My dear Shah Rukh,
I won’t hold it against you if you decide never to give me an interview again. This is the second or third time that the honesty of your thoughts and the clarity of your conviction — in response to questions from me, questions that have never had anything to do with Kajol or Karan Johar or even the lungi dance — have landed you in the middle of a nonsensical and shameful controversy.
This week some Right-wing ideologues asked me why I asked you what I did. They implied that by discussing issues of creative freedom, the wider debate around tolerance and, above all, the scrutiny you have had to face as an Indian Muslim from chest-thumping, hyper-nationalists, I was revealing signs of my own twisted and communal mind.
I ignored the toxicity of the statement and reminded them that there was history to your words when you told me that having to prove your patriotism was “the most degrading and hurtful” experience of your life.
It goes back to 2010 when we sat for an interview, just like we did this week. Over the years our conversations have become slow ambles that wander casually through a deeply emotional terrain. You have spoken to me with a candour that has disarmed me. You — India’s most beloved star — have told me you have no friends. You have opened up about how “solitary and reclusive” you are and why your daughter is the only one who really understands you.
You have wondered out loud on national television about whether it’s your failure that you can’t sustain friendships. You have been willing, on more than one occasion, to third-eye yourself and make a joke or two without any of the pomposity and self-importance that is so typical of others in your fraternity. You have laughed at yourself and made me laugh. You have always taken questions from the media head-on, handling them with self-deprecating wit — even when one or two of them are intrusive, tasteless and irritate the hell out of you. Like the time you laughingly told the reporter who asked if you were gay: “Kabhi mere saath ek raat to guzaro (Spend a night with me sometime).”
But when we met five years ago in Mumbai you were angry. Because then too, like now, the lunatic hate brigade wanted to banish you to Pakistan. (Lucky them, I say.) You were being asked to say sorry for your view that Pakistanis should be allowed to play in the Indian Premier League. And you gutsily refused. Your film My Name is Khan was just going to be released; the Shiv Sena had been attacking theatres screening it; they wanted an apology before your film would get a safe passage. You held on to your views. And you told me, “I’ve been telling everyone there are three kinds of identities we have; we have a familial identity by the religion we are born in, so you’re a Muslim, a Hindu, or a Sikh and you’ve got to believe that because that’s what you’ve been taught. Then, there is the place that you live and work in, or are born in and work — that’s your regional identity. But all this is a subset of your country’s identity, of your national identity; when did subsets become more important than the set itself?”
Two years later you got into a scuffle at the city’s Wankhede Stadium — you regretted it later and said you’d made a mistake — but I still remember how you told me that the official whispered a communal slur to you, an abuse that once again targeted you for your religion.
Now, here we are again, in 2015, where you prophetically said in my interview, “To all those, telling me to go to Pakistan, this is my country, I am not going anywhere. So shut up, just shut up.”
But they didn’t, did they? When you said, “Our religion cannot be defined or showed respect to by our meat-eating habits. How banal and silly is that,” I wanted to jump up and applaud. In your matter-of-fact way you had sealed the mindless, yet dangerous debate over beef politics that has ravaged India in these past few months. You spoke on everything from the fight at the film institute (you back the students) to those returning awards (not your preferred way of protest, but you find them brave). And despite what the Sena threatened you with in 2010, you reiterated your support for creative people from Pakistan to be given space in our films.
You are a first among equals in your community. Almost no one else (save a handful of notable exceptions) among the biggest and most glamorous stars is willing to speak — if you put it politely, you can call it reticence; if you are blunter, the word you would use is cowardice. But you bucked the trend, yet again.
What’s most sickening is how you’re now being told that the fact that a ‘Khan’ can be so popular is proof of India’s secularism. You anticipated this rubbish when you told me acerbically, “Khan shining is not India shining.” Broken down, the gross subtext is that you should be grateful for a country where so many Hindus are fans of a Muslim star. It’s been left to you to point out that the tokenism of the ‘three Khans of Bollywood’ is the very antithesis of secularism.
I wish I could ignore the hate brigade. But when a party general secretary and a long-term MP are among those asking you to leave for Pakistan — and when the minority affairs minister calls you her brother but makes apologies for their poison, all I can say is every word you spoke becomes even more invaluable.
You, Shah Rukh — the real life man — not Raj or Rahul, your screen avatars — are my hero. But shamefully, I must admit — We don’t deserve you.
Barkha Dutt is consulting editor, NDTV, and founding member, Ideas Collective
The views expressed are personal