Are Muslim actors facing persecution in India despite their superstadom?

Posted: August 25, 2008 in General
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My name is Khan

The Indian Mujahideen recently warned four leading Muslim actors – Shah Rukh, Aamir, Salman and Saif Ali, all, coincidentally, answering to the name of Khan – that if they didn’t keep off working in Indian movies, they’d run the risk of ‘paying a price’.

More recently, Saif – who responded to the Mujahideen threat by saying he’d “rather be shot than not do a shot” – was in the news for articulating the fact that he had to go to a Muslim builder to look for a house, since many societies in Mumbai wouldn’t sell a place to a Muslim. These two unrelated news items had one thing in common – the extremists who want the actors out of Bollywood movies, and the housing societies who want them out of their neighbourhoods.

However, the audience which decides success or failure in the most democratic index of it that India has -you just can’t rig the box office on the opening weekend – that audience sees them primarily as stars, icons, as people for whose autographs fans jostle, and ape a hundred things they do, from SRK’s abs to Aamir’s buzz cut to Saif’s tattoos. Is even that superstardom not enough to take them beyond the appropriation by extremists or rejection by housing societies?

Shabana Azmi, who joined in the debate triggered by Saif’s revelations and gave the issue an impetus, thinks it certainly isn’t enough. “Of course discrimination exists in our society against all kinds of minorities,” she says and asks what the point is of denying it. She thinks it’s something that has been faced right from yesteryears’ stars such as Zeenat to currently popular actors such as Arshad. While Shabana’s has been the most vocal stance on the issue, the top Khans have generally kept to a diplomatic silence on this.

Shabana’s take on the issue has, however, left the likes of filmmaker Ashok Pandit and composer Adesh Srivastav fuming. “Bollywood is a secular industry and this is a communal statement,” alleges Ashok. “This is dangerous, she is giving fodder to politicians who can blow this out of proportion. There are many colonies in Mumbai, of many communities, which do not allow people from other social and religious groups, why isn’t she talking about them?” he questions.

Radicals may have their take on the Khans, and housing societies in Mumbai may choose what ethnic colours they wish to paint themselves with, the audience, in most cases, couldn’t care less. Unlike the time when Yusuf Khan had to change his name to Dilip Kumar, being a Khan is now a USP in Bollywood.

Indeed, the bulk of popular cinema in the past few years that has had any patriotic or nationalistic theme, including the movies that have already attained cult status – Lagaan, Rang De Basanti, Chak De! India – have had one of the Khans playing the lead character. And that character has stood for the spirit of modern India quite as much, if not more, than Manoj ‘Bharat’ Kumar did in the B&W era.

Indeed, even if the movies’ BO records may vary, the audience has also seen and largely applauded Saif as the tika-sporting Langda Tyagi in Omkara and as the army officer in LoC, SRK as the hero of Swades who leaves all behind for serving his country, Aamir as the orthodox Brahmin and freedom fighter Mangal Pandey in The Rising – with not the least disconnect. Nor, for that manner, is there any dissonance in our minds when we think of Emperor Akbar as either Prithviraj Kapoor or Hrithik Roshan. A textbook case to illustrate the complete irrelevance of religion in audience perception of Bollywood’s stars is that of SRK playing the Hindu IAF officer and Rani and Preity playing the Pakistani Muslims in Veer Zaara.

While the Big Khans are extremely reticent after Saif and Shabana’s statements, previous occasions when they have been more vocal in responding to such issues indicate that they don’t see things differently. Shah Rukh, who earlier this year said in an interview to Tehelka that “AR Rahman sent me a message once saying you are an ambassador for Islam. I think I truly am,” argued in 2004 while talking to the BBC, that “Indians by nature right now are very secular and the biggest case in point is that a Muslim guy is one of the top stars for the last 13 years.”

As far back as 1998, Aamir, when asked a question by communalism combat on the religious divide following his first marriage to Reena, had responded with, “What is really quite amazing for me is that three of India’s leading stars are Khans – Shah Rukh, Salman and myself! I think what it indicates really is that the common man is not deeply affected by the virus of intolerance as yet. Or else, it would be inconceivable that Shah Rukh and I could be as popular as we are.”

A decade down the line, this answer holds just as true. Shabana has expressed optimism in the thought that a common Muslim can aspire to be Shah Rukh. Actually, the great majority of common Indians, irrespective of faith, aspire to be Shah Rukh. Bollywood, like cricket, is a religion in its own right – thankfully!


India shines sometimes for some: Islamophobia was bound to hit the Khans one day and sure enough, it has. But despite the threats hanging over their heads, they will continue to rule the Bollywood box office! Gone are the days when Yusuf Khan had to change his name to Dilip Kumar for nationwide acceptance. Today, you’re proud if you’re a Khan in India’s film industry and that isn’t changing any time soon!


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