King Khan isn’t Saffron’s Shourie

New Delhi: Listening to the recent interview given by the Hindi film actor Shah Rukh Khan to the lead anchor of a leading English-language television news channel, it becomes evident that Khan has not gone out of the way to state his views on intolerance. In fact, the anchor asked him a loaded question, seeking Khan’s opinion on whether there was greater intolerance prevailing in the country today than in the past. In a nuanced response, the actor said that it could be the proliferation of media platforms facilitating everyone to express her opinion in public that has conveyed such a sense of heightened intolerance. Khan maintained that the “phenomenon” of intolerance which had been there in the past, is neither a “modern” nor a “recent” phenomenon. Then he went on to say that intolerance of any kind, of which religious intolerance is the worst, is not a good thing. Khan’s responses — platitudinal at best — do not qualify, even if one were to read between the lines, as provocative. The former BJP member and right-wing ideologue Arun Shourie was recently far more provocative in lambasting the Modi government and squarely blaming the Prime Minister for spurring the culture of intolerance.


But the BJP hotheads — and now increasingly the public suspicion is that their ubiquity is making the BJP out to be a party exclusively of hotheads — responded viciously to Khan’s anodyne views. Kailash Vijayvargiya, a party hardliner from Madhya Pradesh, tweeted, describing Khan as “anti-national” while Sadhvi Prachi, a VHP leader, labelled him a “Pakistani agent”. In an official response, the Union Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, M Venkaiah Naidu, distanced the government from Vijayvargiya’s statement and praised Khan as a great actor.

However, beyond the nitpickings around Khan’s remarks, the row throws up interesting questions about the continued indifference of mainstream Hindi cinema actors to political developments in the country. The truth is that unlike in Tamil Nadu, where cinema and politics go hand in hand, Hindi cinema actors have scrupulously steered clear of political, social and even cultural controversies. Bollywood actors — unlike their counterparts in Hollywood — have never taken a stand on political issues. It can be said that Bollywood has never had its McCarthy moment. During the 1950s, many Hollywood actors were denounced as communists or communist sympathisers by the infamous Un-American Activities Committee of the US Senate. India, of course, was witness to Left-leaning Hindi filmmakers, actors and writers joining the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) during the 1940s and 1950s. They, however, did not have to contend with a culture of state-sponsored persecution. The real testing time for the intellectual fraternity came during the Emergency in 1975. The Hindi cinema even then chose to fall in line. From about late 1980s to late 1990s, Hindi cinema appeared jingoistic, coinciding with the rise of the BJP and the formation of the first BJP-led coalition government at the Centre.

Even though Shah Rukh Khan may appear to be the brave loner, striking a political stance, that is not the case. As a matter of fact, Khan’s statement has to be juxtaposed with that of another Khan, Salim Khan, a prominent screenplay and dialogue writer, who along with Javed Akhtar, have created the enduring angry young man image of Amitabh Bachchan in the 1970s — around the time Emergency was imposed. The other Khan has pooh-poohed the idea that there is — at present — greater intolerance in the country. Shah Rukh Khan spoke like a concerned liberal and Salim Khan’s is the voice of an experienced man who has seen much and who does not confuse flares with fires. Whatever the media highlighting of the views of the two Khans may be, they do not represent Hindi cinema. Hindi cinema reflects the mood of the country and also sends out the right kind of subliminal messages without being ostentatiously political. Hindi cinema has always affirmed pluralism and it is a greater force than the personal views of Shah Rukh Khan or Salim Khan.