A sure way of knowing when a superstar is about to release a film is by seeing how accessible he becomes. Voila, suddenly, there he (or she) is, popping up on television, in newspapers, on social media and, if you happen to be Shah Rukh Khan, at railway stations too.
But Khan’s edit page piece in The Indian Express, excerpted from an interview to Alaka Sahani , goes beyond trade practice to answer a question heard this past fortnight: Why is there no Indian equivalent to Meryl Streep?
The reference is to Streep’s courageous, elegant take-down of Donald Trump while accepting a lifetime achievement award recently. It was a speech that prompted some in India to ask where were our conscientious objectors.
It’s ironic that Shah Rukh Khan chooses to answer the question because it was he who waded into the intolerance debate in 2015 with an interview to NDTV calling it the “worst thing” that “will take us to the dark ages”. It was a touchy subject at the time with writers and artists returning awards and the backlash against Khan was not unexpected.
BJP functionaries compared him to terror mastermind Hafiz Saeed and noted that his heart was in Pakistan. There was vicious trolling on social media and when someone started an online campaign to boycott his film, Dilwale, the actor quickly apologised.
So, it actually took a great deal of courage to take a stand seen to be critical of the government. But instead of answering the question why we don’t have a Meryl Streep, or ignoring it, Khan proceeds to bash everyone’s favourite target — journalists. Of all of media’s many flaws, he picks three: Journalists talk over each other, are in love with their stardom and create a “point of view”. He uses the phrase nine times in his article and why it is wrong is unclear, unless what he means is “hidden agenda”. The whole point of an opinion piece (like this one) is to have a “point of view”.
An article by Rana Ayyub on the fact that the characters played by Khan in his last three films have Muslim names is singled out as an example of “point of view” peddling. Ayyub’s article praises the actor for his “strong message” that “it is as cool to be Tahir as it is to be a Rahul”. It’s an innocuous article that seems to offend Khan who says he did not even know the name of his character in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. Perhaps, but is Ayyub wrong on fact?
Khan is silent also on the controversy preceding the film’s release when Raj Thackeray’s MNS threatened to vandalise movie halls that showed it because it features Pakistani actor Fawad Khan. Film-maker Karan Johar then had to publicly proclaim his nationalism and declare he would never hire Pakistani actors again.
Some might call this a sell-out, but Johar pointed out that holding up the film would affect so many Indians who had worked on it. Who could judge him for that?
Media exists beyond TV’s shouting matches but Khan does not dwell on those at the frontlines of development or reporting out of Bastar or calling out sexism. A serious media critique might look at Paranjoy Guha Thakurta’s report on paid media and the collusion between political parties and media companies. Or much of entertainment media’s PR-driven coverage of the film fraternity. Or proprietorial oversight and the erosion of editorial independence. Or even media’s docile compliance with the new regime.
It’s a compliment when governments of the day abuse media because it means we’re doing our jobs. But at a time when so much of good journalism is under siege, it’s ironic that someone who has himself been subjected to a lynch mob seems to have joined another type of lynch mob. The price of annoying the establishment is steep, as Khan knows. It’s perhaps easier to compromise — a simple answer to the question of why we don’t have our Meryl Streep. But if everyone shoots the messenger, who will tell the stories?
Namita Bhandare is gender editor, Mint
The views expressed are personal