SRK in ‘Jawan’ is not just another ‘secular champion of politics’

Shah Rukh Khan’s recent return in roles challenging traditional Hindutva principles has generated mixed reactions. Some applaud his subtle defiance, while others see his alignment with the status quo as hypocritical, forcing him into the role of a “model Muslim”. Some criticise him for perceived inconsistency in critiquing the system, but I have a different perspective.

While it’s okay to have expectations of celebrities, we should shift our focus away from seeking validation for Shah Rukh’s silent rebellion or trying to debunk its authenticity with facts. Indian cinema has witnessed numerous political interventions that go beyond mere rhetoric, giving rise to counter-hegemonic cinema. SRK does not fall into that.

As an outsider, he resonates with a diverse audience, defying the superficial image often associated with celebrities. He certainly isn’t immune to the ideological forces that mould the capitalist class he now belongs to, yet he oddly retains an “extimate” position. His appeal is fundamentally grounded in his capacity to charm a broad spectrum of individuals through his hard work, acting prowess and humility.

SRK contributes to films even when the scripts themselves don’t contribute significantly to political discourse. His charisma imparts an ineffable quality to otherwise ordinary narratives. He appears to have not succumbed to diplomatic pressures, further enhancing his appeal as a reluctant critic of the conventional power dynamics in politics.

He curiously embodies a coexistence of religious and cultural specificities, acknowledging their vulnerabilities and rejecting any attempts at totalising these differences. He appears as a progressive advocate against communal polarisation while demonstrating a profound understanding of the market’s concept of success and also wielding significant influence.

His strength lies in his unapologetic embrace of this paradox. This challenges the ideals of social unity, universal harmony, and the elusive concept of a “perfect hero” or “saviour” in a society fractured by caste and communal divisions. This hero is flawed, grappling with desires that conflict with their social duties. This hero may find himself entangled in the dynamics of the political order, at times complying with it and at other times challenging it.

In this struggle, he embodies the complex intricacies of society’s conflicts. Shahrukh Khan is not an ideal figure whose personal journey within Bollywood can or should be elevated to a universal symbol of people yearning for justice. He is not a surrogate for political action. Instead of acting as judges of an individual’s singular political intent and fate, our attention should be directed toward this ongoing struggle that shapes our political subjectivities and perpetuates complicity in its structural inequalities, including caste and gender-based violence and communal tensions.

In a nation where the media is constrained, during an era marked by profound cinematic conservatism, and in a time of heightened political repression where even the slightest expression of political dissent and protest seems to be met with persecution, SRK’s widespread popularity managed to break through the confines of censored cinema. This occurred before the government could fully comprehend the situation, leading them to identify him as an adversary-turned-collaborator with all parties including the BJP wanting to co-opt the narrative of anti-corruption.

The anti-corruption narrative’s political fragility is clear as it is easily manipulated. The kindness of the impoverished often hinges on their ongoing poverty, reliant on political parties and the elite for assistance against “human greed”. Despite its weakness, the film still invites viewers to actively interpret and politicise reality through its capacious universalism. “Is SRK critiquing the ruling regime subtly?” or “was Jawan a clever jab at his detractors?” Understanding SRK’s work becomes the audience’s responsibility.

This act of interpretation is more politically influential than we might immediately realise, and as Shahrukh candidly acknowledges, the credit for it goes to the audience themselves, who become the true emperor-arbiters. This represents a bold aspect of SRK’s cinema — an enigmatic invitation to explore the political conflicts that shape everyday relationships.

SRK’s success in responding to the ruling regime’s attempts to divide the country’s opinion on him may not serve an immediate political purpose, but it instills a public confidence: The ability to laugh in the face of tyranny. He rekindles the audience’s ability to satirise the regime.

He is evidence that a “star” can transcend religious polarisation by offering timeless and extravagant masala-style cinema. SRK’s triumph lies in his enduring embrace of this “massy genre,” despite its loss of innocence.

Unfortunately, this often gets lost in the desire to crown him as the king of Bollywood due to his “subversions.” While he can easily be seen as a champion of multicultural openness, embodying a “counter-public” and serving as a hero of the people, this political interpretation of his popularity and influence can be counterproductive for politics.

Unintentionally, it sustains populism by creating an ambivalent “mass” alongside the dominant one, perpetuating conflicts of ideas and ethics within cultural dominance. We should focus on examining the reality without relying solely on a “change of heart” as the ultimate political sacrifice and instead advocate for systemic change.

At the risk of fostering vigilantism, SRK’s popularity has the potential to reject being just another “secular champion of politics” who participates in confession-based, morally-driven politics that allow for candid admissions of structural complicity. SRK’s popularity disrupts the established order, challenging the victimisation of minorities with remarkable confidence, openness, and widespread acclaim across India. He reigns as the king of hearts.

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His compromised political messaging paradoxically enables a more radical reading to emerge against the grain through public enjoyment. Today, he appears as a god-like curator of political reality, effortlessly translating people’s power onto the screen on their behalf. In an era of disillusioned politics, SRK emerges as a figure who kindles hope and shapes the very essence of cinema. The core of cinema lies in its ability to unveil the unexpected, prompting a fresh perspective that exposes the intricacies of political influence.

Reading into SRK’s political stance by scrutinising the “silences” that only the “attentive” observers of politics and culture can discern offers us nothing. Only SRK can unveil the “true intentions” of his film, yet, there is nothing substantial to unveil through such an explanation. The revelations about reality actually emerge from people being permitted to fantasise, speculate, and infuse meaning into his cinema and its messages — thus imbuing the empty essence of cinema with political substance.

The writer is PhD candidate, Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Theory, JNU

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