I am an actor. Time does not frame my days with as much conviction as images do. Images rule my life. Moments and memories imprint themselves on my being in the form of the snapshots that I weave into my expression. The essence of my art is the ability to create images that resonate with the emotional imagery of those watching them.
I am a Khan. The name itself conjures multiple images in my mind too: a strapping man riding a horse, his reckless hair flowing from beneath a turban tied firm around his head. His ruggedly handsome face marked by weathered lines and a distinctly large nose.
A stereotyped extremist; no dance, no drink, no cigarette tipping off his lips, no monogamy, no blasphemy; a fair, silent face beguiling a violent fury smouldering within. A streak that could even make him blow himself up in the name of his God.
Then there is the image of me being shoved into a backroom of a vast American airport named after an American president (another parallel image: of the president being assassinated by a man named Lee, not a Muslim thankfully, nor Chinese as some might imagine! I urgently shove the image of the room out of my head).
Some stripping, frisking and many questions later, I am given an explanation (of sorts): “Your name pops up on our system, we are sorry”. “So am I,” I think to myself, “Now can I have my underwear back please?”
Then, there is the image I most see, the one of me in my own country: being acclaimed as a megastar, adored and glorified, my fans mobbing me with love and apparent adulation.
I am a Khan.
I could say I fit into each of these images: I could be a strapping six feet something—ok something minus, about three inches at least, though I don’t know much about horse-riding. A horse once galloped off with me flapping helplessly on it and I have had a “no horse-riding” clause embedded in my contracts ever since.
I am extremely muscular between my ears, I am often told by my kids, and I used to be fair too, but now I have a perpetual tan or as I like to call it an ‘olive hue’—though deep in the recesses of my armpits I can still find the remains of a fairer day. I am handsome under the right kind of light and I really do have a “distinctly large” nose. It announces my arrival in fact, peeking through the doorway just before I make my megastar entrance. But my nose notwithstanding, my name means nothing to me unless I contextualise it.
Stereotyping and contextualising is the way of the world we live in: a world in which definition has become central to security. We take comfort in defining phenomena, objects and people—with a limited amount of knowledge and along known parameters. The predictability that naturally arises from these definitions makes us feel secure within our own limitations.
We create little image boxes of our own. One such box has begun to draw its lid tighter and tighter at present. It is the box that contains an image of my religion in millions of minds.
I encounter this tightening of definition every time moderation is required to be publicly expressed by the Muslim community in my country. Whenever there is an act of violence in the name of Islam, I am called upon to air my views on it and dispel the notion that by virtue of being a Muslim, I condone such senseless brutality. I am one of the voices chosen to represent my community in order to prevent other communities from reacting to all of us as if we were somehow colluding with or responsible for the crimes committed in the name of a religion that we experience entirely differently from the perpetrators of these crimes.
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. There have been occasions when I have been accused of bearing allegiance to our neighbouring nation rather than my own country—this even though I am an Indian whose father fought for the freedom of 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”.
|Photograph by AFP, From Outlook in collaboration with The New York Times January 2013|
I gave my son and daughter names that could pass for generic (pan-Indian and pan-religious) ones: Aryan and Suhana. The Khan has been bequeathed by me so they can’t really escape it. I pronounce it from my epiglottis when asked by Muslims and throw the Aryan as evidence of their race when non-Muslims enquire. I imagine this will prevent my offspring from receiving unwarranted eviction orders and random fatwas in the future. It will also keep my two children completely confused. Sometimes, they ask me what religion they belong to and, like a good Hindi movie hero, I roll my eyes up to the sky and declare philosophically, “You are an Indian first and your religion is humanity”, or sing them an old Hindi film ditty, “Tu Hindu banega na Musalmaan banega—insaan ki aulaad hai insaan banega” set to Gangnam Style.
None of this informs them with any clarity, it just confounds them some more and makes them deeply wary of their father.
In the land of the freed, where I have been invited on several occasions to be honoured, I have bumped into ideas that put me in a particular context. I have had my fair share of airport delays for instance.
I became so sick of being mistaken for some crazed terrorist who coincidentally carries the same last name as mine that I made a film, subtly titled My name is Khan (and I am not a terrorist) to prove a point. Ironically, I was interrogated at the airport for hours about my last name when I was going to present the film in America for the first time.
I wonder, at times, whether the same treatment is given to everyone whose last name just happens to be McVeigh (as in Timothy)??
I don’t intend to hurt any sentiments, but truth be told, the aggressor and taker of life follows his or her own mind. It has nothing to do with a name, a place or his/her religion. It is a mind that has its own discipline, its own distinction of right from wrong and its own set of ideologies. In fact, one might say, it has its own “religion”. This religion has nothing to do with the ones that have existed for centuries and been taught in mosques or churches. The call of the azaan or the words of the Pope have no bearing on this person’s soul. His soul is driven by the devil. I, for one, refuse to be contextualised by the ignorance of his ilk.
I am a Khan.
I am neither six-feet-tall nor handsome (I am modest though) nor am I a Muslim who looks down on other religions. I have been taught my religion by my six-foot-tall, handsome Pathan ‘Papa’ from Peshawar, where his proud family and mine still resides. He was a member of the non-violent Pathan movement called Khudai Khidmatgaar and a follower of both Gandhiji and Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, who was also known as the Frontier Gandhi.
My first learning of Islam from him was to respect women and children and to uphold the dignity of every human being. I learnt that the property and decency of others, their points of view, their beliefs, their philosophies and their religions were due as much respect as my own and ought to be accepted with an open mind. I learnt to believe in the power and benevolence of Allah, and to be gentle and kind to my fellow human beings, to give of myself to those less privileged than me and to live a life full of happiness, joy, laughter and fun without impinging on anybody else’s freedom to live in the same way.
So I am a Khan, but no stereotyped image is factored into my idea of who I am. Instead, the living of my life has enabled me to be deeply touched by the love of millions of Indians. I have felt this love for the last 20 years regardless of the fact that my community is a minority within the population of India. I have been showered with love across national and cultural boundaries, from Suriname to Japan and Saudi Arabia to Germany, places where they don’t even understand my language. They appreciate what I do for them as an entertainer—that’s all. My life has led me to understand and imbibe that love is a pure exchange, untempered by definition and unfettered by the narrowness of limiting ideas. If each one of us allowed ourselves the freedom to accept and return love in its purity, we would need no image boxes to hold up the walls of our security.
I believe that I have been blessed with the opportunity to experience the magnitude of such a love, but I also know that its scale is irrelevant. In our own small ways, simply as human beings, we can appreciate each other for how we touch our lives and not how our different religions or last names define us.
Beneath the guise of my superstardom, I am an ordinary man. My Islamic stock does not conflict with that of my Hindu wife’s. The only disagreements I have with Gauri concern the colour of the walls in our living room and not about the locations of the walls demarcating temples from mosques in india.
We are bringing up a daughter who pirouettes in a leotard and choreographs her own ballets. She sings western songs that confound my sensibilties and aspires to be an actress. She also insists on covering her head when in a Muslim nation that practises this really beautiful and much misunderstood tenet of Islam.
Our son’s linear features proclaim his Pathan pedigree although he carries his own, rather gentle mutation of the warrior gene. He spends all day either pushing people aside at rugby, kicking some butt at Tae Kwon Do or eliminating unknown faces behind anonymous online gaming handles around the world with The Call of Duty video game. And yet, he firmly admonishes me for getting into a minor scuffle at the cricket stadium in Mumbai last year because some bigot made unsavoury remarks about me being a Khan.
The four of us make up a motley representation of the extraordinary acceptance and validation that love can foster when exchanged within the exquisiteness of things that are otherwise defined as ordinary.
For I believe, our religion is an extremely personal choice, not a public proclamation of who we are. It’s as personal as the spectacles of my father who passed away some 20 years ago. Spectacles that I hold onto as my most prized and personal possession of his memories, teachings and of being a proud Pathan. I have never compared those with my friends, who have similar possessions of their parents or grandparents. I have never said my father’s spectacles are better than your mother’s saree. So why should we have this comparison in the matter of religion, which is as personal and prized a belief as the memories of your elders. Why should not the love we share be the last word in defining us instead of the last name? It doesn’t take a superstar to be able to give love, it just takes a heart and as far as I know, there isn’t a force on this earth that can deprive anyone of theirs.
I am a Khan, and that’s what it has meant being one, despite the stereotype images that surround me. To be a Khan has been to be loved and love back—that and the promise that virgins wait for me somewhere on the other side.
The king of Bollywood, Shahrukh Khan, on where he comes from and who he is