Shahrukh Khan and the Pound of Flesh: the Cost of Stardom (The King is Out: Part II)

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[1957]: 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.

Rampage against SRK, February 2010

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]

8 thoughts on “Shahrukh Khan and the Pound of Flesh: the Cost of Stardom (The King is Out: Part II)”

  1. He is married to a Hindu woman and has two hindu kids(as shown in his own documentary)and still isn’t Hindustani enough.

  2. ‘Does this imply that activist or academic work against oppressive wars or occupation or an end to imperialism are also prohibited, bound to be “reported” to the “authorities”’

    It isn’t that difficult a question, for we have had examples of similarly academic and activist kind of gentlemen going ahead and pumping bullets in bodies of unarmed Kaffirs or trying to bomb Kaffir airport (you can of course call it imperial or colonial) in a country he chose to make his future in, and you know what : they were also Doctors! So it does no harm to be safe.

    What is more, they hardly left any scope for disputing their motivations. Come to think of it what makes you label every BJP man to be explicitly anti-muslim ? Ideology? Even though going by their officially stated ideology, your charge won’t stick, and not once but many times they have asserted that they are not against Muslims. But what about those whose officially stated ideology does not entertain such ambiguities about Non-Muslims?

    So if u can charge some based on your interpretation of their ideology can we not charge some on their own interpretation of their ideologies?

    What do we do with those whose officially stated ideology makes it obligatory on them to lie in order to achieve their objective?

    You get positively funny when you state this :
    ‘In a rampage, the Shiv Sena (Army of Shiva), 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’

    So burnt posters, held demonstrations. No be ready for more ‘extreme violence’?
    Like what? Blow up trains, or planes or schools or hospitals

    It won’t be a surprise, if you either censor my comment, or label me as full of hate, or ignorant or simply not respond. But think, can you stand up for Truth? Will you call that Ideology what it actually is?

  3. I love it when people think I am “positively funny,” rather than “negatively funny”! I love making my students laugh…

    No, SKS Mumbai, I will neither censor you, nor refuse to respond to you, nor will I give you any label. I will let your comment stand as evidence of the discursive terrain I study.

  4. I must compliment you. My guesses on your possible responses were basically designed to preempt any chance of you not responding.
    The compliment is for you proving me wrong and still not answering the questions.

    But what you probably don’t realize is that by not answering my questions you have answered ALL and that you by no means are the first to do so. It has been so always, barring a couple of honourable exceptions.

    1. Please do carefully read the six parts of this piece and the links embedded in the text. You will find answers to all your queries within and then some!

    1. Dear Nawaz,
      Thanks so much for pointing out the missing “-ji” — that could have caused semantic problems! :)

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