Long before Sharukh Khan, there was the original post Independence superstar: Dilip Kumar, or rather Yusuf Khan. There are two stories as to why Yusuf became Dilipsaab. The first is that Devika Rani, the owner of Bombay Talkies, suggested that a name like Yusuf wouldn’t work at the box office and a Hindu name was preferable. The other which is suggested by a recent biography is that Yusuf feared the wrath of his father if he was seen in films: the fear drove him to change his name.
Sharukh, by contrast, has faced no such dilemma: he is not just Khan, but King Khan. He wears his religious identity very lightly, and his inter-religious marriage is a product of a belief system rooted in his Indianness. “I am a proud Indian, in my home we celebrate Eid with crackers and Diwali with sevaiyan!” he told me.
Many years ago, he earned the wrath of the Shiv Sena when his film ‘My Name is Khan’ was targeted after Sharukh spoke out in favour of including Pakistani players in the IPL. When I interviewed Sharukh at the time, he felt he had become a soft target and been singled out because of his identity as an Indian Muslim. ‘I guess some people don’t like that my name is Khan,’ he said angrily.
On Sunday, I interviewed Sharukh again, and once again he responded with anger to those who questioned his identity as an Indian Muslim. “I am a patriot, how dare anyone question my patriotism!’ he said. Ironically, while we were doing the interview at Sharukh’s home, a large crowd had gathered outside to wish Sharukh on his 50th birthday. I suggested that he needn’t angst over the question of his religious identity when he was, after all, such a mega star, loved by all Indians cutting across every barrier. “Maybe you are right, I am protected because I am a star!”
Interestingly, just a few days earlier, I was in Kishenganj in Bihar, one of the few Muslim majority districts in the country outside of the Kashmir valley. One met many Muslim youth here for whom the identity question co-exists uneasily with economic backwardness. Into this world has stepped in an Asauddin Owaisi, the MIM MP from Hyderabad, now seeking to become the political voice of Muslims across India.
The contrast between a Sharukh and an Owaisi could not be starker: one a self made star who is a role model for millions, the other a shrewd politician appealing solely to a Muslim constituency. Sharukh is a product of a secular India which prides itself on being a diverse, multi faith society. Owaisi is a representative of a divided India where the Muslim feels he needs to have a leader to counter and challenge the Hindu majority.
Maybe, because he is a cinema star, Sharukh will never face discrimination or not be embraced across the divide. Had he lived in a Kishenganj, he might have seen himself in a state of permanent confrontation. Unlike a Dilip Kumar, he doesn’t need to change his name to achieve box office success. Indeed, it is perhaps no surprise that all the three superstars of the last twenty years are Khans , all born in 1965. For those who believe that India is an increasingly intolerant nation and the Muslim minority lives in fear, Sharukh, Salman and Aamir are proof that Bollywood atleast (along with cricket) is the ultimate ‘Khanistan’ where talent matters, not your religion. Thank god for that!