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How a Bollywood Actor Became More Than a Matinee Idol

In early September, Jawan, or “Soldier,” Indian cinema’s latest mega-budget extravaganza, registered the highest opening-day gross in Bollywood history. The film’s success cemented the remarkable renaissance of Shah Rukh Khan, the country’s biggest movie star, after a turbulent phase in the era of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

To greet the movie’s arrival, boisterous drum parades—akin to the festivities of a wedding procession—set off from various neighborhoods to catch an opening-day screening. Outside cinemas, fans poured milk over giant cutout images of the star, honoring the Muslim actor with a rite usually reserved for Hindu deities.

As the son of a nonviolent activist against British colonial rule, and as a Muslim married to a Hindu, Khan has been a popular symbol of pluralism that the Hindu right has long found irksome. In a 2007 biography of Khan, the film critic Anupama Chopra described him as “bigger than Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt combined,” “a modern-day god” who has shrines erected in his name.

Khan has endured a rough ride since Modi’s rise to power in 2014. Before his recent career comeback, the combination of shifting political headwinds and personal crises meant that he was struggling to maintain his status as the undisputed king of Bollywood. But his stunning resurgence has once again made him the centerpiece of a national conversation. Because Khan is perhaps the country’s most famous Muslim under a vindictive, Hindu-nationalist regime, his persona has become the terrain on which two ideas of the Indian republic—one democratic and pluralist, the other authoritarian and ethnonationalist—contend.

One of the contradictions of India’s past three decades is that the rise of Hindu nationalism has coincided with the conspicuous success of the three Khans: Aamir, Salman, and Shah Rukh.

Although Muslims have always been prominent in Bollywood, and central to its history, the reign of three Muslim superstars with the same surname has had no precedent.

When it became clear that Modi’s arrival in power was imminent, the other two Khans began to accommodate themselves to the new regime. Salman Khan appeared at a campaign event with Modi before the 2014 election; Aamir Khan also made compromises, sharing a dais with top functionaries of the Hindu right. But Shah Rukh Khan never caved in, refusing to play along with Hindu supremacists in any shape or form.

Early in Modi’s tenure, Khan even assailed the rise of anti-Muslim hatred. “There is intolerance; there is extreme intolerance. It is stupid to be intolerant, and this is our biggest issue,” he told the television journalist Rajdeep Sardesai in 2015. “Religious intolerance and not being secular in this country is the worst kind of crime that you can do as a patriot.”

Khan paid a high price for such outspokenness. Regular dog whistles from prominent figures in Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party followed. Adityanath, a far-right priest who leads India’s most populous province, compared Khan to Hafiz Saeed, a notorious Pakistani terrorist who was considered the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Khan should remember, Adityanath warned, in what seemed a thinly veiled threat, that “if a huge mass in society boycotts his films, he would have to wander the streets like a normal Muslim.” Another high-level party official compared the actor to a fugitive Muslim mafioso.

Since 2017, his financial assets have repeatedly been raided by tax inspectors, a favorite tactic of harassment and intimidation by the Modi government. Then, in 2021, Khan’s 23-year-old son, Aryan, was arrested on drug charges. He was later cleared on all counts, for lack of evidence, buttressing the view of critics who had denounced the affair as a witch hunt.

India once took great pride in the most visible figures—classical musicians, cricket stars, and movie idols—from its Muslim minority. Cultural luminaries such as Mohammad Azharuddin, a longtime captain of the national cricket team, and the Oscar-winning composer A. R. Rahman bolstered the country’s image as a tolerant, open society and a beacon of democracy in the global South. For the Hindu right, diminishing such figures, and by extension their power over the Indian public, is part of its project to make a Hindu nation. Hindu supremacists have always chafed at what Bollywood stands for: staunch secularism in its politics and too many liberals and Muslims in its ranks.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a leading public intellectual, wrote of Aryan Khan’s imprisonment that “the utter sadness of this moment is that it evokes the pathos of a great ruin.” He continued: “Admittedly, the accused is Shah Rukh Khan’s son, not the star himself, but, in the whole process, the target could not be clearer.”

Khan was already keeping a low profile when the news of his son’s imprisonment broke. In 2019, after a disappointing spell at the box office, Khan had decided to take a break to reevaluate his career. That layoff was prolonged by the coronavirus pandemic and eventually lasted more than four years. Among his few prominent appearances was an hour-long interview with David Letterman for a Netflix series.

At last, this past January, Khan returned to the big screen—with Pathaan, a spy thriller. A few months before the movie’s release, Laal Singh Chaddha, an Indian adaptation of Forrest Gump, starring Aamir Khan, had crashed at the box office after a campaign by the Hindu right to boycott the movie. Given the unpredictable nature of this hostile atmosphere, many feared that Shah Rukh Khan might meet the same fate.

In this case, Narottam Mishra, a BJP minister in the central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh who regularly rakes up culture wars, objected to a saffron bikini worn by the actress Deepika Padukone (the color is considered sacred by Hindus). Mishra threatened to block the movie’s screening in his state. His bluster backfired spectacularly. Despite the Hindu right’s threatening violence in theaters, Pathaan became India’s highest-grossing Bollywood movie of all time. (Jawan has now eclipsed those numbers, setting a box-office record for Bollywood of more than 10 billion rupees, about $120 million.)

Pathaan became an astonishing cultural moment in India, one inspired more by solidarity with its beloved star than by the movie itself. Social media was flooded with footage of movie audiences breaking into a dance as a bouncy track played out the film’s closing credits. Visibly moved during a press conference to celebrate Pathaan’s success after a record-breaking opening weekend, Khan said, “The last four days have made me forget the struggles of the past four years.”

I went to see Pathaan on a Monday afternoon in late January, in hopes of avoiding the weekend rush. The theater was still packed. I had taken Khan’s presence for granted for much of my life. Now I was stirred by an affection for him I hadn’t felt before. I soon heard that many friends and acquaintances, ordinarily indifferent to Bollywood, had seen the movie multiple times.

Powered by liberals and Muslims, Pathaan became a cause célèbre, evidence of a rising cultural defiance in India. Before the Modi era, Khan’s movies were a national passion driven by his charisma; they offered an alluring form of escapism from the hard realities of the country. Now his movies are statements of rebellion: Their staggering box-office numbers reflect the disaffection of those opposed to Modi. The reception of Khan’s new films is about an assertion of autonomy and a way of setting limits on the power of the Hindu right. A significant section of Indian society is carving out a zone of freedom in resistance to the Hindu-nationalist will to control every aspect of their life.

Just as remarkable as the reception of his new movies has been Khan’s screen transformation. He rose to stardom playing romantic leads. In her 2021 book, Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh,  Shrayana Bhattacharya explains how SRK, as he is known to his multitude of fans, represented a tender masculinity that appealed to women in an oppressively patriarchal society. Now Khan has pivoted to become an action star. In Pathaan and Jawan, he is a protector and custodian of the nation.

These new films are littered with subversive commentary on India under Modi. In a virulently Islamophobic climate, Pathaan foregrounds not only Khan’s religious identity but also his ethnic background. Khan’s ancestry lies in the Pashto-speaking borderland with Pakistan and Afghanistan. In the movie, his character woos an agent from Pakistan, India’s archenemy, and later recruits her and Afghan allies in a battle against an Indian agent gone rogue. The movie invokes a transnational, South Asian fraternity against the destructive tribalism that bedevils the region.

In the context of popular film, the movie’s implications feel radical. The three leading roles do not include a Hindu character, and the two male protagonists are played by a Muslim and a Christian. “For the duration of the film, a twice-born Pathan (Shah Rukh in real life and Shah Rukh in the movie) becomes an Indian Everyman,” the columnist Mukul Kesavan wrote. “To carry this off in Modi’s India and within the unforgiving genre of the mainstream blockbuster is a rare triumph.”

Jawan combines an insurrectionary politics with the operatic excess of Bollywood potboilers. Khan plays a prison superintendent named Azad, meaning “freedom,” a liberator for a country that has come to feel like a prison. In the manner of movie vigilantes, Azad leads a double life. Recruiting the inmates of his all-female jail, Azad orchestrates spectacular acts of disruption—hijacking a subway train, kidnapping a government minister—in an effort to awaken the conscience of a nation. “When your principles are challenged,” Khan says in a voice-over, “you must fight.”

With striking boldness, Jawan makes reference to major disputes of the Modi era: the controversy over the farm laws designed to favor crony capitalists; the scapegoating of a Muslim doctor for the deaths of children in an Indian hospital. Khan also works in a reference to his son’s imprisonment. During the movie’s climax, Khan’s character warns the villain, a figure with a dark past determined to subvert democracy who, with his lustrous gray hair and beard, bears more than a passing resemblance to Modi: “Before laying hands on the son, first dare to confront the father.”

As Khan spoke this line of dialogue, whistles erupted in the theater where I was watching. The usually genteel hush of an upscale theater had mutated into the rambunctious atmosphere of one of India’s small-town picture houses. I had never seen anything like it. I witnessed constant hooting and cheering when I went to see Jawan again, this time in the Muslim quarter of old Delhi. Such disproportionate emotional investment in a film star concealed an underlying sadness: The euphoria was a corollary of how marginal and disempowered Muslims have come to feel in Modi’s India.

Toward the end of the movie, Khan’s character breaks the fourth wall with something close to a political manifesto. Seated in the prison courtyard with a mound of voting machines behind him, he delivers a rousing monologue against shoddy governance and divisive politics. In what seems a pointed rebuke to Modi’s cult of personality, Khan invokes a civic patriotism, a call to arms for an electorate in thrall to demagogues. “I am asking you to remember the power of your finger,” he beseeches, alluding to the button on electronic voting machines.

Even as Khan has grown more radical in his movies, he has become more cautious in his public pronouncements. Since the incarceration of his son, he has skipped media interviews and avoided wading into political debates. Like other celebrities, he occasionally posts an anodyne tweet commending Modi and government initiatives. Khan’s circumspection is a sign of the pervasive fear in India today. “We have chosen the field of films,” Khan once told the actor Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub. “We will talk through our films.” His latest movies exemplify the complicated ways dissent functions in what is essentially a mafia state under Modi.

Khan’s public standing has only risen since he became the object of the Hindu right’s vendetta. During the weeks-long imprisonment of Aryan Khan, the writer Akhil Katyal published a short, moving poem. He reflected on all the various screen names Shah Rukh Khan had assumed during his illustrious career, characters of many ethnicities and faiths. “Perhaps that is why it is hard for some people to stomach him,” Katyal wrote, “because he embodies all of India.”

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