Does Shah Rukh Khan's fame challenge Hindu nationalism?
Khan is hugely popular, and his films attract long queues of fans. It's the kind of popularity that could threaten the BJP's pursuit of its Hindu nationalist agenda
While on a university field trip to Cyprus in 2019, I was walking back to my hotel when I heard a song from a Bollywood movie playing at a souvlaki bar in the country's divided capital, Nicosia. As an Indian, it was the last place I would have expected to hear the song from actor Shah Rukh Khan's movie Don 2 and, in that brief moment, I felt like I was somehow home, albeit in a foreign land.
Shah Rukh Khan is known around the world as a cultural phenomenon who transcends borders. But he is a Muslim, and his religion has become somewhat of an issue in India — where anti-Muslim sentiments are rising.
Khan's latest film Jawan has stirred up a political storm in India. Many believe the film contains subtle references to the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and touches on several controversies that have plagued the government.
In 2015, just a year after Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP came to power, the Bollywood superstar publicly spoke about a "growing intolerance" toward Muslims in India.
Ever since, there have been several attempts to slander Khan. Hindu nationalist politician Yogi Adityanath compared the Bollywood star to a Pakistani militant and told him to "go to Pakistan".
In 2021, Khan's son Aryan was arrested on drug charges, but later exonerated. Although Khan has remained quiet about the ordeal, some analysts say the arrest was politically motivated.
Some observers believe that such animosity toward the Bollywood icon, who presents and promotes a secular image of his country, stems from a larger Hindu-nationalist plan to portray people from minorities as "second-class citizens". The BJP vehemently denies this allegation.
Khan hasn't made any recent public statements about intolerance, but his latest action-packed movies, Pathaan and Jawan, tell a different story. Both have been mammoth box-office successes — and both carry political commentary.
Khan is hugely popular, and his films attract long queues of fans outside theatres, and packed auditoriums inside. It's the kind of popularity that could threaten the BJP's pursuit of its Hindu nationalist agenda — particularly at a time when the right wing is seen as trying to influence Bollywood, according to some analysts.
Khan has always been considered progressive with liberal values and extremely inclusive, according to an entertainment reporter from a leading Indian newspaper who did not wish to be named.
"His personal life mirrors the 'idea of India,' especially to the global audience. He's a Muslim man in a Hindu-majority country, married to a Hindu wife, but has children growing up taking up whatever religion they want to," the journalist told DW.
"Should his [Khan's] religion matter?" asked Dr Ranjani Mazumdar, professor of Cinema Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. "It matters now because of the attack on minorities, and in that sense his continuing popularity makes one see that all is not lost, despite the poison that is being injected daily," Mazumdar told DW, adding that Khan has never really tried to draw attention to his religion in public.
Also Read: Jawan: SRK opens a new frontier
Khan's popularity in India attracts a huge fan base — none of whom consider his religion as something that matters to them, Mazumdar pointed out.
After Khan's son was detained, journalist Rana Ayyub wrote an article that sparked widespread discussion on whether his arrest was a result of his status as the son of one of India's biggest Muslim superstars, who has never shied away from his religious identity.
Ayyub said the actor's films attempt to eliminate anti-Muslim prejudice amid a barrage of films that are "Islamophobic", and suggested that Khan normalises being a Muslim and in Jawan, he subtly tries to "portray a message against communal politics".
"Yes, he becomes a threat because Bollywood is massive, which is why the government of the day is using it as propaganda to vilify Muslims," Ayyub told DW.
Some, like author Debasish Roy Chowdhury, say that the mere presence of Muslim stars like Khan on the big screen presents a problem for the Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) ideology. "The very sight of Muslim heroes romancing Hindu heroines on screen must be terribly upsetting for these supremacists, who project Muslim men as sexual predators," he said.
"There simply can't be powerful Muslims in the emerging 'Hindu-first' order, so the very presence of stars like Shah Rukh Khan is deeply problematic for Hindutva supporters. More so, if they make social comments and emerge as a voice in society independent of their screen personas," Chowdhury added.
The entertainment journalist told DW that the targeting of Khan by the BJP is rooted in the actor's "continued stubbornness to not follow what they want".
"This constant targeting of Shah Rukh Khan is coming from a space of 'why is he still standing tall?' There is a long history there," he said.
Meanwhile, toward the end of Jawan, Khan delivers an unprecedented monologue on voting and electing a candidate who is not prejudiced toward caste and religion.
"For the times we live in, even the bare minimum becomes important... It's not something extraordinary. But we are talking about the extraordinary times we are living in. These are not brave acts, but the bare minimum has become a brave act," Ayyub said.
Several BJP officials that DW contacted refused to comment on the issue.
Gaurav Bhatia, a BJP spokesperson, however, diverted blame to the Congress party in a post on X. "We must thank Shah Rukh Khan for exposing the corrupt, policy paralysis-ridden Congress rule from 2004 to 2014 through Jawan movie," he posted. "It reminds all viewers of the tragic political past during the Congress led-UPA government," he added.
But Mazumdar said Jawan is a political film in which issues considered very important during the last decade of BJP rule have been highlighted.
"It is addressing and sign-posting these issues, and it is also combining that with Shah Rukh Khan's own star text, because they are drawing on his history of stardom and addressing the kind of things that have happened to him in the public domain," she said.
On whether Khan's popularity conflicts with the BJP's Hindu nationalist agenda, Ayyub said his films ensure a dialogue, albeit a cursory one. "It's a very small dent in the Hindu nationalistic agenda. It's not going to change anything," she said.
"The people who are going to watch Jawan will also watch movies driven by the right-wing agenda. It will try to create some kind of awareness but it won't be long-lived. It is probably a flash in the pan," Ayyub added. "But if Khan's films keep coming in time and again, it will be a reminder to the country that there is some sanity left in the chaos that we see."