Shah Rukh Khan is arguably the most famous living Indian Muslim. He began his dizzying rise in Bollywood playing characters mostly named Rahul and Raj and clearly like all popular actors, his religious origins presumably were not a top of the mind factor with the viewing public and the actor himself. But in the highly communalized age that we now live in, individuals in the public eye who happen to be Muslim are sought to be reduced to merely the sum of their religious origins. On a personal note, I always considered myself an Indian journalist. To digress into a personal anecdote, recently a British TV reporter posed a question asking me what it felt like to be a Muslim journalist. I replied by asking him if people ask him what it felt like to be a Christian journalist.
To the credit of Shah Rukh Khan he has never shied away from also showing aspects of his origins, be it through freely using the phrase insha Allah in his interviews, using his Twitter account to tell fans and those who have suffered a loss "may Allah bless you" and most famously acting in a movie titled My Name is Khan, that had a larger message against religious profiling. In interviews he has also said that as his wife is a Hindu, his home has the best of both religions and is the embodiment of India.
Indeed, after his son Aryan Khan's arrest on October 3 in what is referred to as the #CruiseShipDrugs Case, an individual named Akhil Katyal, wrote a Twitter post that was wildly circulated. It named the celluloid characters the actor has famously played such as Rahul, Raj, Charlie, Max, Surinder, Harry, Devdas, Veer, Ram, Mohan, Kabir, Amar, Samar, Rizwan, Raees, Jehangir and then wrote in Hindi verse translated here: "perhaps that is why he cannot be digested by some people/ for the whole of Hindustan resides in Shah Rukh Khan."
Obviously not everyone thinks so. In an age where social media trends set narratives, Shah Rukh Khan and son Aryan, have been mercilessly attacked since the young man's arrest. On the day that Aryan's bail application came up for hearing on October 13, one of the top social media trends was #NoBailOnlyJail. But then if we take social media as the only reality, the top trend on Gandhi Jayanti, October 2 this year hailed the assassin Nathuram Godse and was more systematically circulated than the greetings to M.K. Gandhi.
But there are consequences to the profiling and targeted campaigns directed at the brands that the actor endorses. The giant education technology company BYJU's has reportedly stopped the airing of all commercials built around Shah Rukh Khan following an online campaign. One endorsement deal may be a drop in the ocean of wealth that the actor would have but can it be seen as part of the systematic campaigns in the Hindi heartland to target incomes and livelihoods of Muslims? As it is, the prevalence of so many Muslims in the film industry has been a sore point with ideologues and adherents of extremist Hindutva ideology who currently seek to exclude Muslims from even free movement and running businesses in parts of India.
In Shah Rukh Khan, there is an actor/star who has married a Hindu woman and professionally dances and romances the top female actors in the industry. In an age when the so-called notion of Love Jehad is an obsession with BJP regimes, a die-hard adherent of Hindutva would just cringe at the success of the Khans. A lesser-known Khan from the industry, Saif Ali Khan married to Kareena Kapoor (the grand daughter of Raj Kapoor) was hideously trolled for several days when the couple chose to name their son Taimur.
Indeed, we have perhaps crossed over the threshold—in the Hindi speaking world-- where it would not be possible for Muslim actors to play parts that evoke Hindu mythological figures. This is a big change from the time when Urdu writer and poet Rahi Masoom Reza wrote the screenplay for the widely successful television version of the Mahabharata, broadcast between 1988 and 1990. In that era when producer B.R. Chopra was told to drop his Muslim script-writer, he would have none of it.
Traditionally, Bollywood is the domain where Muslims have excelled in giving words to evergreen songs besides acting, directing and producing films. Some of the greatest lyrics of the past have been penned by Sahir Ludhianvi, Shakil Badayuni, Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, all Urdu poets who added the names of their towns of origin to their pen names. Today too we still have Javed Akhtar as the towering lyricist of the era even as A.R. Rehman is arguably the great transformer of popular Hindi film music.
Shah Rukh Khan has therefore thrived and prospered in an industry that is innately secular. His son's case is not the first time he has been trolled or attacked for just being who he is, but it is possibly the most serious and worrying episode in his life post superstardom. Aryan Khan does seem to have been targeted and nabbed in a well-planned raid by the NCB, not because he is a drug king pin but because he is the first born of the man routinely described as King Khan.
In the West, actors and creators of cinema routinely speak out against regimes, racism and politics of hate. In India, when actors show any solidarity with causes, they are profiled and trolled mercilessly and the consequences can be more serious. In recent times income tax raids have been carried out against the brilliant film-maker Anurag Kashyap, till now out-spoken about his political dislike for the BJP/RSS and actor Taapsee Pannu among others. Shah Rukh Khan does not take political positions, but neither does he genuflect before the regime. Whatever he does or does not do, the fact that he is a big star and a Muslim to boot is enough cause for discomfort in this age. He may not have set out to seek a political confrontation, but it's come into his home now and he will have to deal with it. His Name is Khan after all.