In deeply polarised India, Shah Rukh Khan’s box-office hit stirs debate on religion in politics

A monologue, which occurs in the film’s climax, has sparked discussion at a time when India is politically charged ahead of a general election due by May 2024.

Nirmala Ganapathy

Nirmala Ganapathy

The Straits Times


Fans wearing Shah Rukh Khan masks to celebrate the release of the Bollywood star's his new film Jawan in Kolkata, India, on Sept 7. PHOTO: EPA-EFE/THE STRAITS TIMES

September 18, 2023

NEW DELHI – Bollywood megastar Shah Rukh Khan has not only set the Indian box office on fire with his latest film Jawan, but is also generating buzz for a monologue in which his character urges people to avoid voting along religious lines.

The monologue, which occurs in the film’s climax, has sparked discussion at a time when India is politically charged ahead of a general election due by May 2024.

Jawan, which premiered on Sept 7, has earned more than 6.8 billion rupees (S$111.5 million) in eight days worldwide. Directed by Tamil director Atlee, who is known for strong political messaging in his movies, Jawan (“soldier” in English) features a father and son taking on corruption in society. It also explores various social problems, including the issue of farmer distress and poor medical facilities, loosely referencing the death of 63 children due to an oxygen shortage in 2017 at a hospital in the northern-central state of Uttar Pradesh.

Khan, 57, who has found himself at odds with Hindu nationalist groups in the past, plays multiple roles in the “masala movie” – a film that combines different genres.

In the monologue, his character calls on the audience to not be guided by religion and caste when they vote for their political representatives.

While Khan avoided the usual press interviews for the film, he has responded to the viral monologue on X, formerly known as Twitter.

“Everyone should exercise their right to vote intelligently and responsibly,” Khan tweeted in response to a fan’s appreciation post.

Analysts told The Straits Times that Khan’s monologue has made waves given that a general election is on the horizon.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), will be seeking a third term. His key opposition is an alliance of 28 parties called India, or the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, which includes the Indian National Congress, the main opposition party.

“If it had been said in a non-election year, or in less deeply polarised times, it would have gone down as another innocuous piece of advice,” said political analyst Sandeep Shastri.

“When (this monologue) is done in a particularly polarised political atmosphere, it creates the response.”

India is a country of 1.4 billion people, of which 79.8 per cent are Hindus and 14.2 per cent Muslim, as per the 2011 Census, the latest available data. It has for some time seen deepening religious polarisation.

An upsurge in Hindu nationalism, including opposition against inter-religious marriages, has alarmed the country’s Muslim population, among other groups.

In recent years, there have been growing calls by religious right-wing fringe groups, emboldened by the BJP being in power, to declare India a Hindu nation, though Home Minister Amit Shah said in 2019 that the party does not see India as a Hindu nation.

The BJP, which gets it core support from its Hindu voter base, has said it respects all religions.

But this deepening polarisation has manifested in violence.

Five people were killed after Hindus and Muslims clashed during a religious procession by Hindu nationalist groups Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad in the Muslim-dominated Nuh district of the northern state of Haryana on July 31. The violence spread to neighbouring Gurugram, where a junior imam was killed in a mob attack and Muslim businesses were targeted.

Given such polarisation, Ms Neera Chandhioke, a fellow at the Centre for Equity Studies in capital city New Delhi, welcomed the message of not voting along religious lines from a superstar.

“We have to distinguish between religion and the politicisation of religion. I should think that voters should be wary of politics masquerading as religion. In a way, religion should not be part of the public discourse when you are in a multi-religious society,” she said.

“Shah Rukh Khan’s warning in that movie – and we should learn to read between the lines – is that he is making it clear that when politics masquerades as religion, it is dangerous.”

The advice to vote responsibly has attracted a lot of attention as it comes from the actor, even if it is through a character in a film.

Back in 2015, Khan, known as Baadshah or the King of Bollywood, had to backtrack on his comment about growing intolerance in India, after screenings of his film Dilwale were disrupted by right-wing activists in several cities.

He maintained his comments were taken out of context, and jokingly said at the time that he would remain silent on all political and social issues. He has since not spoken out on any issue, not even when his son Aryan, then 23, was arrested on a drug charge, which was eventually dropped for lack of evidence.

Khan, who is a Muslim while his wife Gauri Khan is Hindu, visits both mosques and temples. In January 2023, he delivered another massive hit with spy thriller Pathan despite boycott calls from right-wing groups. The groups insisted that an orange bikini worn in the film by actress Deepika Padukone was an insult to the colour saffron, considered holy by Hindus.

Author and columnist Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay said there was a strong desire for icons like Mr Khan to speak out on hot-button topics.

“Shah Rukh Khan is an icon and a star. A large number of people believe they should pay back the love (from fans) and take up issues,” said Mr Mukhopadhyay.

Still, religion is just one among many issues at play in an Indian election.

The popularity of Mr Modi, nationalism, patriotism, caste considerations and issues like inflation, which the opposition alliance has been highlighting, are all expected to be hot topics in the upcoming elections.

“I think these elections will see multiple strands of issues coming up, including religion, which has always been there,” said Dr Shastri.

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