On his 50th birthday, Shah Rukh Khan, the Badshah of Bollywood, is indeed king of all he surveys. Twenty five years into his Bollywood journey, SRK continues to be as popular as he was at his peak during the '90s. He is shooting for a raft of films including Dilwale with Kajol, whose pairing with him is the stuff of Bollywood legend.
There is another side to SRK beyond his Bollywood success that places him a notch above the others in the film industry. In spite of being a commercial actor, he has always been admired for his fierce intelligence. His keen articulation in an industry whose definition of cinema continues to rest on a bunch of clichés (though this is changing) is a pleasant reminder of how some of our mainstream stars are not the bimbos that their onscreen image would have us believe.
At a Town Hall organised on the occasion of his birthday, SRK told India Today's Rajdeep Sardesai that he is worried about the growing intolerance in the country. When asked if he would join the list of artists returning their awards, he said: "Yes, as a symbolic gesture I would give it up… I do think there is intolerance. There is extreme intolerance."
Since a number of writers began returning their awards to protest the government's inaction in reigning in extremist elements, the debate has focused on the political leanings of the artists. An argument has been made that seeks to put these artists in the "Congress camp". Swapan Dasgupta said as much when he linked the protests to the writers feeling left out of the lines of patronage that have traditionally criss-crossed Lutyens' Delhi. This argument refuses to acknowledge writers' independence and right to protest; rather it frames them as just another group looking to benefit from the gravy train that shuttles through the corridors of power.
SRK's case is qualitatively different from these writers'. He cannot be painted as an outsider or fringe artist who is voicing his protest at being deprived of a traditional source of patronage. He continues to rule the box office and is part of an artistic setup - Bollywood - that produces stars of major name recognition.
SRK's comment adds to the growing list of protests from filmdom. After Gulzar and Dibakar Banerjee raised their voices against rising intolerance, it was Vidya Balan who, while refusing to return her National Award, situated her argument in the award not being bestowed by a particular government but reflective of the "love of the people".
It would be easy to dismiss these voices as the utterings of a privileged bunch who have chosen to ride on the bandwagon of protests. It may be argued that SRK, who is a Muslim himself, has been given much love by Indians and for him to therefore protest now is not on. But to argue thus is to miss the entire point of the protests. The protests are directed at the state machinery and not Indians. Each of the "whatabout" arguments is essentially an argument against the "idea of India", an argument that points fingers not at the issue raised but at the one who raises it. To mix the two is not only insincere but dangerous. The protestors are asking that the government come down heavily against those who have fanned the fires of communal disturbance. Who protests, his religion or political affiliation is immaterial before the larger question the protests raise.
SRK is a Muslim whose status is vastly different from that of Mohammad Akhlaq, the man from Dadri who was beaten to death on the suspicion that he had consumed beef. Commentators from the right would doubtless portray SRK's success as a credit to Indians, that "we" have been magnanimous with "our" love for a Muslim actor. Is it indeed to our credit that "we" have put one Muslim on a pedestal even as we have treated another aam aadmi Muslim with rank hate?
No, there is no "we" here. Hindus are the majority but the moment they seek to occupy the public space as "we" and speak for India is the moment we need to guard against. It is not "we" who celebrate SRK. It is all of us, collectively. It was some of us, those who seek to define "we" for all of us, who killed Akhlaq. The one is not synonymous with the other, and SRK and Akhlaq are as much a part of "we" as the next person. It is this that the protestors are speaking for, and what SRK has now pointed to.