Bollywood’s King Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, is known around the world as a cultural phenomenon that transcends borders. But he is a Muslim, and his religion has become somewhat of an issue in India — where anti-Muslim sentiments are rising.
Khan’s latest movie, Jawanstirred up a political storm in the South Asian country. Many believe the film contains subtle references to the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and touches on several controversies that have mired the government.
In 2015, just one year after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP came to power, the Bollywood superstar publicly spoke about a “growing intolerance” towards Muslims in India. Ever since, there have been several attempts to slander Khan. Hindu nationalist politician Yogi Adityanath compared the Bollywood star to a Pakistani militant and told him to go to Pakistan, the actor’s country’s Muslim-majority neighbour.
In 2021, Khan’s son Aryan was arrested on drug charges but later exonerated. Although Khan has remained quiet about the ordeal, some analysts say the arrest was politically motivated.
Some observers believe that such animosity towards the Bollywood icon, who presents and promotes a secular image of his country, stems from a larger Hindu-nationalist plan to portray people from minorities as “second-class citizens.” The BJP vehemently denies this allegation.
Khan hasn’t made any recent public statements about intolerance, but his latest action-packed movies, Pathan and Jawantell a different story. Both have been mammoth box-office successes — and both carry political commentary.
Khan is hugely popular, and his movies attract long lines of fans outside theatres and crowded auditoriums inside. It’s the kind of popularity that could threaten the BJP’s pursuit of its Hindu nationalist agenda — particularly at a time when the right wing is seen as trying to influence Bollywood, according to some analysts.
Khan has always been considered progressive with liberal values and extremely inclusive, according to an entertainment reporter from a leading Indian newspaper who did not wish to be named. “His [Khan’s] personal life mirrors the ‘idea of India,’ especially to the global audience. He’s a Muslim man in a Hindu-majority country, married to a Hindu wife, but has children growing up taking up whatever religion they want to,” the journalist told DW.
Why is Khan’s religion considered so important?
“Should his [Khan’s] religion matter?” asked Dr Ranjani Mazumdar, professor of Cinema Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “It matters now because of the attack on minorities, and in that sense, his continuing popularity makes one see that all is not lost, despite the poison that is being injected daily,” Mazumdar told the publication, adding that Khan has never really tried to draw attention to his religion in public.
Khan’s popularity in India attracts a huge fan base — none of whom consider his religion as something that matters to them, Mazumdar pointed out. After Khan’s son was detained, journalist Rana Ayyub wrote an article that sparked widespread discussion on whether his arrest was a result of his being the son of one of India’s biggest Muslim superstars who has never shied away from his religious identity.
She said that the actor’s films attempt to eliminate anti-Muslim prejudice amid a barrage of films that are “Islamophobic.” Ayyub suggested that Khan normalizes being a Muslim, and in Jawanhe subtly tries to “portray a message against communal politics.” “Yes, he becomes a threat because Bollywood is massive, which is why the government of the day is using it as propaganda to vilify Muslims,” Ayyub told the outlet.
Some, like author Debasish Roy Chowdhury, say that the mere presence of Muslim stars like Khan on the big screen presents a problem for the Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) ideology. “The very sight of Muslim heroes romancing Hindu heroines on screen must be terribly upsetting for these supremacists, who project Muslim men as sexual predators,” he said.
“There simply can’t be powerful Muslims in the emerging ‘Hindu-first order,’ so the very presence of stars like Shah Rukh Khan is deeply problematic for Hindutva supporters. More so, if they make social comments and emerge as a voice in society independent of their screen persona,” Chowdhury added.
Addressing societal issues
The entertainment journalist told the publication that the targeting of Khan by the BJP is rooted in the actor’s “continued stubbornness not to follow what they want.” “This constant targeting of Shah Rukh Khan is coming from a space of ‘why is he still standing tall?’ There is a long history there,” the journalist underlined.
Meanwhile, in JawanKhan delivers an unprecedented monologue on voting and electing a candidate who is not prejudiced towards caste and religion. “For the times we live in, even the bare minimum becomes important… It’s not something extraordinary. But we are talking about the extraordinary times we are living in. These are not brave acts, but the bare minimum has become a brave act,” Ayyub said.
Several BJP officials that the publication contacted refused to comment on the issue. However, BJP spokesperson Gaurav Bhatia diverted the blame on the opposition Congress party in a post on social media platform X, formerly Twitter. “We must thank Shah Rukh Khan for exposing the corrupt, policy paralysis-ridden Congress rule from 2004 to 2014 through Jawan movie,” he posted. “It reminds all viewers of the tragic political past during the Congress led-UPA government,” he added.
But Mazumdar said that Jawan is a political film in which issues considered very important during the last decade of the BJP rule have been highlighted. “It is addressing and sign-posting these issues, and it is also combining that with Shah Rukh Khan’s own star text because they are drawing on his history of stardom and addressing the kind of things that have happened to him in the public domain,” she said.
On whether Khan’s popularity comes in conflict with the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda, Ayyub said that his films ensure a dialogue — albeit a cursory one.
“It’s a very small dent in the Hindu nationalistic agenda. It’s not going to change anything,” she said. “The people who are going to watch Jawan will also watch movies driven by right-wing agenda. It will try to create some kind of awareness, but it won’t be long-lived. It is probably a flash in the pan,” Ayyub added. “But if Khan films keep coming in time and again, it will be a reminder to the country that there is some sanity left in the chaos that we see.”
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