Could Shah Rukh Khan have chosen not to speak up against intolerance? Certainly, he could have.
Let's consider what he would have gained from remaining quiet. One, he and his family, wouldn't be at the receiving end of the most humiliating insults on social media. Two, he wouldn't be asked to go to Pakistan, by self-proclaimed patriots on Twitter. Three, there would be no jokes on the quality of his films -- which is completely irrelevant to the statement he made on intolerance. Four, Twitter brand ambassadors of Hindu generosity wouldn't declare that he, a Muslim actor, owed his success to them 'tolerant' Hindus. Five, he would not have been called a 'Pakistani agent' by Sadhvi Prachi. And finally, ruling party BJP's general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya would have had no reason to declare that Khan lives in India, but is an anti-national whose heart is in Pakistan.
A social media creature that Khan is, he would have probably envisaged the outcome of him taking a stand on matters of religion at present. However, he still went ahead and spoke in not just one interview, but two. While on Headlines Today he spoke about intolerance, on NDTV, he spoke about the right to consume whatever food one wants to in the country. Both contentious issues in the climate that prevails in the country, both likely to earn him a lot of flak.
Khan is no stranger to the consequences of taking a stand that could serve as a critique to a powerful political narrative in the country or a state. He had learnt it the hard way when the Shiv Sena wreaked havoc on theatres screening My Name Is Khan, after the actor questioned the ban on Pakistani cricketers in the IPL.
And that's why, him speaking up against intolerance packs a huge punch for the chorus of voices seeking government intervention in stopping the wave of Hindu supremacy that seems to be washing over the country.
Firstly, if nothing else, a star of Khan's proportions makes a lot of people sit up and listen when he speaks. And when we say people, it isn't just the sharp-tongued armies on Twitter.
Shah Rukh Khan's audience is much more than the self-appointed gatekeepers of the country's culture on Twitter. Thousands of them may have no appetite for social media battles, but are actually ones responsible for upholding ideas like secularism and tolerance hotly debated by Twitter pundits. People who choose to live in peace, live together, watch a Khan film with the same enthusiasm as they watch a Kapoor or Bachchan film--heck, discriminating against a film on the basis of the lead actor's surname is not even an idea that occurs to them. People, for whom, 'tolerance' is not a choice they can reject, but a way of life. They are Hindus, Muslims, Christians, atheists, non-believers, people who wear their religion casually or people who believe in differentiating between religiosity and fanaticism.
Those are the people Shah Rukh Khan can speak to, the same people who perhaps have the power to ebb the tide of intolerance that threaten to invade the safest and most sacred places guarded by democracy. Places that have been breached quite a few times in the recent past--the safety of home, where one can eat what he or she wants to, the reassurance of community spaces like film festivals where we can screen and watch what we fancy, our social and public lives where we can participate in a book launch in peace.
When Shah Rukh Khan reminds us that the noise about intolerance is not as unreal that many of us may consider it to be, the most complacent people will perhaps be goaded to feel slightly more vigilant about the rights and values of a democracy.
And this is not the first time that Khan has spoke up against intolerance. In 2013, Khan, with characteristic self deprecating humour, had questioned the religious stereotyping, not just in India but the entire world. He had written in Outlook, "I am one of the voices chosen to represent my community in order to prevent other communities from reacting to all of us as if we were somehow colluding with or responsible for the crimes committed in the name of a religion that we experience entirely differently from the perpetrators of these crimes."
Back then too, Khan had emphasised the casual, and at times, subconscious stereotyping we subject religious, sexual, economic minorities too even in the world's most successful democracies.
Apart from trying to shake people out of the stupor that makes them blind to the injustices around, Khan also made a sharp departure from the politics of mainstream Bollywood. The industry--whose biggest names fell over each other to sigh and weep on Twitter when Salman Khan was convicted in the hit-and-run case--stayed eerily and conveniently quiet on issues of much more importance than Salman Khan's future. Except a handful, none of the big stars, had a thing to say about the shameful Dadri lynching, or closer home, the cancellation of the Ghulam Ali concert. With his candid answers, Khan showed that Bollywood could play a more pro-active role in upholding debate and dissent, without help from films and TV shows.
"Me and my family shouldn't be an exception. We should be the normal," Khan told Sardesai during the interview. Can India say, amen?
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