Tomorrow is the start of Shahrukh’s birthday month, which means you will have to suffer through 30 Days o’ SRK on this website. But before we get into that, I want to try to explain why he means so much to some of us, why a good half of my blog audience is reacting to the news of 30 Days o’ SRK with silent cheers. At least, what I think it is.
At the Dream Team concert, when it opened with Alia Bhatt descending from the ceiling on a floating ball, my sister started to cry. And I knew exactly why, because the same thing had happened to me at the SLAM tour. It’s because she flew all the way over the seas to come here to us, to bring us joy.
It’s not easy being an NRI. I’m not saying it’s worse than staying in India, I’m just saying there are another set of individual problems with it. You are a stranger in a strange land, and then you go home and find you don’t belong there either. No one seems to really love you or accept you any more, not your home country or your new country.
Hate crimes against desis are a thing in every Western country. It gets better sometimes, and then it gets worse again. Australia, the US, England, Canada, they all have horrific stories of people being attacked. And that’s just the stories that make the news. There are also the dozens of daily insults, the people who mispronounce your name, assume you are a different religion than you are in reality, look at you with suspicion, avoid sitting next to you on the bus, loudly complain about “immigrants” without making eye contact.
But of course if you go back to India, you don’t quite belong there either. Not any more. It’s fine for a visit, but you find yourself feeling not quite at home after a few weeks, notice that people notice you, know you are from overseas. Overcharge you, ask you for favors, not want to listen to any of your complaints about your life. And make you feel guilty for complaining because it’s true, you are lucky to be living overseas in many ways.
There doesn’t seem to be any person place or thing that will accept you just as you are, Indian and something else too.
Enter Shahrukh! I don’t think Shahrukh necessarily knew all of this when he first ran into the NRI audience. He was doing the occasional show overseas in the 90s, and then of course he was cast in DDLJ which is one of the great NRI films. It wasn’t an overnight thing for him to realize what he meant to the NRIs. But as the box office kept growing and growing for his films overseas, and the crowd kept cheering for him and loving him at concerts, somehow he just kind of fell into being “our” star. More than anyone else, he is the Indian star that has reached his hands across the ocean and embraced those who don’t have anyone else.
(Notice how he doesn’t just greet the crowd, he goes all the way around the fence to make sure everyone gets a chance)
And so when Shahrukh goes overseas for a concert, it’s not just about the cash grab for him, or the spoiled NRIs with loads of disposable income enjoying something those back home can’t have. Sure, there’s that, but it’s also about the person who lives in a small town and hasn’t been back to India in 5 years, who is surrounded by people who don’t look like him and make fun of his accent and his food and his skin color, driving his family for 6 hours to get to a place where he belongs, where there is the biggest star in India standing there saying “I love you and I am here for you.”
There are a few places in overseas where an NRI can feel fully at home. Temples, ethnic associations, India Day parades. But the concerts and the movies in general are something a little different, a little special. There’s no real barrier to entry for them. You don’t have to prove that you are religious enough, and the right kind of religious. Or that you can still speak your home language fluently. Or that you haven’t married a white person, your kids aren’t too Westernized, none of that matters. It’s a very “you belong because you are here” kind of feeling. All are welcome, all the lonely lost souls of the NRI world can come together and enjoy. It’s truly an “NRI” experience, not a Hindu experience or Sikh or Telugu or Gujurati or any of those other differences that, overseas, are so less meaningful than what brings you together-a shared homesickness and a shared oppression.
So, maybe it started with Shahrukh just making these kinds of films, and doing these kinds of concerts, and not really thinking about it. And then noticing that he is making a lot of money off of these things and getting a lot of new fans, and so he keeps doing them more and more. But at some point, I think, he started to get a sense of responsibility, an awareness of exactly why he was so needed by this community.
Which brings me to My Name is Khan. Which made more money overseas than at home. It’s easy to look at it and say “sure, the NRIs love it, an SRKajol movie from Karan Johar”. And maybe in some places, yes. I’ve certainly seen fanvids and read comments that have it as just another SRKajol romance.
But in America, it’s not really fiction. Sure, some of it is, there are some moments that aren’t quite right. But the over all details, that is what really happens. Little boys are killed for having brown skin (not often, but it happens). Businesses are vandalized, people are beaten up, wrongfully arrested and never released. And they respond with love. The Islamic Relief USA is an organization that sends volunteers to hurricanes and other natural disasters. This is all real. It’s not melodramatic or an exaggeration. It’s just something that no one else is reporting, that feels fake because we (and by “we” I mean general western society and Indians back home) don’t hear about it. But it’s real to the people living it every day.
(weeks before I was planning to give a talk on how this is all just a metaphor and an exaggeration of the immigrant experience, the massacre at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin happened. So no, not a metaphor or an exaggeration)
My Name is Khan was a huge risk, to make a film questioning the happy view of overseas life. And to play a Muslim for only the second time ever in a major release. And to play a Muslim married to a Hindu woman. But it was his gift to the overseas audience, not a film that gives them an idealized version of their lives, but tries to deal with something real that is happening to them.
And he followed it up with an even bigger risk. The publicizing of his detentions by airport security. Instead of sweeping it under the rug and not mentioning it, we know, the whole world knows, every time it happens.
When my college roommate was detained at the airport, every single time she flew, no one cared about that. It happens literally thousands of times a day. A brown skinned person is racially profiled. And sure, it’s usually not a huge inconvenience, you get pulled aside for an extra search and sent on your way. But it’s another little moment reminding you that you are not welcome here, you do not belong here, you are not safe here. And if you are an American, it’s a little wound for all Americans. A reminder that our country is unsafe and unfair and wrong and needs to be better.
When Shahrukh Khan stands up and says “yes, I was detained. Again” it’s not a starry tantrum, it’s not about expecting special treatment, it’s about highlighting the little insults that his people go through every single day. He’s the only star (so far as I know) who has spoken out about this. And maybe if you are in India, it sounds like a small thing, like he is complaining about being treated like a “normal” person. But it is NOT a small thing. And he is NOT being treated like a normal person.
I, a blue-eyed blond woman, I am treated like a normal person. I get waved through security without a second glance. I can take all kinds of things through the x-ray and no one cares. I am clearly a regular traveler excited to be traveling and that is all.
Shahrukh is being treated like a brown-skinned person. And that is not okay. He should not be treated like this, because no one should be treated like this. And he is speaking out not because it is a starry tantrum, but because it is just plain wrong.
This is one of many many things that it feels like he is doing just for the overseas audience, not for the audience back home. Sometimes it’s speaking out about injustice, more often it’s making a silly movie set overseas. But the point is, he cares! He is trying, he knows there are millions of people out there counting on him to make their lives a little brighter and happier in a particular way, and he is doing that.
So if you are wondering why we (and now I am including myself, even the non-desi “we” feels this) love him so much, it’s because he loves us. He says things and does things that are a clear signal to his overseas audience, desi and non-desi. Not the crossover audience, not the fancy Oscar committee or intellectual types. But the everyday people on the ground who want a bit of magic and hope in their lives.
(yes, this is an incredibly sappy post, but it’s his birthday month! It’s time to be sappy)