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10 years of My Name Is Khan: Last instance of a star’s stand against violence and hatred?

A lot has changed since My Name Is Khan, directed by Karan Johar, was released on this day 10 years ago. A look at how Shah Rukh Khan stood up to bullying by the Shiv Sena and why stars are more reticent now.

Keyur Seta

Films getting into trouble for political reasons is neither new nor surprising. There have been instances going back several decades when the powers that be did not look too kindly upon this film, that song or the other play.

The latest example of this kind of intolerance was Meghna Gulzar's Chhapaak (2020), starring Deepika Padukone, which faced a social media boycott from supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party ahead of its release in January after the actress took a bold stand in favour of the agitating students of Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Ten years ago, the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer My Name Is Khan (2010) was caught in a political storm in Mumbai when the Shiv Sena, then in the opposition in Maharashtra and known to have no qualms in using violence to achieve its ends, opposed the film's release.

While Padukone faced flak for showing support to those who were protesting against the BJP-led government's attempt to introduce religious discrimination in the country's legal framework, Shah Rukh Khan faced the brunt despite having taking no political stand.

Weeks before the release of the film directed by Karan Johar, Shah Rukh Khan had expressed his desire to get the services of Pakistani players for his Indian Premier League team Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR). For those who came in late, Pakistani players have not been allowed to participate in the IPL since 2010 because of heightened tensions between the neighbours. That was the first year they were barred from cricket's most lucrative league.

To say that Khan’s comment did not go down well with the hyper-nationalistic Shiv Sena would be an understatement. The party, through editorials in its official newspaper Saamna and statement from its leaders, bashed the actor left, right and centre for his supposedly anti-national comments. 

The rhetorical 'Go to Pakistan' proclamation, now patented by leaders of the BJP, was heard when an editorial in Saamna advised Khan to go to Pakistan and play cricket there.

The Sena then threatened to 'not allow’ the release of My Name Is Khan until Shah Rukh Khan apologized for his comments. Those even remotely aware about the Shiv Sena would know that this was no idle threat.

Sena executive president Uddhav Thackeray (party founder Bal Thackeray was heading it then) launched a scathing attack on Khan when he remarked, “The most secure people in Mumbai are [26/11 terrorist Ajmal] Kasab in Arthur Road Jail and Shah Rukh Khan at his bungalow Mannat in Bandra.”

That’s when Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan, a Congress politician heading a coalition government with the Nationalist Congress Party NCP), stood by Khan and offered the star full support. Chavan threatened to withdraw the police posse providing round-the-clock security to the Thackerays if the party did not stop threatening the star and his film.

(Bal Thackeray died in 2012. Uddhav Thackeray is now chief minister of Maharashtra and heads a coalition government comprising the Shiv Sena, the NCP and... the Congress.)

The most defining moment of the entire controversy came when Shah Rukh Khan finally broke his silence. Speaking at an event in Europe, he said, “What did I say that was wrong? All I said was that I wanted people to come to my country. I have no idea what I am supposed to apologize for. If I am in the wrong I would like to apologize, but someone needs to explain to me what is wrong.”

Khan said he did “not want any confrontation. I am trying to explain myself on every platform. I have not said anything that is anti-national.”

Those who weren’t old enough 10 years ago might find this quite shocking today: a star giving a strong reply to a political party known for violence. Today filmmakers and producers bend over backwards to hold ‘discussions’ with parties and even fringe groups that oppose their work.

Another aspect of the matter that might come as a surprise today is the number of people who came out in support of Khan, including stars like Aamir Khan (who was promptly berated the next day in an editorial in Saamna) and Hrithik Roshan. In fact, Hrithik Roshan joined Twitter specially to support the film. His first ever tweet reads, “Spread humanity with a vengeance, go watch My Name Is Khan... and for the record, my name is Hrithik Roshan.”

The tough stand taken by the Maharashtra government and by Khan himself led to the Sena withdrawing its protests. However, on the day of the film's release, 12 January 2010, goons attacked quite a few theatres. Despite that, the situation was quickly controlled and the film had a smooth release. The Sena later put up a banner near Mumbai’s famous Siddhivinayak temple hailing its workers as ‘tigers’ for fighting against the film. That was an amusing end to the incident.

Circa 2020, things are very different. To see a star refusing to bow down to threats, be it from any group, is next to impossible. When Rajkumar Hirani’s PK (2014) faced the wrath of some right-wing extremists for supposedly hurting their sentiments, no one condemned the attacks on the Aamir Khan-starrer.

Even Shah Rukh Khan has gone silent, probably deciding that discretion is the better part of valour. In November 2015, Khan spoke out against the growing intolerance in India, referring to the violence and hateful comments by BJP leaders and extremist groups and the lynching of people suspected of eating or storing beef.

In an interview, Khan said, “It is stupid. It is stupid to be intolerant and this is our biggest issue, not just an issue. Religious intolerance and not being secular in this country is the worst kind of crime that you can do as a patriot.”

Following this, BJP leaders like Yogi Adityanath, now chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, and Kailash Vijayvargiya slammed Khan. The latter even compared him to Dawood Ibrahim, a notorious criminal of Indian origin based in Pakistan and designated as a global terrorist by the United Nations. Khan kept mum thereafter. 

When the trailer of his film Raees (2017) was criticized by a Shia group for the scene in which the actor is seen jumping over a Moharram procession, he immediately got that part removed from the trailer.

Raees saw another questionable act by Khan. Raj Thackeray of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), a breakaway faction of the Shiv Sena, had made it clear that his group would not let any Pakistani artist work in India following the terrorist attack in Uri in September 2016. Raees starred Pakistani actress Mahira Khan.

Though the film was shot long before the Uri attacks happened, the crew still had to shoot a song involving Shah Rukh Khan and Mahira. The actor, popularly known as SRK, visited Thackeray's residence in Mumbai to 'get permission’ to shoot the song (and even lied in a statement, but that’s another story).

Ever since he bore the brunt for his statement against intolerance, SRK has kept mum on public issues, even when students at his alma mater, Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi, were attacked by rampaging Delhi police personnel late last year.

The same goes for Aamir Khan, who came in for ugly criticism when he shared wife Kiran Rao’s fear about the growing intolerance in the country for those holding views differing from those of the political establishment. Neither he nor Hrithik Roshan, who stood up in support of Shah Rukh Khan in 2010, have raised their voices recently.

A major change that has occurred in these 10 years is the way social media has spread across the country, not to mention the world, and the way these platforms are being used, misused and abused by political parties and their named and nameless supporters. When Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan spoke out, they were attacked relentlessly on social media by these 'supporters'.

In addition, a number of so-called news anchors on television have taken it upon themselves to protect the government against criticism of any kind. These 'anchors', some of whom come across as unhinged, blatantly and loudly attack anyone who dares to criticize the government or the ruling party.

These changes are largely responsible for all except the boldest to steer clear of expressing their views on anything remotely controversial. Until this climate of fear and intolerance and targeting online abates, Shah Rukh Khan’s refusal to bow before the Shiv Sena in 2010 might be the last time we saw a star stand up to hatred and threats.

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