an Ahmedabad suburb, a photo-op that was seen to dilute the PM’s anti-minority image. Will Aamir and Shah Rukh need to make a similar gesture?
Rajdeep Sardesai is an author and a senior journalist.
The views expressed are personal.