An Ode to Aamir Khan
The vitriol against the actor in the form of the hashtag, #BoycottLaalSinghChaddha, is just the latest of many such campaigns against him. Motivated by rising anti-Muslim sentiment in India, this character assassination of Khan is a testament to the power of hate which can make one see a national enemy in a national treasure.
[Left] Khan receiving the Padma Bhushan, one of the highest recognitions conferred by the Government of India.
Satyamev Jayate (“Truth alone prevails”) is a classic dictum of the Indian ethos. Deriving from its ancient scriptures, these words have endured into the fabric of contemporary India—they are inscribed on all Indian currency notes.
That is also the name of a television talk show from a decade ago that had become a national phenomenon like no other. Produced and hosted by actor Aamir Khan, the show had generated the buzz that it had because this was probably the first time someone of Khan’s star power had taken a genuine and deep dive into the world of the aam aadmi (the poor, powerless masses).
Khan and the show had been widely lauded for taking on sensitive issues that most in the media had brushed aside. Some of the topics included dowry, female feticide, medical malpractice, domestic violence, honor killings, alcoholism, untouchability, child sexual abuse, and the big, fat Indian weddings that the parents of the bride could ill-afford.
I had watched a few episodes and had been struck by the level of Khan’s emotional intelligence. Unlike the loudmouthed Arnab Goswami types, his approach was nuanced and sensitive, yet very potent. He showed empathy without condescension. He strived to bring an element of positivity where he could, even amidst gloomy issues.
I can see why the Wikipedia entry on Satyamev Jayate, the show, says that it has been “widely appreciated by several film and television personalities, politicians, and social activists for its research, format, presentation, and content.” With Satyamev, Khan brilliantly infused a central value of the Indian ethos in his show to highlight the numerous social ills that plague the country—the only way a society and a nation can progress. The almost unanimous praise that he and the show garnered was richly deserved.
Khan’s film Lagaan, celebrating patriotism through the game of cricket, is one of only three Indian films nominated for an Oscar for Best International Feature Film. For over 30 years, he has entertained us with gems like Sarfarosh, Rang De Basanti, Taare Zameen Par, 3 Idiots, Dangal, and many more. Many of his films have celebrated Indian patriotism. The Encyclopedia Britannica’s bio on him says, “His insistence on a complete script before shooting and working on only one film at a time heralded a new professionalism in Bollywood.”
And while one may disagree with his positions, at least he has been engaged enough to weigh in on social issues such as the Narmada Dam project in Gujarat. Khan is also a co-founder of Paani Foundation, an NGO working for drought prevention and watershed management in India. It’s not just his money that he gives. In his quest to help make Maharashtra drought-free, Khan did shramdaan (donation of one’s time and labor) for three years. Talking about Khan’s charity work in the area of child welfare, Karin Hulshof, a representative of UNICEF in India said he is “…a compelling advocate, with an enormous drive and commitment, to transform and improve the situation of children in the country.”
Khan’s body of work in films, TV, charity, and activism, is not indicative of a superficial star, but of someone passionate about society and the nation. And what does he get in return from an ungrateful nation?
A deluge of hate
In recent weeks, #BoycottLaalSinghChaddha has been trending and gaining momentum. So much so that it succeeded in sabotaging the opening week collections of the film, tanking it at the box office. The fact that this campaign was able to derail a bigbanner film from a superstar whose bankability has been enviable so far, shows that anti-Muslim sentiments in India are no longer limited to the fringe, but are becoming mainstream.
It’s been particularly worrisome that even some educated, seemingly moderate individuals in my own social media circle have been brainwashed by a brilliantly orchestrated propaganda machine ever since the Modi government took control. In its quest to weaponize Hindutva for electoral gains, the BJP has successfully deployed IT cells to infiltrate social media conversations with anti-minority innuendos and half-truths.
An investigative report, diligently carried out over two years by The Wire, an independent Indian news publication, reveals how ‘Tek Fog,’ a highly sophisticated app used by online operatives to hijack major social media platforms to amplify right-wing propaganda has been alarmingly successful in automating hate against the minority community.
One of the results of this orchestrated hate-mongering is unsubstantiated and incredulous allegations against Khan, a favorite target of these nefarious IT cells. To be clear, the campaign against Khan started several years before the Modi government and its IT cells; it’s just that these systematic efforts of the BJP cells provided significant momentum to this trend. What was fringe ten years ago is now gaining a critical mass.
When one takes a closer look at the allegations against Khan, it is easy to see they are either wholly fabricated or too dubious to hold water. During the time of Satyameva Jayate, allegations were made that the proceeds from the show went to an organization called “Humanity Trust,” that this was run by a Muslim executive committee, and that the funds were being used for Masjid construction among other things. The accusation was that indiscriminate public funds were being routed for religious purposes. On closer scrutiny, it turned out that those allegations, quite persistent at the time, were entirely fabricated. The official website of Satyamev Jayate felt it necessary to point out that the correct website of one of its many beneficiaries was humanityhospital.org, that this hospital was not religiously aligned, and that it offered medical services indiscriminately to all who had no access to it.
The boycott of Laal Singh Chaddha is motivated not so much by the content of the movie itself but simply because of the manufactured hatred against Khan. The two main accusations doing the rounds during this boycott campaign against Khan are: (1) that he dared to call out the rising religious intolerance, in 2015, when he quoted his Hindu wife that they did not feel safe anymore in India. (2) that “his” (sic) movie, PK, insulted Hindu Gods.
Let’s take a closer look at both of these prime allegations.
“How dare he voice his fear—that makes him anti-national”
The idea that expressing an honest opinion about being fearful of some elements in the nation makes one anti-national is the very definition of jingoistic nationalism—not that of a modern, progressive, open-minded society. A 2012 survey by the United Nations and a poll published by Hindustan Times newspaper in 2014 a little over a year after the infamous “Nirbhaya” rape case in Delhi are just two of the many surveys where a majority of women admitted they did not feel safe anymore in their own towns and cities. Does that make them anti-national? Why is it OK to express fear of sexual violence against oneself but not OK to express fear of religiously motivated violence? In the recent past, many others and I have publicly expressed our fear of living in Trump’s America. Does that make us anti-American?
It’s sad that Khan’s distractors don’t see the irony of a majority group using its bully pulpit to frighten a member of a minority group into submission for expressing his fear of being a minority! The back- lash against his remarks demonstrates the very intolerance that Khan was calling out.
“PK, the film starring Khan, insulted Hindu Gods”
It is this allegation that truly reveals the cluelessness and hypocrisy of Khan’s antagonists. The larger theme of PK is quite similar to OMG—Oh My God starring Paresh Rawal—both are religious satires. Curiously, neither Rawal nor the director or producer of OMG faced any backlash from “concerned” Hindus even though there was enough mockery of Hindu Gods in a satirical manner. PK was no different.
Both films seek to expose conmen disguised as dharma gurus—those who sell God and have defiled religion into a mandi, a bazaar, a business. These films seek to expose the cheats who are committing fraud in the name of religion, and in the process molesting, financially or otherwise, those who are most vulnerable. To its credit, PK, unlike OMG, is even more democratic in its criticism of religious fraudsters—it also calls out Christian and Muslim charlatans preying on believers in the name of religion.
Even if there was something truly anti-Hindu about PK, going after Khan for it is barking up the wrong tree. The hypocrisy of the pseudo-Hindu—for making Khan the culprit for PK—can’t get any more transparent when you consider the film was directed by Rajkumar Hirani, a Hindu; produced by Vidhu Vinod Chopra, a Hindu; and all significant characters were played by Hindu actors: Anoushka Sharma, Sushant Singh Rajput, and Sanjay Dutt. All these Hindu heavyweights of the industry collaborated to make the film, and yet the trolls let loose their wrath only against Khan.
To his opponents, the very fact that Khan, a Muslim, is the embodiment of an exemplary Indian who proudly celebrates its history and heritage, an award-winning actor and filmmaker, a conscientious citizen, and the winner of the prestigious Padma Bhushan Award from the Government of India, is indigestible—it mocks their narrative of Muslims as second-class citizens who are secretly disloyal to the nation.
Parthiv N Parekh is the Editor-in-Chief of Khabar magazine.
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