In early September, Jawan, or “Soldier,” Indian cinema’s newest mega-budget extravaganza, registered the very best opening-day gross in Bollywood historical past. The movie’s success cemented the exceptional renaissance of Shah Rukh Khan, the nation’s largest film star, after a turbulent section within the period of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
To greet the film’s arrival, boisterous drum parades—akin to the festivities of a marriage procession—set off from varied neighborhoods to catch an opening-day screening. Exterior cinemas, followers poured milk over large cutout pictures of the star, honoring the Muslim actor with a ceremony normally reserved for Hindu deities.
Because the son of a nonviolent activist towards British colonial rule, and as a Muslim married to a Hindu, Khan has been a preferred image of pluralism that the Hindu proper has lengthy discovered irksome. In a 2007 biography of Khan, the movie critic Anupama Chopra described him as “greater than Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt mixed,” “a modern-day god” who has shrines erected in his title.
Khan has endured a tough experience since Modi’s rise to energy in 2014. Earlier than his current profession comeback, the mixture of shifting political headwinds and private crises meant that he was struggling to take care of his standing because the undisputed king of Bollywood. However his beautiful resurgence has as soon as once more made him the centerpiece of a nationwide dialog. As a result of Khan is maybe the nation’s most well-known Muslim beneath a vindictive, Hindu-nationalist regime, his persona has turn out to be the terrain on which two concepts of the Indian republic—one democratic and pluralist, the opposite authoritarian and ethnonationalist—contend.
One of the contradictions of India’s previous three a long time is that the rise of Hindu nationalism has coincided with the conspicuous success of the three Khans: Aamir, Salman, and Shah Rukh.
Though Muslims have at all times been outstanding in Bollywood, and central to its historical past, the reign of three Muslim superstars with the identical surname has had no precedent.
When it turned clear that Modi’s arrival in energy was imminent, the opposite two Khans started to accommodate themselves to the brand new regime. Salman Khan appeared at a marketing campaign occasion with Modi earlier than the 2014 election; Aamir Khan additionally made compromises, sharing a dais with prime functionaries of the Hindu proper. However Shah Rukh Khan by no means caved in, refusing to play together with Hindu supremacists in any form or kind.
Early in Modi’s tenure, Khan even assailed the rise of anti-Muslim hatred. “There’s intolerance; there’s excessive intolerance. It’s silly to be illiberal, and that is our largest subject,” he advised the tv journalist Rajdeep Sardesai in 2015. “Spiritual intolerance and never being secular on this nation is the worst type of crime that you are able to do as a patriot.”
Khan paid a excessive worth for such outspokenness. Common canine whistles from outstanding figures in Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Get together adopted. Adityanath, a far-right priest who leads India’s most populous province, in contrast Khan to Hafiz Saeed, a infamous Pakistani terrorist who was thought-about the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai assaults. Khan ought to bear in mind, Adityanath warned, in what appeared a thinly veiled menace, that “if an enormous mass in society boycotts his movies, he must wander the streets like a traditional Muslim.” One other high-level celebration official in contrast the actor to a fugitive Muslim mafioso.
Since 2017, his monetary property have repeatedly been raided by tax inspectors, a favourite tactic of harassment and intimidation by the Modi authorities. Then, in 2021, Khan’s 23-year-old son, Aryan, was arrested on drug fees. He was later cleared on all counts, for lack of proof, buttressing the view of critics who had denounced the affair as a witch hunt.
India as soon as took nice satisfaction in probably the most seen figures—classical musicians, cricket stars, and film idols—from its Muslim minority. Cultural luminaries reminiscent of Mohammad Azharuddin, a longtime captain of the nationwide cricket group, and the Oscar-winning composer A. R. Rahman bolstered the nation’s picture as a tolerant, open society and a beacon of democracy within the international South. For the Hindu proper, diminishing such figures, and by extension their energy over the Indian public, is a part of its challenge to make a Hindu nation. Hindu supremacists have at all times chafed at what Bollywood stands for: staunch secularism in its politics and too many liberals and Muslims in its ranks.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a number one public mental, wrote of Aryan Khan’s imprisonment that “the utter disappointment of this second is that it evokes the pathos of an excellent break.” He continued: “Admittedly, the accused is Shah Rukh Khan’s son, not the star himself, however, in the entire course of, the goal couldn’t be clearer.”
Khan was already maintaining a low profile when the information of his son’s imprisonment broke. In 2019, after a disappointing spell on the field workplace, Khan had determined to take a break to reevaluate his profession. That layoff was extended by the coronavirus pandemic and ultimately lasted greater than 4 years. Amongst his few outstanding appearances was an hour-long interview with David Letterman for a Netflix sequence.
At final, this previous January, Khan returned to the large display—with Pathaan, a spy thriller. A couple of months earlier than the film’s launch, Laal Singh Chaddha, an Indian adaptation of Forrest Gump, starring Aamir Khan, had crashed on the field workplace after a marketing campaign by the Hindu proper to boycott the film. Given the unpredictable nature of this hostile environment, many feared that Shah Rukh Khan would possibly meet the identical destiny.
On this case, Narottam Mishra, a BJP minister within the central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh who frequently rakes up tradition wars, objected to a saffron bikini worn by the actress Deepika Padukone (the colour is taken into account sacred by Hindus). Mishra threatened to dam the film’s screening in his state. His bluster backfired spectacularly. Regardless of the Hindu proper’s threatening violence in theaters, Pathaan turned India’s highest-grossing Bollywood film of all time. (Jawan has now eclipsed these numbers, setting a box-office report for Bollywood of greater than 10 billion rupees, about $120 million.)
Pathaan turned an astonishing cultural second in India, one impressed extra by solidarity with its beloved star than by the film itself. Social media was flooded with footage of film audiences breaking right into a dance as a bouncy monitor performed out the movie’s closing credit. Visibly moved throughout a press convention to rejoice Pathaan’s success after a record-breaking opening weekend, Khan mentioned, “The final 4 days have made me neglect the struggles of the previous 4 years.”
I went to see Pathaan on a Monday afternoon in late January, in hopes of avoiding the weekend rush. The theater was nonetheless packed. I had taken Khan’s presence as a right for a lot of my life. Now I used to be stirred by an affection for him I hadn’t felt earlier than. I quickly heard that many associates and acquaintances, ordinarily detached to Bollywood, had seen the film a number of occasions.
Powered by liberals and Muslims, Pathaan turned a trigger célèbre, proof of a rising cultural defiance in India. Earlier than the Modi period, Khan’s motion pictures have been a nationwide ardour pushed by his charisma; they supplied an alluring type of escapism from the onerous realities of the nation. Now his motion pictures are statements of revolt: Their staggering box-office numbers replicate the disaffection of these against Modi. The reception of Khan’s new movies is about an assertion of autonomy and a manner of setting limits on the ability of the Hindu proper. A big part of Indian society is carving out a zone of freedom in resistance to the Hindu-nationalist will to regulate each side of their life.
Simply as exceptional because the reception of his new motion pictures has been Khan’s display transformation. He rose to stardom taking part in romantic leads. In her 2021 ebook, Desperately Looking for Shah Rukh, Shrayana Bhattacharya explains how SRK, as he’s recognized to his multitude of followers, represented a young masculinity that appealed to girls in an oppressively patriarchal society. Now Khan has pivoted to turn out to be an motion star. In Pathaan and Jawan, he’s a protector and custodian of the nation.
These new movies are affected by subversive commentary on India beneath Modi. In a virulently Islamophobic local weather, Pathaan foregrounds not solely Khan’s spiritual identification but in addition his ethnic background. Khan’s ancestry lies within the Pashto-speaking borderland with Pakistan and Afghanistan. Within the film, his character woos an agent from Pakistan, India’s archenemy, and later recruits her and Afghan allies in a battle towards an Indian agent gone rogue. The film invokes a transnational, South Asian fraternity towards the damaging tribalism that bedevils the area.
Within the context of widespread movie, the film’s implications really feel radical. The three main roles don’t embody a Hindu character, and the 2 male protagonists are performed by a Muslim and a Christian. “During the movie, a twice-born Pathan (Shah Rukh in actual life and Shah Rukh within the film) turns into an Indian Everyman,” the columnist Mukul Kesavan wrote. “To hold this off in Modi’s India and throughout the unforgiving style of the mainstream blockbuster is a uncommon triumph.”
Jawan combines an insurrectionary politics with the operatic extra of Bollywood potboilers. Khan performs a jail superintendent named Azad, that means “freedom,” a liberator for a rustic that has come to really feel like a jail. Within the method of film vigilantes, Azad leads a double life. Recruiting the inmates of his all-female jail, Azad orchestrates spectacular acts of disruption—hijacking a subway prepare, kidnapping a authorities minister—in an effort to awaken the conscience of a nation. “When your ideas are challenged,” Khan says in a voice-over, “it’s essential to combat.”
With hanging boldness, Jawan makes reference to main disputes of the Modi period: the controversy over the farm legal guidelines designed to favor crony capitalists; the scapegoating of a Muslim physician for the deaths of youngsters in an Indian hospital. Khan additionally works in a reference to his son’s imprisonment. In the course of the film’s climax, Khan’s character warns the villain, a determine with a darkish previous decided to subvert democracy who, together with his lustrous grey hair and beard, bears greater than a passing resemblance to Modi: “Earlier than laying palms on the son, first dare to confront the daddy.”
As Khan spoke this line of dialogue, whistles erupted within the theater the place I used to be watching. The normally genteel hush of an upscale theater had mutated into the rambunctious environment of one among India’s small-town image homes. I had by no means seen something prefer it. I witnessed fixed hooting and cheering after I went to see Jawan once more, this time within the Muslim quarter of previous Delhi. Such disproportionate emotional funding in a movie star hid an underlying disappointment: The euphoria was a corollary of how marginal and disempowered Muslims have come to really feel in Modi’s India.
Toward the tip of the film, Khan’s character breaks the fourth wall with one thing near a political manifesto. Seated within the jail courtyard with a mound of voting machines behind him, he delivers a rousing monologue towards shoddy governance and divisive politics. In what appears a pointed rebuke to Modi’s cult of persona, Khan invokes a civic patriotism, a name to arms for an voters in thrall to demagogues. “I’m asking you to recollect the ability of your finger,” he beseeches, alluding to the button on digital voting machines.
Whilst Khan has grown extra radical in his motion pictures, he has turn out to be extra cautious in his public pronouncements. For the reason that incarceration of his son, he has skipped media interviews and prevented wading into political debates. Like different celebrities, he often posts an anodyne tweet commending Modi and authorities initiatives. Khan’s circumspection is an indication of the pervasive worry in India at this time. “We have now chosen the sector of movies,” Khan as soon as advised the actor Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub. “We are going to discuss by way of our movies.” His newest motion pictures exemplify the difficult methods dissent features in what is actually a mafia state beneath Modi.
Khan’s public standing has solely risen since he turned the article of the Hindu proper’s vendetta. In the course of the weeks-long imprisonment of Aryan Khan, the author Akhil Katyal printed a brief, transferring poem. He mirrored on all the assorted display names Shah Rukh Khan had assumed throughout his illustrious profession, characters of many ethnicities and faiths. “Maybe that’s the reason it’s onerous for some individuals to abdomen him,” Katyal wrote, “as a result of he embodies all of India.”