So, Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan has retracted his statement on the intolerance issue. At an event to celebrate ten years of his iconic movie, Rang De Basanti, he claimed he never said he wanted to leave India and that he was misunderstood. About the tsunami of public anger that hit him, he said that because people thought he had said their country was not worthy of living, they were upset and so he ‘understood’.
But there’s a lot that we still don’t understand.
Like which cap Aamir was wearing the day he said what he said? The cap of a citizen, an artiste or a politician? Whichever cap he was wearing, it would have been instructive for Aamir to have leaned on history and the experience of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad during the dark phase of India’s partition. Mohammad Ali Jinnah used to taunt the Congress and Azad by derisively referring to the latter as the party’s 'Muslim showboy'. In Jinnah’s estimation, Mahatma Gandhi was using the Maulana to counter Jinnah’s claims to a monopoly on the Muslim mind in the subcontinent. A devout Muslim that Maulana was, he suffered this belittling barb but firmed up his commitment to oppose the two-nation theory of Jinnah.
It is one of the greatest ironies of history that while a secular, liberal and unorthodox Jinnah stood for a nation based on religion, the Maulana — a conservative Muslim leader — rooted for a plural and multi-cultural India. In this context, it is equally ironic that Aamir, a proud descendant of the Maulana, realised that India, well into its seventh decade of Independence, had turned into a such an intolerant hellhole that he found merit in vamoosing to some fabled foreign land as the better part of valour.
Aamir Khan is not just an actor.
Apart from his celebrated ancestry, he comes across as a thinking actor who has delivered many path-breaking movies. His words carry weight. Does that entitle him to say things at random and get away with it? Of course, Aamir is perfectly entitled to articulate his views about intolerance. But to expect that his views would go unchallenged was nothing but insisting on amplifying only a one-sided narrative on intolerance.
India’s partition was perhaps the worst phase of intolerance in its history for the kind of hate, distrust and violence it witnessed. But Aamir Khan’s own industry, bollywood, was a living example of liberal values and communal amity. In Dilip Kumar’s authorised biography, the thespian has explained at length his determination to live in India. He quite eloquently described his family’s long association with the legendary actor Prithvi Raj Kapoor at his home town Peshawar (now in Pakistan). Dilip Kumar, a Muslim by faith, acquired iconic status in Hindi filmdom because of his skills as an actor. The fact that he was adored as much by Nehru as by Shiv Sena’s Bal Thackeray is testimony to the fact that in India, art is sufficiently insulated from politics of religion, though not from religion itself.
Aamir Khan himself is the biggest beneficiary of this insulation. He has been consistent in his criticism of Modi but he has also been among the special invitees on many events which was hosted by Modi. At the social level, his movies found traction among the audience on the basis of his skills as actor. It is nobody’s case that the invitation to Aamir Khan by the prime minister is a favour to the actor. But certainly it is indicative of the absence of intolerance and animosity between those powerful leaders and their critics.
What distinguished Aamir Khan’s statement on intolerance at the Indian Express journalism awards function from his past outbursts against Modi is the political content of it. Aamir Khan chose to express his views on “intolerance” at a time when a well-orchestrated campaign against the Modi government was just about dying after the Bihar election. His statement reignited the campaign. He emphatically pointed out that he found the atmosphere degenerating in the past eight months and that it instils fear in the minds of people like him.
Aamir Khan was not the first in wanting to leave the country. Recall a similar statement by iconic actor Kamal Hassan when his movie ‘Vishwaroopam' was subjected to censorship by the Tamil Nadu government upon protests from Muslim clergy to some ‘objectionable’ parts of the film. A perturbed Hassan threatened to leave the country if his film was subjected to this kind of intrusive scrutiny. Hassan’s statement did create a brief stir in the media but the fact remains that his movie underwent several cuts on the lines suggested by the Muslim clergy. This happened when Manmohan Singh was the prime minister of the country and J Jayalalitha was the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. India was then intolerant to Hassan but not to Aamir Khan!
There is a marked difference in the statements of Hassan and Aamir. Hassan’s statement was reflective of an artiste’s angst over a specific instance of political expediency and opportunism of the state that directly affected his freedom of expression and creativity. It was not a broad brush political condemnation of the country as a whole. Aamir’s outburst , camouflaged as an off-the-cuff remark, on the other hand, was a calculated attempt to stoke the flames of an on-going political campaign using his high perch as a superstar artiste. Since he was not, unlike Hassan, personally aggrieved, he was making a political statement. There is nothing wrong if Aamir wanted to be counted for his political proclivity. But he was hiding behind the cover of being artiste while taking political potshots without realising its consequences or willing to face the fallout.
His retraction yesterday, that he never said that India had become intolerant and that he was misinterpreted, sounds as disingenuous as his original statement, if not for anything else just for the amount of time it took for him to realise that he was misunderstood or misquoted.
Aamir wouldn’t have had to tie himself up in knots over the intolerance issue if only he had taken a leaf out of Maulana Azad’s book. But then the Maulana was a hardboiled politician not a ‘showboy' like Aamir.