There are many unkind things to be said about Shah Rukh Khan. And I personally have said many of them. I have mocked his public brawling, dissed his action hero aspirations, and spotlighted his midlife meltdown.
SRK at his worst is self-indulgent and entitled. But his Outlook article — if anyone bothered to read it — is none of these things. It is instead reminiscent of an SRK past: wry, funny, and self-deprecating. The tone never veers into self-pity, or rise to shrill outrage. [It is now available on the NDTV website]
What we get instead is this description of his strip search at JFK:
Some stripping, frisking and many questions later, I am given an explanation (of sorts): "Your name pops up on our system, we are sorry". "So am I," I think to myself, "Now can I have my underwear back please?"
There's an acknowledgement of the pressure to be the anointed face of "moderate" Muslims, and of being a target for Hindutva groups who "make me a symbol of all that they think is wrong and unpatriotic about Muslims in India." But all this with more humour than complaint:
Rallies have been held where leaders have exhorted me to leave my home and return to what they refer to as my "original homeland". Of course, I politely decline each time, citing such pressing reasons as sanitation works at my house preventing me from taking the good shower that's needed before undertaking such an extensive journey.
As jokes go, it's a bit lame, yes, but hardly reason to offer him safe passage to Pakistan, or for its Interior Minister to exhort the Indian government to ensure his security. SRK is exactly right when he claims, "Nowhere does the article state or imply directly or indirectly that I feel unsafe... troubled or disturbed in India."
For anyone willing to closely read the rambling, often disconnected text — celebs need editors too! —Khan offers a deeply personal view of religion, and a jolting recognition of the burden of not having one. "For I believe, our religion is an extremely personal choice, not a public proclamation of who we are," he writes, ending the essay on an ultra-libertarian note. But dial back a couple of paragraphs and you get this painfully honest moment:
I gave my son and daughter names that could pass for generic (pan-Indian and pan-religious) ones: Aryan and Suhana. The Khan has been bequeathed by me so they can't really escape it...
I imagine this will prevent my offspring from receiving unwarranted eviction orders and random fatwas in the future. It will also keep my two children completely confused. Sometimes, they ask me what religion they belong to and, like a good Hindi movie hero, I roll my eyes up to the sky and declare philosophically, "You are an Indian first and your religion is humanity", or sing them an old Hindi film ditty, "Tu Hindu banega na Musalmaan banega - insaan ki aulaad hai insaan banega" set to Gangnam Style.
None of this informs them with any clarity, it just confounds them some more and makes them deeply wary of their father.
It's a scathing recognition of the cultural emptiness of a-religious secularism, of the hazardous terrain of identity navigated by children of an interfaith marriage, raised in a globalised world. This is the downside, if you will, of leaving behind old fixities, and the erasing of old borders.
In this astonishing willingness to lay his most intimate thoughts in public view, Khan stands alone among his peers who prefer the comfort of hewing close to their calibrated public images, Aamir included. The most amazing bit about the Outlook essay is the fact that there is no doubt about its author. The tone, style, language — incoherent meandering included — is trademark SRK: He sounds exactly like himself. This is no small miracle in a world where even Bono's New York Times op-eds sound like they've been penned by some super-bright flunky.
As far as the bias against Muslims is concerned, the spectacle of Khan being forced to affirm his Indian-ness just for writing the essay is far more damning than anything he actually wrote in it.
"As I said being an Indian and my parents' child is an unconditional accepted truth of my life and I am very proud of both," SRK said in his press statement, noting, "It is sad that I have to say it to prove it, in my country, which my father fought for, during the Independence struggle."
Yes it is.