ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

Does Salman Khan represent Muslims of India?

Salman Khan’s dance performance in Saifai Mahostsav (organised by the Uttar Pradesh government) and his subsequent meetings with Narendra Modi for the promotion of his recent film have been severely condemned. Khan was called ‘insensitive’ because he participated in a state sponsored function in UP ignoring the plight of the riot victims of Muzzafarnagar; he was also called ‘irresponsible’ because he described Narendra Modi ‘a good man’. These criticisms grew gradually and turned into another heated discussion on ‘communalism/secularism’. Khan’s adherence to his Islamic identity, his professional ethics and his individuality as a citizen of India eventually become points of reference to interpret ‘Modi-Muslim equations’. 

Salman Khan’s response was quite categorical. He refuted these charges and posed an equally valid question: Am I so important?

Although he acknowledged the fact that his comments about any individual might impact a large number of people in the country, he did not respond to the controversial questions concerning his religious belief or political inclinations. Khan evoked the distinctiveness of his identity as a professional actor to justify his performance in Saifai and his meeting with Modi.

Khan’s responses are justifiable. As an actor he does not represent any community; he is free to form his individual political opinion; and above all, the public receptions of his onscreen and off-screen acts, comments and gestures are not entirely in his control. Despite these typical ‘star-like’ replies, Khan raised a very serious issue of representation. He, it seems, is fully aware of the significance of his ‘presence’ as a popular film star, and precisely for that reason, he believes that his comments do make a difference. If we rely on this serious self-affirmation, an obvious question emerges: is it appropriate to interpret Salman Khan’s public presence as an actor strictly in ‘Muslim’ terms?  

The ‘public presence’ of a Hindi film star, very broadly speaking, is contingent upon two aspects: (a) the kind of roles he/she plays in films and (b) the manner in which he/she promotes a few selective ‘cinematic characters’ in real life. Thus, the clothes, mannerism, style, and even a few dialogues come out of the films and contribute to the making of an image of a star. Khan’s carefree attitude, his choice of clothes and his popular dialogues (for instance, Ek baar jo maine commitment kar di, fir main apne aap ki bhi nahi sunta) constitute his public presence, which cannot be reduced to Muslim-ness of any kind.

However, there is another aspect of Salman Khan’s status as a public figure. He, like almost all the successful film stars, has been subject to many gossips that include highly personal issues such as relationship, marriage, rivalries, breakups, and even celebration of various religious festivals. Therefore, his identity as a public figure is often scrutinised not entirely on the basis of what he does in films; rather, what he actually does outside films. This aspect links Khan’s ‘public presence’ to other relevant issues of public importance -- Muzzafarnagar riots and insensitivity of UP government and/or the rise of Modi as Prime Ministerial candidate of BJP and his quite apparent opposition to the rights of religious minorities.  

Salman Khan’s self-depiction as a professional actor of course does not make him a representative of Muslims; but as a creative person, as a philanthropist (he also runs a charitable foundation called ‘Being Human’), and as a public figure, he may be asked to, at least, share his views on those issues of political significance, which affect all of us, including Muslims. After all, it is a question of public “commitment”.

About Author

Hilal Ahmed (ahmed.hilal@gmail.com) ​ is Associate Fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing societies, New Delhi. He is the author of Monuments, Memory and Contestation: Muslim Political Discourse in Postcolonial India (Routledge/Forthcoming). Ahmed writes on popular Islam and Muslim politics. He is working on his second book project, Politics of Muslim Political Representation.     
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