Poster boy of secularism
Shakuntala Rao

Listing Shah Rukh Khan as one of 50 global power elites, Newsweek writes, "Who is the world’s biggest movie star? Brad? Will? Nah. His name is Shah Rukh Khan, and he’s the king of Bollywood.

Khan is huge in the Muslim world, even in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the mullahs ban his films. The main appeal is certainly the song-and-dance numbers, but Khan (a Muslim married to a Hindu) makes devoutly secular films where love trounces bigotry. Here’s hoping tolerance will leap from reel life to real life."

In her autobiography of Khan, Anupama Chopra recounts a seminal moment in Khan’s life when he played a bit part in the play Ramayana. In a neighbourhood theatre Khan, then 10, a Muslim boy, was asked to recite, "Praise to the commander Ram, praise to Hanuman, son of the wind." Khan loved the adulation he received on stage and the fact that he began his career as an artiste calling out the name of Lord Rama. Even during his boyhood, Khan began living and performing religious hybridity that translated into a global secularity amidst some of India’s worst sectarian violence and enforcement of upper-caste Hindu identity.

Cultural critic Homi Bhabha categorises his notion of the "subaltern secular" as based on the "ethics of coexistence, from the social space which has to be communally shared with others, and in which solidarity is based on the recognition of difference."The rhetoric of the subaltern secular focuses on the ethics of "cultural secularisation of any religious practice as a way of life." Khan’s on and off-screen reflects the premise of secular subaltern as a mode of narrating postcolonial India’s national imaginary as hybrid.

Unlike several successful Hindi film stars in the past who had been Muslim — the most famous was Muhammad Yusuf Khan or Dilip Kumar, a star in the 1950s — Shah Rukh Khan never adopted a Hindu screen name as had been customary among non-Hindu actors. In his 40-year film career, Dilip Kumar played a Muslim character only once, as Prince Salim in the film Mughal-e-Azam. Kumar always shied from publicly discussing India’s minority politics or his religious beliefs, and none of his films featured plots involving inter-religious love or inter-ethnic relations. Unlike Dilip Kumar, Khan married a Hindu woman and openly talks of his religious upbringing and inter-faith marriage. In interview after interview, Khan lauds Indian secularism and refers to himself as the "successful poster boy of India’s experiment with secularism."

Khan’s hit film, Veer Zaara is the best example of Khan’s ability to play secular subaltern characters. In Veer Zaara, Khan plays Veer Pratap Singh, an Indian Air Force pilot, who rescues a Pakistani woman, Zaara Haayat Khan and the two fall in love. In the film Khan’s character, a Punjabi Hindu, is portrayed as a man ready to reject all cultural and political restraints to fall in love with a Muslim woman. Veer is no traditional Hindu man; as Khan does in his public biography, Veer crosses the boundaries of inter-religious love, and claims to be more secular than religious. Neither Khan’s public persona nor Veer is interested in the dominant narrative of the nation, ravaged by communal clashes. The secular subaltern in Khan is not interested in questions of appeasement but transgressions and, in Veer Zaara, he strikes at the heart of all totalitarian narrative of separatism.

If one is to believe that the reach, scope, and intensity of fame has and continues to have fundamental cultural consequences for the way people live and a new dominant discursive formation that shapes identity, and belonging, Shah Rukh Khan’s success in Bollywood is important to explore. I argue that Khan presents the subaltern secular image in the popular imagination and, in effect, popularised the hybrid secular image of Indian nationhood. As Khan’s stardom goes beyond the narrow confines of a nation, with a recognition of a global community among cultures away from narrow triumphalist slogans of nationalism, he seeks generous multivalent connections.

(This write-up is excerpted from the chapter written by the writer for the book, Celebrity Colonialism: Fame, Representation and Power in Postcolonial Cultures, edited by Robert Clarke and published by Cambridge Scholars Press)