It has just been a day but Salman Khan is back to setting the box office on fire . His Eid blockbuster Sultan has set cash registers ringing across India. Thousand-seater multiplexes are packed, distributors are beaming and trade analysts are feverishly speculating on how many records the film will break. Chants of Bhai, Bhai are back outside cinemas.
It is difficult to imagine that same time last week, the popular actor was under siege with waves of condemnation attempting to bury his larger-than-life image in the wake of controversial comments comparing his post-shoot fatigue to a rape victim.
Khan’s comments were dissected threadbare at 9pm television debates, anchors cried themselves hoarse invoking women’s rights and safety and the National Commission for Women summoned the actor.
Social media was flooded with comments of people disgusted with Khan, vowing to never watch his films. Think pieces on his toxic masculinity gathered thousands of ‘likes’ and commentators speculated on the end of his wild popular and often inexplicable popularity.
But like any other episode of Facebook-fuelled outrage, many people seem to have lost their fire for women’s rights and are back at the theatres cheering the same man they professed to hate a week ago.
The film earned Rs 36.54 crore on its first day. Even at skyrocketing ticket prices, this means thousands of people watched Sultan notwithstanding the hand-wringing around rape culture a week ago.
The apparent collective memory loss suggests two things. One, our responses to issues of social justice are often performances for the galleries instead of genuine introspection.
In Salman’s case, thousands of us rushed to condemn him on social media but didn’t question the presence of the same patriarchy in our lives--we didn’t think of when we make casual sexist jokes, when we inadvertently make workplaces unsafe for women, when we reduce women to their looks in engineering and scientific institutes and when we make it impossible for women to step out and enjoy public spaces.
We bandied the word ‘rape culture’ about and berated Salman for furthering it, but didn’t think about the WhatsApp forwards in our phones that are as offensive as Salman’s comments. We didn’t wonder if watching movies with the same violent language and actions will bolster a culture where sexual violence is seen as a legitimate tool to silence women.
But the second and more important take-away is that it never helps to put all the blame on individuals for prejudices in our society’s structures. Salman Khan was a prominent target and it is important to condemn his words but such critique will do little to smash patriarchy if the words don’t shape our actions. So the next time we condemn a celebrity bad boy, maybe we will spare some time to question the insidious everyday misogyny and patriarchy that so many of us benefit from.
Maybe we will think about making our public spaces safer, calling out colleagues who leer or are sexist or complain against teachers who abuse or harass students. But more importantly, maybe we will start thinking of patriarchy as a structure that oppresses a vast section of women and non-binary, LGBT folks instead of individual acts.
This will help us appreciate the struggles of Manipuri women protesting alleged army atrocities, Adivasi women on fast because their lands are being torn apart by war and a plunder of natural resources and Dalit women who are kept away from any avenue of emancipation.
It will help us express solidarity with Radhika Vemula and Soni Sori , not just condemn Salman Khan. Unless we move towards such an understanding of patriarchal violence, movies by heroes we claim to despise will continue to rake in the crores and the only revolution we bring will be in our Facebook likes.
(The views expressed are personal.)