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TOLERANCE TESTED: Actor says he is 'safe and happy' in India, in a bid to end a controversy sparked by an article
IT is difficult to disagree with anything Bollywood mega star Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) has written in his special column for the Outlook Turning Points Magazine in association with The New York Times newspaper.
But it is also difficult to agree with much that was commented on it by the governments, the politicians, the media and the netizen who last week caused uproar in India and a cross-border war of words between India and Pakistan.
SRK belongs to a Pathan family of Rawalpindi. His father moved to Delhi as a Congressman and a follower of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, leader of Khudai Khidmatgar that preached non-violence and an ally in Mahatma Gandhi's fight against the British.
"There have been occasions when I have been accused of bearing allegiance to our neighbouring nation rather than my own country -- this even though I am an Indian whose father fought for the freedom of India."
Sadly, even the family's links with the freedom movement have been ridiculed by some Hindu right-wing politicians belonging to organisations whose own role during the British era was suspicious.
They have bashed SRK for what the Pakistani politicians said.
It began with Pakistan's Hafiz Sayeed, banned Lashkar-e-Toyaba (LeT)'s chief, ever ready to bash India since Delhi accuses him of master-minding the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008. He declared that SRK, like millions of Indian Muslims, felt "unsafe" and invited him to live in Pakistan.
Pakistan Interior Minister Rahman Malik's "appeal" to India to provide security to SRK is not surprising. During a recent India visit, he whipped up a controversy each day of his stay. Not just the Indians, even the media back home opined that he should watch his words.
Rejecting the unsolicited Pakistani support loaded with political overtones, SRK said: "Nowhere does the article state or imply directly or indirectly that I feel unsafe, troubled or disturbed in India." He has only targeted the Indian and Pakistani bigots in the article Being A Khan. Ironically, they are the ones who have reacted -- on the expected lines. And they don't give up their right to "advise" him.
Unwittingly, SRK has scored a self-goal. He uses the French expression déjà vu, in simple English, here we go again... It sums up his agony.
What happened is not new, but the tone gets shrill when it comes to India and Pakistan. The pitch gets loud when celebrities are involved, louder if it is Bollywood that is increasingly filling up the cinema theatres in Pakistan and the loudest because SRK is a Muslim whose roots are in that part of the subcontinent.
SRK's article is full of light humour. He makes light of even the harrowing experience he describes of being interrogated and given a pat down at Chicago Airport. Ironically, he was visiting the United States to launch his film My Name is Khan, attacking America's Islamphobia, post-9/11.
Alas, nobody seems to enjoy the way he laughs at himself about falling short of the "stereotype" image of a rugged Khan horse-riding through a mountain terrain. Why, he even confesses to being unable to ride, an essential for a Bollywood actor.
Amidst these self-jibes, he has, unwittingly perhaps, indicated what he disapproves in a Khan: "A stereotyped extremist; no dance, no drink, no cigarette tipping off his lips, no monogamy, no blasphemy; a fair, silent face beguiling a violent fury smoldering within."
Has this description infuriated the establishment and the extremists alike across India's border? There is more.
His children born of a Hindu wife, given generic names that denote no religion, Aryan and Suhana, ask what religion they belong to.
"... like a good Hindi movie hero, I roll my eyes up to the sky and declare philosophically, 'You are an Indian first and your religion is humanity'," writes Khan, saying his family and friends are like a "mini India". Bravo.
Yet, a word of caution is needed: SRK should not play the "victimhood" card. Having made his point, he should accept that his celebrity status carries the risk of being criticised more than an ordinary Indian, no matter which faith, would.
I was among those who dismissed SRK as "commercial" till I saw films like Chak De India, saga of a Muslim hockey player righting a wrong done to him by bringing glory on the field and My Name is Khan. Treating bold themes, he came across convincingly.
Whatever happened to Muslims in India and elsewhere since 9/11, SRK has certainly evolved.
He is now in the company of Bollywood's another celebrity of Pathan origin, Aamir Khan, who entertains with a more meaningful cinema than SRK.
They are not too close, going by Bollywood gossip. But they have made enemies with forthright views on issues that fall well outside the world of entertainment.
The two Khans are products and protagonists of a composite culture of mutual respect and tolerance -- indeed, the idea of India.
Both are engaged in a valiant, but as yet unproductive, even counter productive, effort to open closed minds that abound across India and Pakistan. I can only wish them well.