If you don’t count Aamir’s child star roles, Bollywood’s Khans have been entertaining us since the 1980s. Together, their impact is unbeatable.
When I worked for the Indian Express in 2005, a colleague calculated that the net box office impact of this triumvirate since they first hit the big screen was an astounding Rs1,906 crore (and since then there have been many more Khan-propelled hits such as Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, Om Shanti Om, Chak De! India, and Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna for Shah Rukh; Ghajini, Taare Zameen Par and Rang De Basanti for Aamir; and hmm…not much for Salman).
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In the post 9/11 years, interviewers have increasingly begun to ask these Khans—all are Muslims born in the same year (same as the husband, incidentally) and all embraced films seriously at roughly the same time—about their Muslim identities. Shah Rukh Khan, the most articulate of the three, has repeatedly given interviewers a crash course in Islam 101 and has said that he stands for a young educated India more than for any single community. All the three Khans are liberal Muslims who until recently never really discussed their religion or religious identity.
Salman Khan was born to a Hindu mother and a Muslim father. Aamir Khan divorced a Hindu woman, then married another Hindu woman. And Shah Rukh Khan? Everyone knows the story of how he wooed Delhi girl Gauri Chibba and married her more than 15 years ago. Anupama Chopra’s account of the wedding in her book King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema, is great: “They married in court and then a traditional Hindu wedding followed, in which he rode to the venue on an elephant…Shah Rukh wore suits borrowed from the Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman costume department…He danced at his wedding longer and harder than anyone else. He was still only when he sat by his mother-in-law’s side, holding her hand for half an hour.”
New York: Abraham plays a Muslim hunk.
But then the Hindi film industry is full of stories like these. In fact, this is probably the only industry where Hindus and Muslims have worked together and played together so closely and so consistently since the birth of modern India. My favourite Hindu-Muslim parternships are Abrar Alvi-Guru Dutt and Yash Chopra-Sahir Ludhianvi. Chopra’s first film as director, 1959’s Dhool Ka Phool, featured Sahir’s blockbuster lyrics in the song Tu Hindu Banega Ya Musalmaan Banega, Insaan Ki Aulaad Hai Insaan Banega. Even the best film at IIFA (International Indian Film Academy) this year, Jodhaa Akbar, was the story of a Muslim king and his Hindu love.
Yet despite the close ties between the two communities in the Hindi film industry, the Muslims on screen have been badly caricatured and stereotyped. In an essay in Global Bollywood, authors Kalyani Chadha and Anandam P. Kavoori argue that Muslims in Hindi cinema have been exoticized (in films about Mughal emperors), marginalized (as bit-part actors who play preachers, tailors, courtesans and qawwali singers) and demonized (as Pakistani aggressors, jihadis and fundamentalists).
So it’s not an exaggeration to say that when big-banner Yash Raj Films makes a mainstream, candyfloss film starring Bollywood’s favourite butt John Abraham as the Muslim lead, it has the potential of being a historic film. And when this film is likely to be followed up by the Karan Johar-Shah Rukh Khan combination tackling modern-day stereotypes of Muslims, it could even be the change we’ve waited so many decades for. After all, if Johar could work his magic for gay India, why shouldn’t he succeed in portraying liberal, Muslim India?
I don’t know about you, but we’re keeping our fingers crossed.
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