India’s “cultural emergency,” as author Salman Rushdie recently called it, has taken a new turn – veering towards Bollywood.
When actor Shahrukh Khan penned an article for the local magazine Outlook Turning Points titled “Being a Khan”, his remarks on being a Muslim in India evoked a louder response than he bargained for.
In the article, Khan wrote: “I sometimes become the inadvertent object of political leaders who choose to make me a symbol of all that they think is wrong and unpatriotic about Muslims in India. … Rallies have been held where leaders have exhorted me to leave my home and return to what they refer to as my ‘original homeland’”.
Many have interpreted the megastar’s remarks to mean that life in India is perilous for him. So strong was the response that Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik offered asylum to Khan next door, where the actor has a huge following
Indian officialdom was none too pleased with the offer. “Let him (Malik) worry about the security of his country’s citizens,” India’s Home Secretary R.K. Singh shot back.
The right-wing Shiv Sena Hindu nationalist party, which has clashed with Khan in the past, pounced on this occasion as well, directing its ire at Malik. “The Indian government is capable of protecting its citizens,” said Sanjay Raut, a spokesperson for Mumbai-based Hindu group, adding that Pakistan should focus on doing the same.
Khan hardly needs to justify his Indian roots. Born in New Delhi, his father was an Indian independence activist. Referred to as “The King of Bollywood”, the prolific actor has starred in 75 films, ranging from action thrillers to romantic dramas. Khan has won the Filmfare Best Actor Award eight times, tying him with Dilip Kumar for the most wins in that category.
Even the Indian government has recognized “King Khan’s” contribution to cinema, awarding him the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian award. Just last week he was ranked number one on Forbes India’s celebrity rankings, with U.S. $37.7 million in earnings last year alone.
In other words, when Khan speaks, India listens.
In response to the war of words sparked by his article, Khan told reporters Tuesday that he found it “irksome” that he had to clear up what he called a “non-existent” issue.
Reading a written statement he said: “I would like to tell all those who are offering me unsolicited advice that we in India are extremely safe and happy. We have an amazing democratic, free and secular way of life. Nowhere does the article state or imply directly or indirectly that I feel unsafe, troubled or disturbed in India.”
He has a point. Nowhere does “Being a Khan” suggest that the actor feels in danger. Nonetheless, the reaction to the article shows just how close to the surface India’s tensions are today, and just how little it takes to draw them out.