Ready to get a whole bunch of media theory dropped on you? Fun fun fun!!!! Oh well, there’s a good bit about Shahrukh too, so that’s a good time. And hopefully this is more of a “thank you, I could feel that happening but couldn’t articulate it” post and less of a “well, that’s depressing, I had no idea” post.
Have you ever heard the term “hegemonic discourse” before? If not, it means the way a whole society talks about things. “Discourse” is more than just one conversation or one letter, it is everything that is part of communication within a society, TV ads and newspaper articles and scholarly journal articles and Facebook discussions and the conversations you have with your friends. And “hegemonic” means the overall pattern of it, the inescapable basic assumptions that are an integral part of the discourse.
Let’s take Shahrukh Khan as a case study. In the 90s and 2000s, he was a very popular actor with a large fan following and a mixed bag of hits and flops in a variety of genres with a variety of co-workers. He was known to be late for work, a little intense, but generally liked by everyone. That isn’t always the case with big stars, Salman Khan managed to offend and irritate a bunch of folks over the years, Rajesh Khanna was cordially disliked by basically everyone, Rishi Kapoor is still extremely difficult to this day. But no one who worked with him was terribly upset with Shahrukh. They didn’t love him necessarily, but there were no major problems.
No major problems with the public either. A lot of people really really loved him. And some people just didn’t much care about him one way or the other, they liked some of his movies and not others and didn’t pay much attention to him otherwise.
Shahrukh wanted the fame and the attention, he liked doing public appearances and shows, he liked doing ad campaigns, he liked going to award shows. And so, more than the other stars with a similar level of success, he became the face of the industry, especially internationally. And that was fine, someone has to do it, and the Hindi film industry as a whole grew thanks to his efforts. And he also had a happy life of course, became enormously wealthy and was able to found a production studio and generally follow his dreams. And he also funded a children’s cancer wing of a hospital and “adopted” villages and paid for their infrastructure improvements and generally did good things with his money. And he helped as a public citizen, volunteered to do public service campaigns at no cost and so on.
Because of all of this, the hegemonic discourse became an acceptance that Shahrukh was “King” Khan, was the most popular actor in India, was the most powerful man in the film industry. That wasn’t really true, but it was the baseline that we were expected to accept, Shahrukh was the king and if you thought otherwise you would have to defend your opinion.
In 2010, he made a film called My Name is Khan about the life of a Muslim man in America struggling with prejudice. And the Shiv Sena decided this film should not come out in Bombay. They threatened theater owners, threatened Shahrukh, threatened audiences who risked seeing the film, burned effigies, marched on Shahrukh’s house. The police and the film industry lined up in support of Shahrukh and the film, and support of basic law and order. The film released.
Now, what did that moment mean in terms of hegemony? It meant the overall social message was that law and order were good, Shahrukh was innocent, films should be released. You could always disagree, but it was a “disagreement” with the accepted truth, not the mainstream view. The Shiv Sena were radicals out of tune with the rest of the country, and the rest of the world. My Name is Khan set box office records in the global market and won awards at home. And that is both the truth of what actually happened, and the truth that was accepted and promoted then, Shahrukh and Kajol have another hit, Karan Johar made a good movie, the world loves Shahrukh Khan, and so on.
Hegemony isn’t one thing, it is the whole thing. Think of it like swimming in a lake. The Shiv Sena protest, that was a big disgusting rotting fish that you ran into. But the hegemony is the water you are in, the whole ecosystem of the lake. And the whole ecosystem of India, the man on the street, the newspapers, the few film websites that existed back then, even twitter, they all said “well, this is a big stinky fish which is not a usual thing to find in the water. Shahrukh is King, why would you attack him?”.
Fast-forward 8 years, and there are similar protests around Shahrukh’s film Dilwale. And this time, the whole ecosystem of India reacted by saying “eh, there will always be fish in the water, this is a normal thing”. The story wasn’t “Shahrukh’s film is getting protests for no good reason” it was “Shahrukh’s film is stupid and Bhansali’s film is better (also protests)”. When the box office figures came out, the story reported everywhere was “Fall of Shahrukh! He is no longer popular, Bhansali made a better movie” not “Box office affected by protests, who are these people that have nothing better to do than protest a movie?” There was no statement from the police or the theater owners in support of the Shahrukh film, and no loud statement of support from the industry either.
It’s not that people were supporting the protests. It’s that they weren’t noticing them. The water we are swimming in now is “Shahrukh is a greedy has been with no talent, out of touch with the common people”. That is the accepted truth, and if you try to bring up his religion or the prejudice he faces, you are treated like you are the one who dropped the big stinky fish into the water.
I noticed it myself when suddenly I was in the strange position of “defending” my fandom of Shahrukh. Why should I have to defend it? He’s an actor and I like him. What makes my fandom something that should ever need a defense?
When I was in college and first came to like him as an actor, it was an accepted truth that he was a popular talented actor, no one thought much about it. It was the place where we all bonded, Jain and Muslim and Christian and Hindu, Telugu and Punjabi and Bengali, Shahrukh was neutral and accepted. And then, suddenly, I found myself needing to “defend” my choice. And he had done nothing wrong, he wasn’t a murderer or an abuser or a rapist, if anything he was the opposite of those things. But suddenly to say “I am a fan of Shahrukh” required an immediate defense of that opinion, as though it was shameful.
How did this change? Think about watching a border collie herd sheep. They don’t send them in the direction they want them to go, they send them away from the other direction, spin them about until they find themselves facing the other way. They aren’t leading them, they are coming from the sides and cutting off all over options. That’s what the BJP has done with the discourse around Shahrukh.
From above, they started cutting off the external validations. I’m inspired to write this post by a recent story of the government dissuading Shahrukh’s alma mater from giving him an honorary doctorate. It’s a little thing, but it’s part of a lot of little things. If Shahrukh gets an award, it tells people “this is a good person we should be proud of, more than just a movie star”. If he doesn’t get an award, if the general public doesn’t even know he was considered for it, then they are cut off from heading in that direction. You can’t think of Shahrukh as an honorable son of India any more, because he’s not getting any Indian awards any more. There was another story a few years back of the National Film Development Corporation having shot a public service film on eye ailments, starring Shahrukh (which he did for free as a public service). But they were told by the Health Minister they could not release those films and had to reshoot with Hrithik Roshan. If you head in the direction of “Shahrukh does good things for the country and cares about people”, you are cut off there too, because the government isn’t letting him volunteer his time any more.
And then there was cutting the strength from below. The BJP has a massive army of internet activists. I went to an event recently to learn more about Wikipedia and the citizen editors and so on, and it was casually mentioned there that India controls the web. As in, more citizen editors and changes made from India than anywhere else. You cannot go anywhere in social media and be sure that the information you are getting about Shahrukh is true, not in the Indian part of the web, but not in the “neutral” part of it either.
Now, you are listening to this thinking “well of course, I don’t trust facts from social media”. But, do you? I don’t mean facts like “Shahrukh has three wives”, I mean facts like “everyone hated Shahrukh’s last 10 movies and he has no fans”. If you are on twitter or Facebook or where ever and every single comment seems to say that, eventually you will start to think “everyone here hates him, it must be true that everyone in the world hates him too”. It’s confirmed and researched that the Khans are one of the big targets for the BJP army of internet liars. There are specific things like boycotts of Shahrukh’s movies or forcing Snapdeal to drop Aamir as an ambassador. And of course the constant barrage of official statements from high level BJP politicians slamming the Khans and encouraging boycotts of their films. But also the little things, like how bad word of mouth starts spreading for every movie before the film has released. It doesn’t seem obvious or terrible, they aren’t spewing hate speech, just saying over and over “this is a bad movie, I didn’t like it”. But what that means is, if you try to head in a direction of “it wasn’t that bad, and the performances were really good”, you are cut off like a sheep, herded back to the main group.
The main group of sheep, they have no idea where they are going. They just know that you can’t talk about Shahrukh’s awards or international acclaim or public service any more because suddenly there isn’t a lot of evidence of that. And they know you can’t talk about being attracted to him or liking his performances because then you will be attacked and corrected that his films are terrible. So you are left to move in a sort of stumbling group towards a general direction of “Shahrukh is bad”.
The specifics of how you head in this direction are different and unique, they truly are your own opinions. One person might pick on the questionable gender dynamics of his early films. Someone else might talk about how his last few movies are indulgent and egotistical. Or someone might talk about how he is so rich and does nothing for the people. Or someone might say he is shallow and just a movie star. Or that he only works with people he knows and likes in the industry, he is cliquey. Or his Cricket team is no good. Or he is having an affair. Or his kids are spoiled. There are all sorts of things you can say about him. But the difference is, now it is “okay” to say those things, and it is not “okay” to say anything good.
We’ve all experienced this effect in a microcosm, I am sure. You are having dinner at a restaurant with a group, and one person says “This is a terrible restaurant, I hate it”. And suddenly everyone else agrees, all for different reasons. One person hates the decor, one person hates the food, one person thinks the waitress was rude. And maybe you actually like the restaurant, but it’s too hard to make yourself heard and no matter how much you say “I like this place” it doesn’t matter. That’s how hegemony works, it’s not that everyone agrees specifically, it’s that they all are sort of heading in the same direction in their own ways.
So, how do you fight back? Well, one way is what I know a lot of people here do, go on social media and try to turn the tide, join in with mass anti-troll movements to trend good things. Like being that person at the table who is brave enough to speak up and say “I like this restaurant!!!!” But the game is rigged, the SRK fan army can’t fight against all the other forces of hegemony, the media which suddenly has forgotten how to write good reviews of Shahrukh movies, or print honest interviews because they will get trolled if they do. The Indian government which has essentially disavowed him in recent years. And that’s not even counting all the straight up bribes to spread the established message. Not that you should stop, keep tweeting and posting and so on, keep trying to turn the tide. But it is fighting an uphill battle, as though that person in the restaurant who hates it is the boss of everyone else at the table, you are risking your job by speaking up and no one else is willing to risk theirs and support you.
But there are other things to do. For instance, this post that I am writing now, which rejects the premise that Shahrukh is “bad” and instead tries to look through that to WHY this has become the accepted premise. Instead of “defending” his actions, ask “why do they need to be defended?” Turn it around and reveal smoke and mirrors behind it. Think of it like that restaurant example, along with saying “I like this restaurant” you add “you seem like you are in a bad mood, maybe that is why you don’t like this restaurant, not the restaurant itself”. Turn it back on the source.
And you can also try to pull people in with emotion. That was one of Shahrukh’s most powerful weapons in the My Name is Khan debate. He tweeted out his soul as it was happening. He’s done that a few times since, he wrote a lengthy personal essay on what it means to be Muslim in India, he gives interviews about his life and his father the freedom fighter, all kinds of things. I’d love for him to publish his autobiography as a little bomb to throw at all the people who are trying to make him into an un-human, trying to make it only okay to hate him and not to respect him. In the restaurant example, it would be to say “you know, maybe the waitress is upset and the furniture is cheap because the family that owns it are refugees just trying to build a new life, I feel sympathy for them and hope they do well”.
And you can always try facts. When Shahrukh’s movies come out, I look at the actual box office. Not what “everyone” is saying on twitter, but what real objective sources say. No, he hasn’t had flop after flop for the past ten years. No, this isn’t the worst period of his career in terms of box office. And I can prove that (and have) in great detail using real figures. And I have also pointed out (over and over) that he has never lost anyone money, he accepts the risk of the films himself, even if they are bad it does not harm anyone. I don’t know if it changes anyone’s mind, when “everyone” on twitter is saying these movies are flops and he is scamming the industry and destroying lives, but maybe it helps. And maybe it helps to remind people that he is meeting with international CEOs like the head of Twitter and Netflix and helping to bring India to a global stage, that he is still getting accolades and awards internationally even if the Indian media and social media doesn’t promote it any more. That he gives enormous amounts of money to charity. That he is, by any measure you can try, a good person and a good actor. I suppose that would be to tell the people in the restaurant “I like the food, this restaurant got a 5 star review, is packed with customers, and you yourself said you liked everything about it when we were here just a week ago”.
And I suppose that is the reassuring thing. If you get out of the chamber of lies that is the internet, you discover that you are not alone in being a Shahrukh fan and living in a world where he isn’t a bad person. The box office is still high for his films, there is still a fan army on twitter, his influence in the industry is growing and growing on the back end, and all of these things are real things that exist, even if they are not acknowledged.
I want this blog to exist in the “real” world too, the world of facts and original thought and opinions, the world where you can say everything you want instead of just the things that you have been herded towards by the hegemonic discourse. So I am not going to say that the industry as a whole is “nepotistic” and bad, or that our new modern stars are somehow superior to the older stars, and so are our modern films. That there is an evil old Hindi film industry that has to be swept clean and destroyed and replaced by the shiny new one being built. I won’t accept that Hindi film is selfish and destroying the country. I won’t accept that it has nothing good to say or do in the world. And the strange thing is, back when I started watching the movies, those were not premises anyone was suggesting. Somehow it is only now that these things that have “always” been true are seen as true.
And maybe you are reading this and thinking “no, I sincerely don’t like Shahrukh Khan”. And that’s okay, you are allowed to think that. But when you express your opinion, think about if you are being herded into a giant flock all heading in the direction of labeling him from unIndias, if you are being careful to say “I do not like Shahrukh’s recent films and I think he is lazy as an actor, but I also believe he is a patriot and has as much a right to identify as Indian as anyone else”. Because that is the world we live in now, the things you say are all being gathered together and forced into a mold and used as a weapon. Are you adding power to that weapon, reinforcing the discourse, or are you trying to break it?