I am a Khan. The name itself conjures multiple images in my mind too: a strapping man riding a horse, his reckless hair flowing from beneath a turban tied firm around his head. His ruggedly handsome face marked by weathered lines and a distinctly large nose.
A stereotyped extremist; no dance, no drink, no cigarette tipping off his lips, no monogamy, no blasphemy; a fair, silent face beguiling a violent fury smouldering within. A streak that could even make him blow himself up in his God’s name.
Then there is the image of me being shoved into a backroom of a vast American airport named after an American president (another parallel image: of the president being assassinated by a man named Lee, not a Muslim thankfully, nor Chinese as some might imagine! I urgently shove the image of the room out of my head).
Some stripping, frisking and many questions later, I am given an explanation (of sorts): “Your name pops up on our system, we are sorry”. “So am I,” I think to myself, “Now can I have my underwear back please?”
Then, there is the image I most see, the one of me in my own country: being acclaimed as a megastar, adored and glorified, my fans mobbing me with love and apparent adulation.
I am a Khan.
I could say I fit into each of these images: I could be a strapping six feet something—ok something minus, about three inches at least, though I don’t know much about horse-riding. A horse once galloped off with me flapping helplessly on it and I have had a “no horse-riding” clause embedded in my contracts ever since.
I am extremely muscular between my ears, I am often told by my kids, and I used to be fair too, but now I have a perpetual tan or, as I like to call it, an ‘olive hue’—though deep in the recesses of my armpits I can still find the remains of a fairer day. I am handsome under the right kind of light and I really do have a “distinctly large” nose. It announces my arrival in fact, peeking through the doorway just before I make my megastar entrance. But my nose notwithstanding, my name means nothing to me unless I contextualise it.
Stereotyping and contextualising is the way of the world we live in: a world in which definition has become central to security. We take comfort in defining phenomena, objects and people—with a limited amount of knowledge and along known parameters. The predictability that naturally arises from these definitions makes us feel secure within our own limitations.
We create little image boxes of our own. One such box has begun to draw its lid tighter and tighter at present. It is the box that contains an image of my religion in millions of minds.
I encounter this tightening of definition every time moderation is required to be publicly expressed by the Muslim community in my country. Whenever there is an act of violence in the name of Islam, I am called upon to air my views on it and dispel the notion that by virtue of being a Muslim, I condone such senseless brutality. I am one of the voices chosen to represent my community in order to prevent other communities from reacting to all of us as if we were somehow colluding with or responsible for the crimes committed in the name of a religion that we experience entirely differently from the perpetrators of these crimes.
I sometimes become the inadvertent object of political leaders who choose to make me a symbol of all that they think is wrong and unpatriotic about Muslims in India. There have been occasions when I have been accused of bearing allegiance to our neighbouring nation rather than my own country—this even though I am an Indian whose father fought for the freedom of India. Rallies have been held where leaders have exhorted me to leave my home and return to what they refer to as my “original homeland”.
Of course, I politely decline each time, citing such pressing reasons as sanitation works at my house preventing me from taking the good shower that’s needed before undertaking such an extensive journey. I don’t know how long this excuse will hold though.
I gave my son and daughter names that could pass for generic (pan-Indian and pan-religious) ones: Aryan and Suhana. The Khan has been bequeathed by me so they can’t really escape it. I pronounce it from my epiglottis when asked by Muslims and throw the Aryan as evidence of their race when non-Muslims enquire. I imagine this will prevent my offspring from receiving unwarranted eviction orders and random fatwas in the future. It will also keep my two children completely confused. Sometimes, they ask me what religion they belong to and, 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”, or sing them an old Hindi film ditty, “Tu Hindu banega na Musalmaan banega—insaan ki aulaad hai insaan banega” set to Gangnam Style.
None of this informs them with any clarity, it just confounds them some more and makes them deeply wary of their father.
In the land of the freed, where I have been invited on several occasions to be honoured, I have bumped into ideas that put me in a particular context. I have had my fair share of airport delays for instance.
I became so sick of being mistaken for some crazed terrorist who coincidentally carries the same last name as mine that I made a film, subtly titled ‘My name is Khan (and I am not a terrorist)’ to prove a point. Ironically, I was interrogated at the airport for hours about my last name when I was going to present the film in America for the first time.
I wonder, at times, whether the same treatment is given to everyone whose last name just happens to be McVeigh (as in infamous Oklahoma city bomber Timothy McVeigh)?
I don’t intend to hurt any sentiments, but truth be told, the aggressor and taker of life follows his or her own mind. It has nothing to do with a name, a place or his/her religion. It is a mind that has its own discipline, its own distinction of right from wrong and its own set of ideologies. In fact, one might say it has its own “religion”. This religion has nothing to do with the ones that have existed for centuries and been taught in mosques or churches. The call of the azaan or the words of the Pope have no bearing on this person’s soul. His soul is driven by the devil. I, for one, refuse to be contextualised by the ignorance of his ilk.
I am a Khan.
I am neither six-feet-tall nor particularly handsome (I am modest though) nor am I a Muslim who looks down on other religions. I have been taught my religion by my six-foot-tall, handsome Pathan ‘Papa’ from Peshawar, where his proud family and mine still resides. He was a member of the non-violent Pathan movement called Khudai Khidmatgaar and a follower of both Gandhiji and Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, who was also known as the Frontier Gandhi.
My first learning of Islam from him was to respect women and children and to uphold the dignity of every human being. I learnt that the property and decency of others, their points of view, their beliefs, their philosophies and their religions were due as much respect as my own and ought to be accepted with an open mind. I learnt to believe in the power and benevolence of Allah, and to be gentle and kind to my fellow human beings, to give of myself to those less privileged than me and to live a life full of happiness, joy, laughter and fun without impinging on anybody else’s freedom to live in the same way.
I have felt the love of millions of Indians for the last 20 years regardless of the fact that my community is a minority within the population of India. I have been showered with love across national and cultural boundaries, from Suriname to Japan and Saudi Arabia to Germany, places where they don’t even understand my language. They appreciate what I do for them as an entertainer—that’s all. My life has led me to understand and imbibe that love is a pure exchange, untempered by definition and unfettered by the narrowness of limiting ideas. If each one of us allowed ourselves the freedom to accept and return love in its purity, we would need no image boxes to hold up the walls of our security.
I believe that I have been blessed with the opportunity to experience the magnitude of such a love, but I also know that ultimately its scale is irrelevant. In our own small ways, simply as human beings, we can appreciate each other for how we touch our lives and not how our different religions or last names define us.
Beneath the guise of my superstardom, I am an ordinary man. My Islamic stock does not conflict with that of my Hindu wife’s. The only disagreements I have with Gauri concern the colour of the walls in our living room and not about the locations of the walls demarcating temples from mosques in India.
We have a daughter who pirouettes in a leotard and choreographs her own ballets. She sings western songs that confound my sensibilities and aspires to be an actress. She also insists on covering her head when in a Muslim nation that practises this really beautiful and much misunderstood tenet of Islam.
Our son’s linear features proclaim his Pathan pedigree although he carries his own, rather gentle mutation of the warrior gene. He spends all day either pushing people aside at rugby, kicking some butt at Tae Kwon Do or eliminating unknown faces behind anonymous online gaming handles around the world with The Call of Duty video game. And yet, he firmly admonishes me for getting into a minor scuffle at the cricket stadium in Mumbai last year because some bigot made unsavoury remarks about me being a Khan.
The four of us make up a motley representation of the extraordinary acceptance and validation that love can foster when exchanged within the exquisiteness of things that are otherwise defined as ordinary.
For I believe, our religion is an extremely personal choice, not a public proclamation of who we are. It’s as personal as the spectacles of my father who passed away some 20 years ago. Spectacles that I hold onto as my most prized and personal possession of his memories, teachings and of being a proud Pathan. I have never compared those with my friends, who have similar possessions of their parents or grandparents. I have never said my father’s spectacles are better than your mother’s saree. So why should we have this comparison in the matter of religion, which is as personal and prized a belief as the memories of your elders. Why should not the love we share be the last word in defining us instead of the last name? It doesn’t take a superstar to be able to give love, it just takes a heart and as far as I know, there isn’t a force on this earth that can deprive anyone of theirs.
I am a Khan, and that’s what it has meant being one, despite the stereotype images that surround me. To be a Khan has been to be loved and to have loved back—that and the promise that virgins wait for me somewhere on the other side.
The above article in the Indian weekly Outlook led to immense controversy in India and Shahrukh Khan himself had to issue the following statement to the media over his controversial article which he had written in Outlook magazine.
According to me, all our lives we are defined by three identities.
Two of which are fortunately acquired by birth and are a matter of unconditional love and acceptance.
The first identity is acquired by where one is born. Our Motherland. That defines us. So foremost all of us here like me are proud Indians.
Second the family name and upbringing that our parents give us. Mine is Khan, like some of us here. I am very proud of my parents, like all of us are here. I love them unconditionally.
The third is the profession we choose that defines us. By some quirk of fate I am a celebrity… a public figure in the fields of art and media. Like most of us are here today.
As I said being an Indian and my parents’ child is an unconditional accepted truth of my life and I am very proud of both.
The third… being a public figure makes me open to any kind of questioning, adjectives good and bad and or sometimes makes me an object of controversy as people use my name and statements to attach any positive or negative sentiment to it. I accept all the above because this is the life I chose and will stand by it. I am what I am, because of the love and admiration that comes with being who I am in my profession… so I thank everyone for making me the star I am.
Now to address this whole issue, with regards to my Article, that has taken an unwarranted twist. I do not even understand the basis of this controversy.
Ironically the article I wrote (yes its written by me) was actually meant to reiterate that on some occasions my being an Indian Muslim film star is misused by bigots and narrow minded people who have misplaced religious ideologies for small gains…. and ironically the same has happened through this article… once again.
The reason for this primarily is…. I think some of the people have not even read it and are reacting to comments of people, who in turn have also not read it. So I implore you all to first read it.
Second if you read it, nowhere does the article state or imply directly or indirectly that I feel unsafe…. troubled or disturbed in India.
It does not even vaguely say that I am ungrateful for the love that I have received in a career spanning 20 years. On the contrary the article only says that in spite of bigoted thoughts of some of the people that surround us…. I am untouched by skepticism because of the love I have received by my countrymen and women.
I will paraphrase the beginning and the end of the article to clarify and substantiate my stand.
“Then, there is the image I most see, the one of me in my own country: being acclaimed as a megastar, adored and glorified, my fans mobbing me with love and apparent adulation.
So I am a Khan, but no stereotyped image is factored into my idea of who I am. Instead, the living of my life has enabled me to be deeply touched by the love of millions of Indians. I have felt this love for the last 20 years regardless of the fact that my community is a minority within the population of India. I have been showered with love across national and cultural boundaries, they appreciate what I do for them as an entertainer – that’s all. My life has led me to understand and imbibe that love is a pure exchange, untempered by definition and unfettered by the narrowness of limiting ideas.
Sometimes, they ask me what religion they belong to and, 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”, or sing them an old Hindi film ditty, “tu hindu banega na musalmaan banega – insaan ki aulaad hai insaan banega” set to Gangnam style.
Why should not the love we share be the last word in defining us instead of the last name? It doesn’t take a superstar to be able to give love, it just takes a heart and as far as i know, there isn’t a force on this earth that can deprive anyone of theirs.
I am a Khan, and that’s what it has meant being one, despite the stereotype images that surround me. To be a Khan has been to be loved and love back….”
Please I implore everyone here to read the article and convey through your respective mediums of communications, all the good things that it expresses to youngsters and my fellow Indians. It is a heartfelt and extremely important aspect of my life, an appreciation of love that all of you have bestowed upon me and also a point of view from my being a father of two young children
I would like to tell all those who are offering me unsolicited advice that we in India are extremely safe and happy. We have an amazing democratic, free and secular way of life. In the environs that we live here in my country India, we have no safety issues regarding life or material. As a matter of fact it is irksome for me to clarify this non-existent issue. With respect I would like to say to anyone who is interpreting my views and offering advice regarding them, please read what I have written first.
Also some of the views that I have been made to read are just an extension of soft targeting celebs and creating an atmosphere of emotional outbursts and divisiveness based on religion…in the minds of some. I implore everyone to understand, that my article is against exactly this kind of giving in to propaganda and aggressiveness. Lets not be misled by tools which use religion as an anchor for unrest and a policy of divide and rule.
I would also like to add here, that my profession as an actor makes me, liked beyond the borders of my nation and culture. The hugs and love that I am showered upon by Nationalities all around the world, make me safe all over the globe, and my safety has genuinely never been a matter of concern to me… and so it should not be a matter of concern to anyone else either.
We are all educated and patriotic people. We do not have to prove that time and again because of divisive politics of a few.
My own family and friends, are like a mini India…where all religions, professions and a few wrongs included, all are treated with tolerance and understanding and regard for each other. I only sell love…love that I have got from millions of Indians and non Indians….and stand indebted to my audience in my country and around the world. It is sad that I have to say it to prove it, in my country, which my father fought for, during the Independence struggle.
That’s my piece and having said all this…I would like to request all of you present here….that henceforth ask me questions regarding….my next movie. The songs that I have recorded. The release date of my film. The heroines cast in it. The Toiffa awards in Vancouver, because I am an actor and maybe I should just stick to stuff that all of you expect me to have a viewpoint on. The rest of it…maybe I don’t have the right kind of media atmosphere to comment on. So I will refrain from it.
And please if you can…put all I have said on your channels, or mediums of communication, in the exact same light as I have said it and meant it in. 24 hrs of unrequired controversy is more than enough for all of us I assume. So do not sensationalize and hence trivialize matters of national interest and religion any further and drag a movie actor in the middle of it all…and let me get back to doing what I do best…. making movies.