In India, our politicians and actors often serve the same purpose -- primarily to lull us into a world of make believe. They create a fictitious world, if only momentarily, where truth defeats evil and the balance in the universe is ultimately restored. Sometimes, though rarely, our reel heroes become real life ones with acts of courage and bravery. This is almost never witnessed in our political class, which is almost always theatrical, noisy and rhetorical, with little substance.
The recent incident where Shah Rukh, a much loved Bollywood star who spoke about the growing intolerance in the country -- a sentiment echoed by many -- was viciously attacked by many from the ruling BJP lays bare the truth about the deep divide between our politicians and reel heroes. The latter will occasionally stand up for something. The former, however, are always like villains in a poorly scripted B-grade Bollywood film -- ignorant, vicious and ugly.
"While Modi may be the better actor of the two, Shah Rukh's script is relevant. Modi's on the other hand appears increasingly false and the audience has begun to tire of him."
As the controversy unfolded in the media these politicians questioned Shah Rukh right to speak up, both as Indian and as a public figure. Some asked him to leave and go to Pakistan -- a constant refrain to whoever criticises the BJP. Their response itself revealed their intolerance, and that of their party's ideology. As often happens in bad Bollywood films these were the pathetic sidekicks, desperate defenders of a failed plot, in this case BJP's inherent communalism. There were even more ridiculous sidekicks, unremarkable artists on a march led by BJP supporter Anupam Kher and Madhur Bhandarkar. They wanted to drive home the point that no one has the right to call India intolerant -- a most intolerant statement that makes their script even more suspect.
These efforts only reinforced the desperation within the Sangh Parivar and Modi's government. Perhaps the biggest mistake of these politicians and protestors was to abuse, accuse and insult Shah Rukh. Unlike Salman -- who (implicitly) along with his father (explicitly) endorsed Modi -- Shah Rukh has stayed away from politics and rarely engages with politicians. His longevity as a reigning star in Bollywood has equally to do with his talent but also the honesty with which he airs his views to the public. Today, if it came to popularity he would probably defeat Narendra Modi hands down and his credibility would probably be a wee bit more.
This is why comparing the two figures is instructive. Modi rarely means what he says. He seems to mouth banalities about secularism and sabka sath while his party colleagues appear to lead a planned and scripted persecution of minorities, which he watches silently. Modi represents the worst of what can come forth in Indian politics. A doggedly determined party worker from the grassroots who rose to be prime minister on the message of development, his performance has not followed a similarly impressive trajectory. Within a year his government is in shambles, with the RSS calling the shots and his ministers leading ugly, unconstitutional anti-minority activities.
Shah Rukh, on the other hand, could not be more different. An outsider much like Modi, his success in Bollywood started as an anti-hero with no connections unlike many others who reign in the industry. He is talented and has experimented with roles and scripts where others would not. He is also known to be arrogant, rarely sparing the press for taking him on. Shah Rukh has rarely endorsed any political party or ideology. So when an artist like him speaks out against intolerance he is effectively using his credentials as a secular non-partisan public figure to challenge the diminishing dominance of Modi. Something no one in the Bollywood mainstream would dare to do.
"For millions of fans, Shah Rukh's credibility is unquestionable. This is why his speaking out is much worse than anything the Congress can do to the ruling dispensation."
Of course, he isn't the poster boy of secularism. No, he isn't even close. He is just a strong public voice that has through his mass appeal brought into sharper focus the BJPs communal activities. For millions of fans, Shah Rukh's credibility is unquestionable. This is why his speaking out is much worse than anything the Congress can do to the ruling dispensation. Because Shah Rukh has shown the BJP how fragile, petty and out of sync they are with the public mood. He is talking of inclusion even though it's not his job, while Modi, the leading star of the BJP's show, has been only talking, never delivering. Increasingly, the BJP narrative looking like nothing more than a ridiculous B-grade Bollywood film with no takers.
While Modi may be the better actor of the two, Shah Rukh's script is relevant. Modi's on the other hand appears increasingly false and the audience has begun to tire of him. Neither the sidekicks nor the vicious attacks will salvage this. It's time the BJP learnt from what Shah Rukh is saying -- that the idea of India that subsumes us all cannot be attacked and subverted so easily. And a better actor without an acceptable script will certainly fail. If anything, Bihar has shown the way. Meanwhile, Modi will do himself good if he buys some players in the BJP a one-way ticket to Pakistan at the earliest possible.
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