In November 2015—a year after prime minister Narendra Modi came to power for the first time—Indian movie superstar Shah Rukh Khan stood up publicly for a Muslim man, Mohammed Akhlaq, who was beaten to death by a Hindu mob.
Yesterday (Oct. 21), Khan went to Mumbai’s Arthur Road jail to visit his 23-year-old son Aryan for the first time since his arrest in a drugs case on Oct. 3. Aryan Khan has been repeatedly denied bail since he was taken into custody during a raid on a cruise ship in Mumbai by the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), where the agency seized illegal drugs such as cocaine, cannabis, and MDMA.
The superstar, clad in a grey T-shirt, transparent spectacles, and a black face mask, was seen graciously folding his hands and thanking supporters who showed up. To the press that mobbed him, he gave no response. He just bowed his head and ducked inside his car, without saying a word.
For nearly six years, Khan has refused to speak up again, journalist Barkha Dutt points out. The king of Bollywood has become a shadow of himself in the public eye. Usually outspoken, he stayed quiet even after receiving flak for staying silent on the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act that discriminates against Muslims last year. In 2015, he warned the world that “religious intolerance will take [India] to the dark ages.”
Khan emerged in 1992 as an icon for secular India. He proudly wore his Muslim identity on his sleeve, and was vocal about social issues. He and his Hindu wife Gauri were a perfect inter-religious couple, keeping Hindu god Ganpati and the Qur’an side-by-side in their home. The Khan household celebrated Diwali with as much pomp as it did Eid.
Their two children, Aryan and Suhana, were deliberately given first names without religious overtones so the Khan surname wouldn’t weigh too heavily on them. “I imagine this will prevent my offspring from receiving unwarranted eviction orders and random fatwas in the future,” Khan wrote in a January 2013 op-ed in Outlook magazine, where he opened up about life as a Indian Muslim, and described being stripped and searched at US airports.
Now his son is in the eye of a media storm. The NCB’s raid on the night of Oct. 2 led to the arrest of around eight people including Khan. The charges against him range from consumption to conspiracy. Khan’s lawyers argue that no drugs were directly recovered from him, that allegedly incriminating WhatsApp chats are not connected to the case, and there is next to no chance of him fleeing if out on bail.
But that’s a matter for the courts. What’s playing out in the media with his father is bigger than this incident.
A superstar of this magnitude, perhaps the last of his kind in the Hindi film industry, Khan is the perfect distraction from border tensions with China and India’s Covid-19 mismanagement. While sensationalist TV news channels plastered Aryan’s face all over the screen, a government minister’s son who allegedly ploughed into a farmer’s protest, killing eight people, roamed scot-free for a week.
Unlike many of his peers, Khan has had little to do with the current prime minister, only once spotted rubbing shoulders with Modi at a large event.
Akshay Kumar, India’s highest-paid actor—and notoriously, for some, a Canadian national—has made string of patriotic, sometimes jingoistic, films, and interviewed Modi about mangoes and his mother. Others, like director Karan Johar, flanked by today’s A-listers—none of them Muslim—have flown to Delhi for closed-door meetings with Modi.
“Sometimes, they [his children] ask me what religion they belong to,” Khan wrote in his 2013 op-ed. “Like a good Hindi movie hero, I roll my eyes up to the sky and declare philosophically, ‘You are an Indian first and your religion is humanity.'” But unfortunately, many would suggest that today’s India isn’t so optimistic.