Of Punjabi bhangra-pop artist Daler Mehendi, it was famously said that he built an entire entertainment career on the strength of just five nifty dance moves.
Much the same can be said of actor Shah Rukh Khan. A man of at best middling histrionic capabilities, he has fashioned a far more phenomenally successful career on the strength of far less discernible talent. More importantly, he was embraced by a generation of Indians who were evidently so swayed by his looks (or whatever else they saw in him) that they readily overlooked his vacuous performances, blessed him with fame and fortune – and even went on to crown him ‘King Khan’.
At the peak of his career, Shah Rukh was spoken of in the same breath as the Shahenshah of Bollywood, Amitabh Bachchan. That comparison may have been valid in terms of the box-office appeal that both held, but a certain indefinable element of classy refinement that Bachchan exuded even when the cameras were not whirring remained forever out of reach of SRK.
In his eternal quest to be the ageless Peter Pan of Bollywood, Shah Rukh appears not to have come to terms with the fact that while once he may have commanded a forgiving fan following, he is well past his prime. Like the Norma Desmond character that Gloria Swanson essayed in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, he is only clinging on to the memories of a happier day when the arclights were turned on him and the adulation of fans enveloped him in a warm, glowing embrace.
So, by every verifiable metric, it’s fair to say that Shah Rukh Khan has enjoyed more success – and earned more fame and fortune and fan-love – than he arguably deserves. Which is why it’s difficult to account for the victimhood chip – rooted in his identity as a Muslim – that he bears on his shoulders.
In an interview that he gave to an overseas publication, Shah Rukh Khan is quoted as saying that he “sometimes become(s) the indvertent object of political leaders who choose to make me a symbol of all that they think is wrong and unpatriotic about Muslims in India.”
There have been occasions, he said, when he had been accused of “bearing allegiance to our neighbouring nation rather than my own country – even though I am an Indian, whose father fought for India’s freedom.”
Oh, cry me a river, Shah Rukh. Millions upon millions of fans in India made you who you are – without pausing even to reflect once on your religious identity. In an earlier time, a Muhammad Yousuf Khan may have felt the need to rechristen himself Dilip Kumar to give himself a better shot at survival in Bollywood, but cinema fans in India today are truly blind to the religious identity of their stars; if anything, today, going by the number of Khans in Bollywood’s top-bracket, the Khan surname has something of a premium appeal, even though many of them, with some rare exceptions like Aamir Khan, bring at best mediocre acting talent to the screen.
It’s true, of course, that your films have had their problems with Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray, who kicked up a shindig by protesting against your film My Name Is Khan on specious grounds. But then you aren’t the only person – or even the only person in Bollywood – to have faced the Shiv Sena’s politically motivated ire. And while it’s of course true that every such instance of intimidation of the entertainment industry deserves to be condemned, you – of all privileged people – shouldn’t be seeking refuge in Muslim victimhood. More than most others, you always had access to sympathetic media treatment – and the unstinted support of everyone who spoke up in your defence (and even provided security cover for screenings of your film). And, by the way, have you given voice to a word of solidarity for Kamal Haasan, whose film Vishwaroopam too currently faces criminal intimidation from others like you who are feeding off Muslim victimhood?
Heck, even when you made a colossal ass of yourself by getting into inebriated fights with fellow-stars in Bollywood – or even just a lowly security guard at Wankhede Stadium who was merely doing his job – you’ve had media divas offering you therapy sessions on their studio couches to present your side of the matter, such as it is. Not many others get the chance to redeem themselves after such exceptionally boorish conduct.
In any case, My Name Is Khan was itself premised on a sense of victimhood – and we haven’t exactly forgotten how you milked your brief but propitiously timed detention at a US airport about that time to market your film. And to think that unlike what happens to countless other plebeians in similar situations, the Indian government scrambled to get US immigration authorities to let you off because, of course, you are a superstar. And you complain today – to an overseas publication – that you’re being targeted for being a Muslim?
It was your Bollywood fame (and fortune) that gave you another foothold – in the IPL Cricket League – and, of course, with it came yet more fame, but also the critical attention of countless fans. Cricket and Bollywood are two of the biggest ‘religions’ in India, about which virtually everyone has an opinion, and you’ve got a giant footprint in both the spheres. So, get used to the fact that you will get a lot of criticism, just as you’ve got a lot of undeserved fan-love, particularly when you go against the grain of the prevalent national mood and argue for having Pakistani cricketers play in the IPL League.
So, grow up, Shah Rukh, and learn to take it on the chin like a man. Don’t bite the hand that fed you – and made you who you are – by running off to an overseas publication and crying your heart out, thereby providing the space for low-life terrorists like Hafiz Saeed to take potshots at India.
India may not be a paradise – not by a long shot – but, as writer Patrick French observed at the Jaipur Literature Festival, you only have to look around India’s neighbourhood – including the “neighbouring country” you couldn’t even name in your interview – and ask yourself where else you would rather live…