I watched the TED talk! It was good. I made notes. But thinking about it later, the most important part was the very first thing he said, “Namaste”.
Here’s the whole thing if you want to see it:
I’m going to start at the end and go back to the beginning. And skip through the middle a little too. When you are writing a paper (or a blog post or a speech or anything), you know that the audience is going to zone out a little in the middle. They will remember the beginning and ending best. So that’s where you put your most important stuff. The reverse of a movie, the audience is coming in late or leaving early, so the biggest stuff is in the middle in that case.
Shahrukh ends with his thesis statement: “Capacity to love is akin to Godliness”. That is his justification for being there. He is world’s most famous lover, he sells love to people. And that makes him a figure of fun, not someone you would expect to give a talk to a bunch of scientists. But what he is saying is that there is a reason people want him to love, want and need love in their life. And that he is not ashamed to have dedicated his life to honoring love, to representing it in the world. That in fact he is proud of it. That is a radical statement, and a worthy one for this forum, to remind people that love is the greatest power and should be placed above everything else.
He builds to that message with some trigger words. He mentions that we should not “build walls” and that faith should not be used to make people afraid. He steers away from explicit politics, but its there, under the surface, if you listen closely. And then he brings it back to a general reminder to love, first of all, and build from that.
The middle of the speech is fascinating, because it is calibrated to work both for the fans back home, and the know-nothings in the audience. There were a couple of moments that he got laughter, and he was okay with that, but he would not have gotten laughter in India, or in front of an audience who knew him better. And a few other moments where people were a little nervous about what he said because they don’t have the background. And a few moments where they didn’t realize what he said was such a big deal, because they don’t know that he doesn’t talk about it.
He mentioned looking at his face before he came on stage, wondering if he could still use it. And it was such a clear reference to those moments in Fan when he looked in the mirror and stretched and tested his face. He must have been thinking of that scene as he said it, but no one else in the room was, which is an odd thing to consider.
He did a little sample of the “Lungi Dance”, which people enjoyed, but they didn’t cheer and whistle the way they did at Yale (of course, that room had plenty of desi undergrads). I like that he put it in, acknowledging what he does and what his work is without embarrassment. But I hope the people watching understood that this is just a part of what he does onscreeen and off, in addition to the catchy songs he also gives brilliant performances, runs a massive corporation, and is slowly taking over VFX in India (RedChilliesVFX worked on everything from Bahubali to Phillauri this year).
He acknowledged two massive personal issues in a joking lighthearted way, and I appreciate that. For this part of the speech, he was talking about his midlife crisis, and the problems of gossip and nastiness of the internet. He could have picked anything from his life to use as an example, these people don’t know what’s a big deal and what isn’t, but he picked two actual huge things, the rumors around AbRam’s birth (being Aryan’s son, not his), and the failure and embarrassment of Ra.One. It was an honest speech, even if the people in the room didn’t necessarily know that.
He did try to work with the audience when discussing his stardom. He talked about meeting Miley Cyrus and Angelina Jolie, names they would recognize, and he put on a good show of having been overcome and being a fan of them. Of course, he also casually mentioned his award from the Morrocco royal family and his Legion de Honor, so they would know he’s not just some hick from India fauning over Hollywood stars. Most interesting, I’m realizing just now, he avoided mentioning his most famous crossover star interaction. Which gets back to that opening word thing.
Back in the very opening section, he told a few personal stories, and the audience didn’t really know what to do with them. They are funny anecdotes, that’s nice. But you need the context, how amazing it is to see where he is versus where he came from. And all the other details we know of his life story from other places. And of course actually caring about him, not just some random stranger who appeared and started speaking.
The most obvious one is when he made a joke about how innocent he was before he came to Bombay, thinking that “gay” was just a fancy English word for “happy”. There was some laughter at that, but it read as slightly nervous laughter to me. Because that could be seen as a joke that implies “gay” only exists in cities, or that we should relate to someone who feels uncomfortable with it. But for a knowing audience, it is a little wink at how silly it is that at one point he didn’t know what “gay” meant, and he has shared his life with a gay man for the past 25 years.
In the same way, he made a comment about finding superstardom by being supported by collaborators, which a knowing audience immediately fills in as a nod to Karan, Farah, etc., bringing his closest friends with him into his talk. But this audience would take as just a general faux-humility thing that actors always say. And he made a comment about how simple it was when we married the 1st girl we fell in love with, which of course we all know is a biographical reference, but the way it was phrased, it’s possible the audience there thought it was a judgement on how it was better when people didn’t date around. Little stuff like that.
The big thing that really bothered me was the reaction to the story of his father’s death. That’s the first time he really went deep. And it’s a story I had heard before. And every other time, I have heard and read it as, well, the story of his father’s death! This is not a funny story, or a happy story. This is a smiling through the tears kind of story. He told it lightly, because he usually speaks lightly, but the audience seemed to react more to the tone of voice than to the content. Or else they were reacting to the content and they find 14 year old boys driving their father’s dead body home funny? I mean, yes, he told it with a punchline, the driver walked away because “the dead don’t tip”, he loaded his father’s body in the back of the car, got behind the wheel, his mother asked him “when did you learn to drive?”, he said “just now.” And he built to the “just now” and paused for response after, like you would with a joke. But, look at that story! Written out like I just wrote it. That’s some crazy human tragedy there. His point was how young he was, how confident, how quickly he adapted. But it’s also the death of his father. And the audience reacted like he was telling the plot of a movie he was in. I know it was probably a difficult situation to read, to figure out the right response, but that really bothered me. It was like they didn’t see him as a real person, just entertainment. It bothers me not because it was SRK, but because it was a person with brown-skin and a “funny” accent. Is that why they laughed? At least a little bit? I think maybe.
He opens by introducing himself. And it is a very finely calculated introduction to who he is. A little joking, that he is the “Best Lover in the World”. But also a comment about how many of them don’t know who he is and “I feel very sad for you”. He is not going to try to explain or apologize if his audience isn’t in this room. That’s your problem, not his. He also doesn’t play the game of “I’m India’s Tom Cruise”. Because, he isn’t. He’s India’s Shahrukh Khan. Himself, and he will tell you a little, but you should do the effort to figure out the rest.
Finally, let’s go back to that very first word-“Namaste”. NOT “Salaam Alaikum”. No “Insh’Allah”s thrown into the speech either. He acknowledges he is Muslim, refers to himself as Muslim at one point. But for a man who has said that “Insh’Allah” is the most common thing to come out of his mouth, it is remarkable that he goes 18 minutes without saying it once. And it is very remarkable that he chose “Namaste” instead of “Salaam”.
I think the bigger reason for “Namaste” was that he felt he was representing India, all of India, on this global platform. And “Namaste” does that. It’s neutral. It works for everyone. But dropping “Insh’Allah”, leaving the whole “Muslim” thing down to one reference, “build a wall” dropped in there like you would hardly notice it, no mention of Hindutva, no mention of how the internet has attacked him more for his religion than anything else, that seems deliberate. I don’t know if it was because of the international forum, or the situation in North America in April, or just that he has gotten worn down by it all, but this was the secular version of Shahrukh. Not the proud loud Muslim version that we have gotten in other situations.
Going back to an earlier point, he mentioned meeting Miley Cyrus and Angelina Jolie. But he didn’t mention the photo that broke the internet, Shahrukh and Zayn Malik. Two powerful popular Muslim men, together. No, that is not an image he wanted to put into people’s minds today.
His message was that we should choose love over all. But he seemed aware that there was not enough “love” in that room and in the world for a Muslim man right now.