By Kartikeya Tanna

They are two of the biggest Hindi film industry superstars. They represent a critical component of our nation’s soft power both within India and globally. Just like any of us common men and women, they, too, will have views. Included in the 1.25 billion of us, who our Constitution guarantees the right to speak, are them too.

File photo of Aamir Khan. ReutersFile photo of Aamir Khan. Reuters

File photo of Aamir Khan. Reuters

It is, therefore, unfair to say actors like Aamir and Shah Rukh should curtail themselves to movies. Good, bad, cheerful, despondent, positive or negative – they have an inalienable right to speak their mind when they want and how they want to.  In fact, the greatest bane of our country has been to assume that it is only the ‘intellectual’ class which should venture speaking about the India that ought to be.

It is also rather ridiculous to think that they speak their minds only when a movie release is round the corner. That may be true for other less popular actors in the industry, but Aamir and Shah Rukh command a huge loyal audience base.

While their right to speak their minds is something each Indian must defend – for that is the very foundation of our democracy when we got independence from over twelve centuries of oppression and alien rule – should they be taken seriously?

In an interview with Headlines Today, Shah Rukh said, in clear words in response to a question whether he would return a Padma Shri aaward, that there is intolerance repeating it thrice. Here is an excerpt of his interview. Just a few days later, he claimed how he never said India is intolerant, lamenting that his words got misconstrued.

He used the classic “they insisted” defence adding that he was only talking of how youth should focus on making our nation a secular, progressive nation. This tweet, a collection of his differing views to different channels, encapsulates his confusion very effectively.

Rewind to 2013, when an interviewer asked him about growing intolerance given the fatwa and death threats to a Kashmiri girl band Pragaash and Muslim bodies objecting to a Kamal Hassan movie Vishwaroopam, Shah Rukh had declined answering that question since these issues were “political” and “religious”.

Of course, he has the right to speak what he wants when he wants or not speak when he does not want to. The freedom he enjoys does not obligate him to speak up every time an issue of intolerance arises.

Aamir Khan went several steps further by saying how his wife once asked him if they should move out of India. Since it has been claimed that his quote got distorted, here is a transcript of his exact words at the Ramnath Goenka Award function which included epithets like “growing disquiet” and “growing sense of despondency”. To those defending him by stating those were his wife’s feelings and not his, Aamir completed that quote by stating – “This feeling exists in me too”.

He did issue a statement in response to the criticism he faced which is as hyperbolic and inane as his original quotation at the award function, something that can be best summed up in this tweet.

It must also be noted that, just a couple of weeks prior thereto, Aamir, in an interview with Shekhar Gupta, said how there is a lot of positivity in India and that we, as a nation, are “open to change”, “open to ideas” and that he has a “lot of hope”.

Aamir, of course, is the most popular face of the Incredible India campaign where he invites people from world over to come visit India. And, as he has said numerous times, he does not lend his face to anything unless he really believes in the cause, product or idea.

May be, he believed India was incredible, but now thinks it is intolerant. The question, then, is if he would still continue to truly believe in promoting our Incredible India.

This lack of clarity in their speech begs an additional question whether the two superstars are as prone to joining the prevalent herd as many in our country, albeit in their own unique style and choice of words.

Speaking to Shekhar Gupta in 2005 when calling Modi a mass murderer was the trend, Aamir had joined the herd concluding how “Indians were being killed by a leader [i.e., Modi]”. Referring to denial of visa by the United States to “a person who has been killing innocent people” (i.e., Modi), Aamir expressed shock at people in India criticizing US decision, adding that India too should take cognizance of punishing him.

Indeed, he was also one of the celebrated signatories of a petition which sought to shame the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for issuing a “highly insensitive and irresponsible statement defending Modi”. That he is now sharing the stage rather comfortably with the same man and seeks meetings with him at 7 Race Course Road speaks volumes.

The next time you see an Aamir uttering sweeping generalisations about us and our culture, pause before you believe in it. For there may be a contradiction round the corner. The next time you hear Shah Rukh, one of the most powerful men in India, cry victim, think before you conclude how we Indians don’t deserve your hero. For he may recant as meekly what he concludes so ostentatiously.

India, our tolerant nation, defends to death their freedom to speak their mind. That is the essence of our culture spanning thousands of years. But, India, a wise nation, has the right to pause and reflect before taking them seriously.

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Defend to death the freedom of Aamir and Shah Rukh, but take them seriously at your peril