Shah Rukh Khan has delivered two blockbusters this year, which – along with Gadar 2 – have revived the fortunes of Indian cinema, as well as of the star himself, at a precarious time. For many people, though, this is not enough. It is hard not to read between the lines of numerous reviews that Khan has not spoken loudly enough, that he has not targeted the politics of majoritarianism and exclusion that has targeted him, and others.
Many of these people are, to be fair, on Khan’s side, but it is important to note what they are asking him to do. He is being asked to respond as a Muslim, reducing him to the two-dimensional cutout that he is being targeted as. Targeted by politics, he is being asked to be political.
Whether by conscious choice, or by chance, Khan has avoided this dilemma by starring in movies that showcase his multiple identities – in Jawan, quite literally with multiple selves. While Pathaan almost excluded politics altogether, the politics of Jawan – highlighting social failures of greed, corruption, and a system compromised by crony capitalism – does not address key political parties or movements trying to undermine or overthrow the democratic republic.
It is worth highlighting that he neither wrote the script or directed either of these films, even if his spouse, Gauri Khan, produced the second one. How much leeway he may have had in making the films in his own image is anybody’s guess, as are Khan’s personal views on politics or political parties.
But what he has done is make successful films that revolve around not just the characters he plays but about the persona he inhabits. In doing so, he sends a very separate political message, one that is far subtler a critique. By not changing, by thriving, despite the barrage of politics that would reduce him to being a second-class citizen in his own country, Khan evokes the persistence of the complex reality that is India, one where somebody like him can do what he wants and people will applaud it and will line up to pay good money to be a part of that magic.
This persistence is no small thing. As the great Palestinian academic, Dr. Hanan Ashrawi puts it, “What drives the Israeli right wing crazy is that the Palestinians persist.”
This, in no way, obviates what others are doing. The brave criticisms raised by important actors such as Swara Bhaskar and Chetan Kumar about the politics of the day are heroic, and have come at great personal cost to them, as did Deepika Padukone’s decision to go to JNU when the university was being attacked.
But it is important to understand that there is no one correct path to resistance, but that there are many different streams that make up a mighty river. The example of our independence movement proves just that. It was not one movement, but many, that reinforced each other – even if its major leaders, whether Jinnah, Gandhi, Patel, Bose, Ambedkar, Nehru, Azad – were at loggerheads often enough, with some differences that became insurmountable.
There is also that iconic comment of Malcolm X to Loretta Scott King, in Selma, when Malcolm – mere weeks before his assassination – told her, “I didn’t come to Selma to make his job more difficult but I thought that if the White people understood what the alternative was that they would be more inclined to listen to your husband. And so that’s why I came.”
If we are to overcome this moment in India’s troubled history, we will need to do so together, despite our differences in approach. The constant critique that not everybody standing up is being the perfect politician is unhelpful. We do not, and should not, aspire to be a country of only perfect politicians, but of people free to pursue their joys in multiple ways without harming each other.
Shah Rukh Khan is not your martyr, please stop asking him to be one.
Omair Ahmad is an author and journalist.