As bitter battles are being fought on and offline over the right to dissent, Shah Rukh Khan, arguably one of India's most magnetic entertainers of all time, has said something that should resonate with all Indians. The actor who celebrates his 50th birthday today, has this advice for our generation -- if you wish to see your country grow, you need to respect India's plural culture.
Acknowledging that "there is growing intolerance" in the country during a question-and-answer session with Twitter users hosted by journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, the actor said he stood with the growing number of people, mocked by their critiques as the 'award wapsi gang' (award return gang), who have returned their laurels to the state they claim supresses the rights of free speech.
When asked if he would give up the Padma Shri, India's fourth highest civilian honour, he was awarded in 2005, Khan said he would, as a symbolic gesture.
We will never be a power if you don't believe that all religions are equal.
Known as much for his razor sharp wit on social media as for his various roles on and off screen -- he was recently awarded with an honorary doctorate by the University of Edinburgh -- Khan was asked by Sardesai why actors don't take stands on important issues of the day. Khan said the responsibility actors and producers carry when they make a film, often involving the livelihoods of hundreds of people, make them vulnerable and incapable of taking political stands.
"With great power comes great vulnerabilities," Khan said, adding "if I take a stand on an X thing or a Y thing, people will come out and throw stones at my house but if I do take a stand, I'll stand by it. I feel sad, it's unfortunate and extremely pathetic but its better to keep quiet and do your job". Sardesai contrasted the silence of Indian film actors with their counterparts in Hollywood over political issues.
"How many times should I react? America with all its issues and non-issues has slightly more leeway," Khan replied, explaining that if "his film is stopped on a Friday for speaking his mind" then it would impact the lives of many others. "It's not a cop out, I'm being honest."
"Yes there is intolerance, their is growing intolerance. People put words in the air even before thinking. We keep talking about the new India, but if this not country is not secular, happy in its approach and allowing people to be... the youngsters are not going to stand for it. It's stupid to be intolerant. And this is my biggest issue. Not being secular in this country is the worst kind of crime you can do as a patriot," he said.
Would he give up an award?
"I respect the people if they have a call which makes them feel that gesture is going to turn things around -- it is brave, and it is honest and it is clean. As far as I'm concerned, I have never participated in something which is as meaningful and huge, but if it calls for it, yes... but you know just to clarify to the youngsters who have also given up their award...they are given at different times, at different places for what they have achieved...symbolically yes..." he said.
"It's stupid to be intolerant. And this is my biggest issue. Not being secular in this country is the worst kind of crime you can do as a patriot".
Answering in Hindi, this is what the actor had to say for this country's social fabric: "I am saying this as a citizen of this nation, we will never be a power if you don't believe that all religions are equal. You often hear about vote banks, there should not be vote bank politics, it's nonsense."
Sardesai pointed out Khan's own life as an example -- the actor married his Hindu sweetheart Gauri when he was still a struggling actor who landed in Mumbai looking to turn around his life, raises his children in a household that respects all faiths and is known for celebrating all Indian festivals. "But that should not be an example. This should be the perfectly normal thing to do. Hindus living in perfect harmony with Muslims."
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