by Huma Dar
[read Part I]
Shahrukh Khan (SRK) has a long history of playing the fraught field (of the Indian context) with flawless diplomacy, perhaps even overplaying the field. In early 2002, precisely during the days of the state-sponsored anti-Muslim pogroms in Indian Gujarat, the then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, from BJP (a Hindu Nationalist party), released an MTV-esque album,Samvedna [Sensitivity]. Widely broadcast on Doordarshan, the State-owned television channel, as well as on Indian-American programs (at least in the San Francisco Bay Area), the video features Vajpayee reciting his Hindi poetry while Jagjit Singh, the ghazal singer, sings in tune. The album is prefaced by the rhapsodizing words of Javed Akhtar — another famous Muslim from Bollywood, narrated by Amitabh Bachhan.
The above-posted video of the album’s first song, Kyaa Khoyaa Kyaa Paaya [What have I Lost, What Gained?], repeatedly broadcast to the backdrop of the anti-Muslim pogrom raging in Gujarat, is a montage bookended by shots of the elderly Vajpayee writing at his desk. This is spliced with a pensive Shahrukh Khan enacting a younger Vajpayee: wandering through snow, musing at a fireplace, meandering through wilderness, and walking across an empty room to open the door “at the last knock.” As he reaches the threshold, Shahrukh Khan, the “insider” becomes Khan the “outsider” — he faces the same door from the outside, from the wilderness. At this point SRK’s face melts into the profile of Vajpayee putting on his spectacles (3:03-3:05 of the linked video). I argue here that SRK plays the Self as well as the Other of Hindu India: the explicitly anti-Muslim, Hindu nationalist party ruling India (1998-2004) shows its coercive and persuasive potency by recruiting precisely the body of Bollywood’s Muslim super star to enact its fantasy. The naturalization of this appropriation is remarkable. Akin to Barthes’ analysis of the Paris-Match cover depicting a black man saluting the French tricolor in French uniform, SRK’s body becomes the very presence of Hindu majoritarianism in India (Mythologies, 1972: 116-129).
Given the price of super-stardom already extracted from SRK, his faux pas prior to the release of My Name is Khan might seem insignificant — but not in India, not when you are a Muslim and a Khan. SRK’s sin: his public expression of concern that no Pakistani cricket player had been picked by the clubs competing in 2010’s Indian Premier League (IPL). IPL is the cricket tournament most flush with money and SRK happens to co-own the Kolkata Knight Riders, the second richest franchise in IPL. SRK’s lapse of diplomacy stems from forgetting that Indian Muslims, especially those in the limelight, always have Damocles’ sword hanging over their heads — the suspicion of their secret Pakistaniness. In a rampage, the Shiv Sena (Army of Shiva-ji, the founder of the Maratha empire in the 17th c. C.E.), a militant Hindu outfit, burnt SRK’s posters, held demonstrations outside his home, flaunted a ‘ticket’ from Mumbai to Pakistan, insisted that the government ban My Name is Khan, with the threat of further and more extreme violence.
The clamor around SRK and his then upcoming film My Name is Khan escalated until SRK publicly mourned that his daughter had asked him on the phone whether their family would have to leave India. SRK tells his daughter, “No, we don’t have to [leave India],” and then immediately quips that, “It will be a huge problem — America won’t let us enter; India won’t let us stay.” The newscaster from Indian Broadcasting Network (IBN) who covered this press conference dramatically asserts in this special report that, “some people from the very city that [SRK] thinks of as a mother, are asking him to leave the country.” The Muslim actor/director of Urdu-Hindi film industry is forced to overcompensate for the chronic coalescence of suspicion via loud performance of [Oedipal] loyalty to Mother India, on-screen and off-screen. That is his or her pound of flesh. Significantly, SRK’s refusal to kowtow and apologize to Bal Thackeray (the founder of Shiv Sena) for his gone-rogue sports commentary, constitutes an off-screen performance of resistance to Hindu nationalism that some of the more venerable, Hindu icons of Bollywood (Amitabh Bachhan) have not yet registered. (More on SRK’s on-screen resistance in part (vi) of this post.)
[read Part III]