My 11-year-old kid daughter loves Shahrukh Khan. I have always thought of him as an Indian caricature of Peter Pan who overacts and hams but makes many child-friendly movies. My more earnest/ideological friends and relatives grumble that Shahrukh inhabits a no-man’s bubble gum land on celluloid and has played a role in divesting movies of all social context. I say, hey, get a life! Movies are for fun and there are others who make gritty realistic movies (that are no fun for kids). My own sociological research of tiny tots at birthday parties has led me to conclude that little girls in particular are die-hard Shahrukh fans because most of his films are free of violence and even the romance is so unrealistic that it could be straight out of a fairy tale. Little boys on the other hand are often fans of action heroes like Akshay Kumar, Salman Khan (must be the muscles).
But overnight the Shiv Sainiks have succeeded in making the not so macho Shahrukh a real life hero. Given the record of the film industry in kowtowing to the Thackerays, I think Shahrukh has shown real nerve in not doing so. It is also so patently obvious that he was targeted because of his Muslim identity and that should make all our heads hang in shame. Years ago when Hrithik Roshan exploded on the scene and was being touted as the successor to Shahrukh I remember being sent an article written in some rag about the “Hindu actor finally defeating the Muslim heroes who were all propped up by the Muslim underworld.” I would like to believe that Shahrukh has stood his ground (unlike the great Amitabh Bachchan and even his best buddy Karan Johar who have all supplicated before Bal Thackeray) because he knows that he is not being targeted for what he said but because of his religious identity. By holding his head high and refusing to blink, he’s certainly won this round.
I have no idea how his new film will turn out. Occasionally, due to the great enthusiasm of my daughter, I’ve sat through some of the chat shows hosted by the Shahrukh buddies, Farah Khan and Karan Johar and had quite a laugh. They seem a bunch adept at self depreciating humour. They seem the kind of people who would and do make escapist movies. So when I read that Shahrukh and Karan Johar have teamed up to make a movie that operates within a certain social-political milieu and even attempts a realistic portrayal of a neurological disorder, I was disappointed for all the kiddie fans the actor has. Lately however, the little ones have taken to watching the news and reading the papers, to follow what is happening to their hero.
And it is an education of sorts when children start to learn about prejudice and ask questions like, “Do they hate only Shahrukh or all Muslims?” My daughter recently heard this story about an incident in another school. One boy kicked the tiffin of a Muslim boy and said, “Why don’t you animals eat meat at home and not carry it to school?” I tried to explain that what was happening in Mumbai was not just about such things but about people from outside settling in the city. She understood that people in Mumbai may not want Pakistanis to enter the city because of 26/11 but why Indians from other states? I explained that it was a very small group who did such things but the whole city gets a bad name.
A child’s curiosity has no end. But I gather that in the land of little children who attend public schools in New Delhi, the Thackerays are the bad guys, the evil villains.