An Indian court just granted Aryan Khan, the son of Bollywood’s biggest superstar Shah Rukh Khan, bail, almost four weeks after he was arrested during a drug bust on a celebrity rave.
He was denied bail twice and kept in an overcrowded jail known for holding convicted mass murderers, despite opposition politicians arguing that the detainment and arrest by the drug authority, under the control of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, was “undemocratic and illegal.”
Now, critics claim that the harsh treatment afforded to Aryan Khan was meant to send his megastar father and all minorities in India a reminder about who has the real power in the country: not Bollywood, but Modi’s government.
They believe the 23-year-old’s troubles can be traced back to a 2015 televised interview Shah Rukh Khan gave. In it, the Bollywood megastar, with 3.5 billion fans across the globe, expressed his anguish over growing religious intolerance in India. “There is nothing more important than religious tolerance,” Khan, a Muslim, had said.
This was a year after Narendra Modi won a historic election, became prime minister, and brought a mandate of Hindu nationalism to the forefront of governing the country with a 14 percent Muslim population.
Five years on, Aryan Khan was denied bail multiple times even after his lawyers pointed out why he was legally entitled to it. His family hired Mukul Rohatgi, a former attorney general, to plead his case. He told the Bombay high court that no drugs were found on Khan during the raid, and the authorities had failed to test him for drug consumption. The accusation that Khan was involved in an “international drug conspiracy” came long after his arrest.
Rohatgi said the case was a minor offence and, going by previous Supreme Court judgements, his client should have been allowed to post bail without delay.
“The kind of messaging that goes when the child of the country’s biggest Muslim superstar is being held for flimsy reasons is clear: if he doesn’t stand a chance, how can anyone?”
In a petition to the Supreme Court, politician Kishore Tiwari pointed out that the drug officer who led the arrest and probe into Aryan Khan was on a vendetta to challenge Bollywood power. The officer was recently probed over allegations of accepting millions of dollars’ worth of bribes to push for this case.
“The kind of messaging that goes when the child of the country’s biggest Muslim superstar is being held for flimsy reasons is clear: if he doesn’t stand a chance, how can anyone?” Ankur Pathak, a film critic and journalist said.
Film critic Sucharita Tyagi said that the whole Aryan Khan fiasco reads like a bad episode of a televised crime series. “Over the years, Shah Rukh Khan has become silent. But the message seems to be: fall in line or we will get you,” Tyagi told VICE World News.
“Bollywood is not the same as it was ten years ago when stars would express their discontent openly. Even the average Instagram influencer is now scared to express their opinions about the government. In Shah Rukh’s case, it just happens to be that he is the biggest superstar of the country, but also its biggest Muslim superstar,” Tyagi said.
Beyond Bollywood, the suppression of speech and self censorship of Muslim Indians is evident.
On Thursday, well-known Muslim comedian Munawar Faruqui cancelled his show tour for the second time after recieving death threats and being called “anti-Hindu.” This week, a Muslim teacher and three Kashmiri students were arrested for “celebrating” Pakistan’s historic win against India in a cricket match – the two countries are archrivals and used to be a single country, but were divided into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan in 1947.
Politicians have increasingly challenged influential Muslim actors, often for not toeing the line of Hindutva ideology.
Bollywood and its Muslim stars used to have herculean influence and power in a country that produces the highest number of films globally every year. But things are changing, and Aryan Khan’s arrest is just one example.
Other Muslim megastars have also faced undue pressure from Modi’s government. His politicians have increasingly challenged influential Muslim actors, often for not toeing the line of Hindutva ideology.
Aamir Khan – part of the so-called Khan trinity of (unrelated) superstars with Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan – recently drew flak over an ad encouraging people to stop bursting firecrackers in the upcoming Diwali festivities. A legislator from the ruling party accused him of “creating unrest” among Hindus.
Earlier this year, ministers and legislators alike accused Tandav, an Amazon Prime Video series, of being “anti-Hindu.” Police complaints were registered against the series’ Muslim lead actor Saif Ali Khan and its Muslim director Ali Abbas Zafar.
Meanwhile, unprovoked attacks on Muslims by Hindu mobs in India are rising but they rarely evoke comment or condemnation from Modi’s government.
No one seems to know how to respond to what’s looking increasingly like a singling-out of Muslim personalities. Following Aryan Khan’s arrest, Saif Ali Khan’s daughter, also an actor, tweeted a birthday greeting to a controversial, ultra Hindu nationalist home minister and got trolled for it.
Bollywood’s relationship with its Muslim superstars has evolved over the past decades.
After India’s partition in 1947, many Muslim actors from Pakistan moved to Bombay to find work, and they had to take on Hindu names just so they could be accepted in the new India. Pakistan-born Yusuf Khan became Dilip Kumar, and India’s Mumtaz Jehan became Madhubala. Bollywood blockbuster films in the early 1960s and late ‘70s such as Umrao Jaan and Pakeezah even had heavy Urdu usage, now practically absent from current films.
“When the Hindi film industry started out, it was always multicultural,” says Aarti Singh, who holds a doctorate in film and gender studies from Panjab University. “It was central to forming India’s national myth. With all the song and dance, Bollywood’s ability to weave social issues with entertainment was unmatched. Bollywood has always expressed the pluralism of India. This makes it the soft target of authoritarian governments.”
The way Singh sees it, much of Modi’s attacks on Muslim superstars’ influence in Bollywood comes from the fact that he does not view India as a composite culture.
“Bollywood has always been the kind of space where the traditional hierarchies of religion collapse.”
Only a few years back, in the entourage of Bollywood celebrities that flew to the capital New Delhi in a private jet to meet Modi, both Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan were seen taking enthusiastic selfies with the prime minister. The interaction, organised by film producer Mahaveer Jain, marked a turning point in the way content was created in Bollywood. Jain subsequently went on to bankroll a slew of films with nationalistic fervour. Even filmmaker and producer Karan Johar, also part of the said entourage, moved away from making films on queer love like Bombay Talkies, and on Islamophobia like My Name is Khan, which starred Shah Rukh Khan, to now producing “patriotic” films such as Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl and most recently Shershaah.
“And then there is the fact that Modi’s ideologue, the Sangh Parivar [umbrella group of Hindu nationalist organisations], also detests inter-faith marriages,” Singh adds. “Shah Rukh is married to a Hindu woman, and the ex-wives of Aamir Khan were also Hindus, so is Salman Khan’s mother.”
Almost all the states governed by the Hindu nationalist ruling party have enacted stringent laws against inter-religious marriages on the basis of a conspiracy theory that Muslim men are out to seduce Hindu women and eventually convert them.
But inter-faith marriage and Muslim superstars representing India’s plurality are not the only ones under threat.
The way Ankur Pathak, the film critic and journalist, sees it, in the popular imagination, the role of Bollywood and the Khans have always been integral in holding together a secular idea of India – something the Sangh Parivar sees as a threat.
“Bollywood has always been the kind of space where the traditional hierarchies of religion collapse and everyone works together with a singular agenda to create mass entertainment,” Pathak told VICE World News.
The larger idea behind the targeted attacks, Pathak believes, is much more onerous. “The outpouring of hate against Aamir is not accidental and not simply from the fact that he made an ad about Diwali firecrackers. It’s systematic. The fringe is the mainstream.”
Although he walks free for now, Aryan Khan is not off the hook – the drug cases against him will proceed to trial, and his prolonged detention showed that not even having a superstar for a father could protect him from the higher power holding sway over India.
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