Chak De! India (2007) is one of those rare films where Shah Rukh Khan plays a muslim protagonist. The film opens with Kabir Khan (played by SRK), the Indian Hockey team captain, missing a vital penalty stroke against Pakistan which results in his team losing the game. Khan is called a traitor, shunned by his colleagues and driven away from his family home by angry neighbours.
All of his personal angst is captured in a beautiful song that goes, 'Teeja Tera Rang Tha Main Toh, Jiya Tere Dhang Se Main Toh'. Essentially, this is a reference to being the ‘third’ colour in the flag and ‘living life as per your rules.’ And guess what, it's still not enough. That pretty much sums up what most Muslims go through on a daily basis in this country, and none more so than King Khan himself.
In an undated interview with Farida Jalal during the 1990s, Khan quotes his late father as saying, “Shah Rukh, do not take your freedom for granted. We have given it to you so you can maintain it.”
His father, Meer Taj Mohammad was a former freedom fighter who migrated east from Peshawar to live in Gandhi’s secular India. “At that time, I thought it was freedom from foreign rule," says Shah Rukh in the interview, referring to his father’s words, before going on to speak about freedom of speech and expression in India.
Little did the younger Khan know back then that his father’s words could one day also be twisted to hold a much darker meaning - that of India’s biggest minority not taking their freedom for granted; not taking their place in this country for granted; to have their patriotism questioned every step of the way and to have hurdles thrown at them every day unless they settled for living life as the ‘third’ colour in the flag and living life as per the rules set out for them.
Can you really blame the man for not getting the memo though? Here was a boy brought up by his father to be tolerant of all around him, living by a code set down by none less than our founding fathers and those who penned the vision of this country. And that’s what Khan has always been a shining role model for.
He has spoken on numerous occasions about bringing up his children in a multicultural household, where his son Aryan recites the Gayatri Mantra and does puja on Diwali, while he himself says Bismillah. In the 2005 documentary, The Inner and Outer World of Shah Rukh Khan, the celebrated actor famously said, “Children should know about value of god, whether it's a Hindu god or a Muslim god. So next to Ganesh and Lakshmi, we have the Quran also there,” a comment that won him brickbats from people of both religions.
Since then, he’s found himself in the eye of the storm time and again because it’s becoming increasingly difficult to hold up the ideals of tolerance and secularism in today’s India. In the early years of the IPL, Khan described Pakistan's exclusion as ‘humiliating’. In an interview with NDTV, he said, “We are known to be good, we are known to invite everyone, and we should have” before going on to talk about the loss to the tournament by missing out on some of the best players in the world. Responding to Khan’s comments, Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut had said: “If the Khan inside Shahrukh is coming to life, then he should go Lahore or Karachi.”
And that is what it is to be a Muslim in India today - to be stripped bare and reduced to your religious identity every time someone disagrees with you.
This wasn’t the first or last time it would happen to Khan either. In a 2015 interview with Rajdeep Sardesai for India Today TV, the actor spoke about the growing intolerance in India.
"It is stupid to be intolerant and this is our biggest issue, not just an issue. Religious intolerance and not being secular in this country is the worst kind of crime that you can do as a patriot. We will never be a superpower if we are not going to believe that all religions are equal.”Shah Rukh Khan in an interview
Predictably, his comments sparked off protests from the idiot brigade in the country, thus proving the very point he was making. Since then, he’s kept to himself and stayed away from making his views known. When asked about it he said, "Freedom of speech means the right to keep silent also. I am very silent about this." And that’s how they get eventually get you; by going after your livelihood.
Staying silent though isn’t quite enough to get the vultures off your back when you’re Shah Rukh Khan, because your silence itself is powerful enough to create dissent amongst others. What happens then?
That’s a question best answered by looking at what’s been happening to Bollywood over the past couple of years. From allegations of drug running based on the flimsiest of evidence to general amorality, the establishment has used the media to vilify and run the industry’s reputation into the ground. If you can’t get them to endorse you, discredit them, right?
And Khan isn’t just a vestige of the industry’s glory days, he epitomises everything that India’s saffron brigade has been gunning for, decades before they were even in power. Sample this: When Hrithik Roshan was launched in 2000, a cover story was run by Panchajanya magazine, the RSS mouthpiece, about him being the answer to the Muslim supremacy in Bollywood. It, therefore comes as no surprise that two decades later, with all the available resources at hand, the establishment has chosen to pick on Khan.
To his detractors, he will always be nothing more than a Muslim who dared to do more than keep his head down, who dared to marry a Hindu woman, who dared to live life by his own rules, who dared to don the mantle of King.
The pain and burden of being ‘King’ Khan can’t possibly rest easy on his shoulders - not so much because he’s not a celebrated rocket scientist (they’re fine apparently) but mainly because he’s a Muslim and yet had the audacity to become one of the biggest Indian icons around the globe.
(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)